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…”

The Democratic Party’s “Centrist” Leaders Remain Clueless

By William K. Black

Cross-posted at New Economic Perspectives.

On December 10, 2016, a New York Times article entitled “Democrats Have a New Message: It’s the Economy First” that unintentionally revealed that the Party’s “centrist” leadership and the paper remain clueless about how to improve the economy and why the “centrist” leadership needs to end its long war against the working class.  This is how the paper explained the five “centrist” leaders’ framing of the problem.

It was a blunt, plain-spoken set of senators who gathered last Monday at the Washington home of Senator Heidi Heitkamp, Democrat of North Dakota, dining on Chinese food as they vented frustration about the missteps of the Democratic Party.

To this decidedly centrist group, the 2016 election was nothing short of a fiasco: final proof that its national party had grown indifferent to the rural, more conservative areas represented by Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Jon Tester of Montana, who attended the dinner. All face difficult re-election races in 2018.

This non-centrist group was a gathering of five New Democrats.  President Obama self-identified himself as a New Democrat.  The Clintons and Al Gore are leaders of the New Democrats.  The leadership of the Democratic National Committee was, and remains, New Democrats.  On economic issues such as austerity, jobs, and full employment, the New Democrats are far more extreme than the (stated) views of Donald Trump.  The New Democrats are infamous for their close ties with Wall Street.  This means that the paper’s description of the Chinese nosh is as clueless as the five New Democrats kvetching about policy “missteps” that they championed for decades.  Of course, neither the paper nor the non-centrists mentioned that critical fact.  The blindness of the non-centrists to the fact that it is their policies that launched the long war by the New Democrats against the working class is matched by the blindness of the paper.

The kvetching may have been “blunt,” but it was also dishonest.  The five New Democrats know that they will likely be replaced in the 2018 elections by Republicans who share the New Democrats’ anti-working class dogmas.  What was really going on was an extended cry of pain about the five senators’ fear of losing their jobs.

Note that the paper never tells you what the five New Democrats so bluntly identified as the New Democrats’ “missteps” or what new policies they believed needed to be adopted by the Party.   This failure is particularly bizarre because the paper says that its reportage is based on sources that the paper agreed to keep anonymous so that they could speak frankly about this meeting over Chinese food.  That combination of supposed frankness from the sources gained by the grant of anonymity so them could describe in detail the purported bluntness by the gang of five should have produced some epic, specific condemnations of the Democratic Party’s leadership by the New Democrats.  Instead, it produced mush.  Focusing on the “economy” is the right general idea for any political party, but it is so general a word that it is close to meaningless without identifying the specific policy changes that the five New Democrats now support and oppose.  The mushy reportage provides a thin gruel to the reader.

Most of all, they lamented, Democrats had simply failed to offer a clarion message about the economy with appeal to all 50 states.

“Why did the working people, who have always been our base, turn away?” Mr. Manchin said in an interview, recounting the tenor of the dinner conversation.

And the “clarion message about the economy” that they proposed that the Democratic Party make was?  You would have thought that little detail would (a) be critical to the article and (b) would be something that the five New Democrats would have been eager to publicize without any need for anonymity.  Conversely, if even after the disastrous election, from their perspective, the five New Democrats could not compose that “clarion” call, then the real problem is that the New Democrats’ economic dogmas prevent them from supporting such a “clarion” pro-worker policy.

The second sentence of the quotation is equally embarrassing to the New Democrats.  It purportedly recounts “the tenor of the dinner conversation.”  The first obvious question is – how did each of these five New Democrats answer that that question?  That is what the readers would want to know.  Even with the grants of anonymity to multiple sources the paper inexplicably presents only the vaguest hints as to the five senators’ explanation for why the New Democrats waged their long war on the working class.

Notice also the unintentional humor of the five New Democrats finally asking themselves this existential question in 2016 – after the election.  The New Democrats began their long war on the working class over 30 years ago.  Tom Frank published his famous (initial) book warning that the New Democrats’ war on the working class would prove disastrous in 2004.  The five New Democrats are shocked, shocked that the working class, after 30 years of being abused by the New Democrats’ anti-worker policies and after being vilified for decades by the New Democrats, overwhelmingly voted against the Nation’s most prominent New Democrat, Hillary Clinton.  None of the five New Democrats appears to have a clue, even after the 2016 election, why this happened.

The article and the five New Democrats fail to discuss the anti-working class policies that they have championed for decades.  Job security is the paramount issue that drives voting by many members of the working class.  The New Democrats and the Old Republicans share a devotion to the two greatest threats to working class job security – austerity and the faux free trade deals.  This makes it ironic that the paper sought out the Party faction leaders who have been so wrong for so long as supposedly being the unique source of providing the right answers now.  If the five New Democrats had engaged in introspection and were prepared to discuss their disastrous, repeated policy failures that would have been valuable, but the New Democrats admit to making zero errors in the article.

The paper’s understanding of economics and jobs is so poor that it wrote this clunker.

But even liberals believe Democrats must work harder to compete for voters who lean to the right, if only to shave a few points off the Republican Party’s margin of victory in rural America. In some cases, they said, that may mean embracing candidates who hold wildly different views from the national party on certain core priorities.

First, the phrase and the implicit logic in the use of the phrase “even liberals” reverses reality.  It is progressives who have consistently called for the Democratic Party to return to its role as a party that champions working people.

Second, the issue is generally not who “leans to the right.”  Indeed, the 2016 election should have made clear to the paper the severe limits on the usefulness of the terms “right” and “left” in explaining U.S. elections.  Jobs are not a right v. left issue.

Third, the paramount policy priority – jobs – is the same regardless of whether one focuses on economic or political desirability.  So, how long does it take for the article, and the five New Democrats to discuss “jobs?”  Given the fact that they vented at length about the fear that they would begin to lose their jobs within two years, the subject of job security should have been paramount to the five New Democrats.  The article, however, never even mentioned jobs or any of the related critical concepts – austerity, the faux trade deals, or the refusal to provide full employment.  Further, the article did not comment on the failure of the New Democrats to even mention these any of these four concepts.

“A Clarion Message about the Economy with Appeal to all 50 States”

Here is UMKC’s economics department’s long-standing proposal to every American political party:

Our party stands for full employment at all times.  We will make the federal government the guaranteed employer of last resort for every American able and wanting to work.  We recognize that the United States has a sovereign currency and can always afford to ensure full employment.  We recognize that austerity typically constitutes economic malpractice and is never a valid excuse for rejecting full employment.  The myth that we help our grandchildren by consigning their grandparents and parents to unemployment is obscene.  The opposite is true.

The working class wants jobs and job security – not simply income.  Working class people overwhelmingly want to work.  Working class males who are unable to find secure, full time work often become depressed and unmarriageable.  If you want to encourage marriage and improve the quality of marriages, full employment and job security are vital policies.  There are collateral advantages to providing full employment.  Full employment can reduce greatly the “zero sum” fears about employment that can tear a society apart.  Each of these outcomes is overwhelmingly supported by Americans.

Good economics is not a “right” v. “left” issue.  Austerity is terrible economics.  The fact that we have a sovereign currency is indisputable and there is broad agreement among finance professionals that such a currency means that the federal government budget is nothing like a household.  The major party that first adopts the federal full employment guarantee will secure a critical political advantage over its rivals.  Sometimes, good economics is good politics.