The Democrats Confront Monopoly

By Polly Cleveland

In the 1970’s when I studied microeconomics in grad school, we got to monopoly briefly in one of the last chapters of the text. We learned that monopoly really wasn’t a such a problem. If a big corporation tried to raise prices to take advantage of a monopoly position, why, competitors would immediately rush in. So not to worry, it was in the interest of monopolists to behave. Moreover, monopolists enjoyed economies of scale, allowing the likes of Walmart to deliver lower prices to consumers than the mom and pop stores they put out of business. By that measure, laws like the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914, designed to protect small businesses from anticompetitive practices…were actually anti-social as they kept consumer prices high. There was no hint of trustbusters’ original concern for concentrated political power, or exploitation of workers. This was the Chicago School theory of benign monopoly.

Since I knew the brutal history of some of the great monopolists like Standard Oil, American Tobacco, or AT&T, I took this lesson with a grain of salt. But I didn’t worry too much. Why? Because for the post World War II period, corporate concentration hadn’t notably increased. Yes, some big firms had merged, but others had broken up. Antitrust seemed to be doing its job. Little did I know how the Chicago theory of monopoly was even then taking the legal world by storm. That was the work of Yale Law School professor Robert Bork, who published The Antitrust Paradox in 1978. (In 1987, the Senate would deem Bork too conservative for the Supreme Court.)

The Democrats Confront Monopoly”, by Gilad Edelman in the November/December Washington Monthly, tells the story. Starting slowly in the Reagan Administration, then with gathering momentum, through both Republican and Democratic administrations, larger and larger mergers got the green light from the Justice Department and the courts. It was Bill Clinton after all, who took the Glass-Steagall shackles off the banks, allowing the disastrous merger of commercial and investment banking.

Meanwhile, economists began to notice growing inequality and wage stagnation. They came up with a variety of explanations: Maybe workers lacked skills to work with modern technology. Maybe it was competition with low wage workers overseas. Maybe it was just inevitable as machines took over jobs. I focused on a different explanation: Starting in the Reagan Administration, the tax system—federal, state, and local—increasingly favored what was not yet called The One Percent.

But in 2009, a book knocked me over: Barry Lynn’s Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism. Lynn, a business journalist, had seen a what we economists had missed: growing monopolization was making the American economy more unequal, less innovative and more unstable. In fact, the same was happening internationally, as multinational corporations took over more and more of the world economy. But Lynn didn’t stop with an exposé. Instead, he created a team of researchers at the New America Foundation, where he was a fellow. His team produced a whole series of eye-opening reports, published mostly in the Washington Monthly. Gradually the message got out, and was picked up by leaders on the left end of the Democratic Party, including Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Al Franken, and economists like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman.

Then, disaster, and a lesson. On June 27 this year, Lynn’s team released a statement welcoming a European antitrust action against Google. Google, a major funder of New America, apparently complained. Two days later, Lynn’s team were told to be out by the end of August. As observed in hundreds of outraged editorials and articles, there could hardly have been a better textbook example of the dangers of monopoly.  Lynn and his team have now set themselves up as the Open Markets Institute, but funding remains precarious.

Meanwhile, the team continues research and publication. In the same issue of the Washington Monthly, Phillip Longman explains How Big Medicine Can Ruin Medicare for All. Unless we address the growing monopolization of hospitals and their suppliers, Medicare-for-all or single-payer will resemble the Pentagon facing the defense contractors. (I can relate to the medical monopoly issue: In New York City, Mount Sinai Hospital has just taken over a number of other hospitals and medical buildings. Doctors practicing in these places were given a choice: sell their practices to Mount Sinai or get out. My gynecologist sold Sinai her practice; my shoulder surgeon angrily moved to an inconvenient midtown location.)

In June 2016, at an event organized by Lynn, Elizabeth Warren delivered a stunning speech on the damage of monopoly and the importance of reviving antitrust. Shortly afterwards, I attended a New York presentation by Alan Blinder, Hillary Clinton’s economic policy advisor. He focused on Hillary’s positions on issues vis-à-vis Trump’s and those of the median voter, complete with graphs. He suggested that Bernie had pulled her away from that median voter—a bad idea. Absolutely not a hint that Hillary should lead, rather than try to sniff out the densest patch of voters. One issue Blinder didn’t have on the list was antitrust, so I raised my hand and asked. “Oh,” he said, “that’s not a priority at present, but maybe after her first two years…”

Links: SYRIZA, SOTU, etc.

syriza (2)

(1) Greek elections:  We just posted an article by Mike-Frank Epitropoulos on tomorrow’s elections in Greece, and what a SYRIZA election would mean: A Second Demonstration Project for Greece. The title alludes to the article Mike wrote for us back in May 2010, Greece as a Demonstration Project. Back then, the architects of austerity were using Greece as a demonstration project to see how a country’s population reacted to vicious austerity. Today, those same elites are worried about what the election of an anti-austerity, sometimes anti-capitalist party in Europe would demonstrate for people elsewhere in Europe and around the world. Also: check out the interview on RT with left economist Yanis Varoufakis, who will become Greece’s finance minister if SYRIZA wins. A highlight: in Pt. 2 Varoufakis speaks of the “fiscal waterboarding of Greece” (around 20:18 in the video).

(2) State of the Union:  I was so busy finalizing the Jan/Feb issue of D&S (check it out! and read the editorial note here) that I didn’t get a chance to post some links in advance of SOTU and after it. What I meant to post:

  • The Sunlight Foundation created the hilarious State of the Union Machine, which allows you to adjust inputs of presidential blather and rhetoric, from Washington and Lincoln to Bush père and fils to Clinton and Obama, to create your own SOTU (of sorts–it doesn’t really produce grammatically correct sentences, but you can’t have everything!). Sample word-salad generated: “Now do your part. Tonight I ask Congress to move quickly and decisively in confirming Judge Anthony Kennedy to the Moon.”
  • The SOTU machine reminded me of the Oliver Sacks essay, The President’s Speech, from his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, about the reaction of patients in the aphasia ward to a speech by “the old Charmer, the Actor, with his practised rhetoric, his histrionisms, his emotional appeal” (clearly Ronald Reagan, though he is not named explicitly–and how great a word is “histrionisms”?).  The patients, some of whom could apprehend non-verbal cues but not the literal meanings of words, others of whom can only apprehend the literal meanings, were either convulsed in laughter in response to Reagan’s antics or darkly disturbed.
  • More seriously: hat-tip to TM for pointing me to Lambert Strether’s post-SOTU commentary in his Water Cooler from Tuesday.
  • Via the Real News Network, an interview with Kshama Sawant, socialist Seattle city councilor, about SOTU, The Socialist Response to the State of the Union.
  • Sawant is a nice antidote to the email alert I got from the progressive outfit Media Matters for America, about their piece Right-Wing Media Decry Obama’s Economic Policy Proposals As Santa Claus-Style Giveaways And Class Warfare.  I’m sure they did, but what about a critique from the left of Obama’s class warfare on behalf of the wealthy?  As I have pointed out by email to Casey Skeens, their “communications and outreach associate” who sends out their email alerts, Media Matters for America bills itself as a “progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media,” but they seem to only criticize Republican conservatives, never Democratic conservatives. (Casey has never responded–so much for communications and outreach.)

(3) Sue Holmberg on the Van Hollen Plan:  Over at New Deal 2.0 of the Roosevelt Institute, this piece: The Van Hollen Plan Takes on Soaring CEO Pay: A Debate We Need to Have.

(4) What’s Wrong with Mainstream Economics:  Two pieces discussing what’s wrong with mainstream economics, and whether there is anything wrong.

First, from Noah Smith at Bloomberg View, Economic Stars Swing Left, which tries to respond to the activism at the recent economic meetings (ASSA protests) that we reported on (here), claiming that the protesters are off base, because the most publicly visible economists (Krugman, Stiglitz, Piketty, etc.) are leftists.

… if the protesters bothered to look around, they would see that their wish has been coming true for decades. Over the past quarter-century, economics has been shifting from singing the praises of free markets. Instead, it has moved toward a greater focus on inequality, human welfare and the ways that markets break down.

If you can get beyond the condescension, you may find it funny that Smith cites right-wing economist and pundit Tyler Cowen to back up the claim that Paul Krugman is today’s Milton Friedman.

One of the leaders of the protest, Keith Harrington (whom I quoted in my post about the protests) had a great response:

Utter nonsense Noah. This isn’t about economics swinging right or left. It’s about economics opening itself up to pluralism. Everyone you mentioned in this article is a neoclassical economist. Neoclassical economists like Krugman or Piketty may sit to the left of other mainstream economists like Mankiw, Summers or Reinhart, but that does not mean that the profession is becoming less rigid in terms of the schools of thought and methodology that are considered legitimate. Neoclassicism and its fundamentally flawed assumptions still rule the day.

And in terms of the incompatibility between our protest of the narrow mathematical/ objectivist/pseudo-scientific formalism of neoclassical economics and our protest of Carmen Reinhart’s reckless, ideologically-driven arrogance — there really is none. In both cases the common denominator is a hubristic belief in the fundamental inviolability of the mainstream worldview.

Had you bothered to actually reach out to us and attempt to obtain an accurate understanding of our message, you would have realized that we’re not taking a doctrinaire leftist perspective but protesting the extreme narrowness and provincialism of mainstream economics.

Meanwhile, there was a more serious and bigger-league (than Noah Smith) debate on the same kind of topic in the pages of the New York Review of Books, when Arnold Packer and Jeff Madrick responded to Alan Blinder’s somewhat negative review of Madrick’s great book Seven Bad Ideas, and Blinder responds in an exchange called “What’s the Matter with Economics?” An Exchange. According to Packer, “Blinder concludes that except for some right-wingers outside the ‘mainstream’ and politicians’ refusal to accept economists’ recommendations, little is the matter and Seven Bad Ideas constitutes ‘serial exaggeration.'” The debate is again about whether mainstream economists are mostly right-wing, but it ‘s also about how much policy influence economists have. Blinder, whom both Packer and Madrick praise as one of the best of the mainstream economists, seems to say that mainstream economists don’t have enough (or governments wouldn’t have pursued austerity policies), whereas Madrick and Packer (and Harrington and the economists who write for D&S) say mainstream economists have too much influence (or governments wouldn’t have pursued austerity policies). If you believe Carmen Reinhart, who after the protests claimed that she herself is “heterodox” (and Noah Smith supported that claim), then you’d have to disagree with Blinder, since if that whole Reinhart/Rogoff kerfuffle (see here)  showed anything, it was that economists like Reinhart and Rogoff (a) are mainstream and (b) have political influence to support austerity.

(4) Judith Butler on Black Lives Matter:  I want to recommend a great interview with philosopher Judith Butler at the New York Times‘s philosophy blog, The Stone: What’s Wrong With ‘All Lives Matter’? I, along with about 10% of the online commentators, thought that Butler’s analysis was really great. If you have a couple of hours to waste and your blood pressure is too low, read the rest of the comments, which range from outrage about her failing to talk about Mike Brown’s alleged crimes and character, to failing to talk about “black-on-black crime,” to scorn at the obscurity of theory. (Seriously, this interview is very clear as philosophy goes, and if you don’t like theory, why are you reading a philosophy blog? It’d be like reading a math blog and complaining about the formulae.)  Anyhow, I recommend the interview, but not the comments.

(5) Sasha Breger Bush, Gambling on Hunger and Climate Change:  Sasha Breger Bush, who will be contributing to our March/April special issue on food and farms, has a piece in the Transnational Institute’s State of Power 2015, just released to coincide with the World Economic Forum in Davos. Her piece is called Gambling on Hunger and Climate Change.

That’s it for now.

–Chris Sturr