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…”

Beauty, Cooperation, and the Hadza Hunter-Gatherers

Part II Beauty, Cooperation, and the Hadza Hunter-Gatherers

By Polly Cleveland

In The Evolution of Beauty, Yale ornithologist Richard Prum elaborates on Darwin’s theory of the effect of sexual selection on evolution. Beyond “survival of the fittest”, the sexes have asymmetric interests. Males, with their cheap sperm, seek to sire as many offspring as possible. Females with their expensive eggs and limited lifetime reproductive opportunity, seek to pick the best mates. Males compete with one another for control of females. Females seek to avoid male control and to choose their mates freely. In many species, male competition results in bigger, stronger, and more weaponized males, as in huge sea lion males with long tusks. Prum focuses on female choice.

Female choice, given free rein, can lead to arbitrary standards of beauty and behavior in a species. Among neotropical manakins, females do all the work of raising chicks while males contribute only sperm. Males dance, sing, and flash their colors on communal display grounds known as “leks”; the females arrive, watch, pick a male for a quickie, and leave. The females favor only a few of the males; the rest may never get to mate. Blue manakins have even evolved a cooperative dance among a group of five or six males; females choose between groups of dancers, mating with the alpha male.

Prum moves from birds to humans. Humans, he points out, are far more cooperative than our African ape relatives, gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos. Men and women don’t differ as dramatically in size as male and female apes. Unlike apes, humans tend to monogamy, he says, because females need help raising the kids. Prum also cites surveys showing that women do not prefer big, square-jawed macho males; rather, they go for men with moderate physiques and gentle behavior. Prum goes on from here to many interesting observations on possible effects of female choice, such as why do men, unlike apes, have long, dangling penises?

Yet in offering a generalized account of human behavior, Prum misses a human society that supports the female choice theory especially well. That society is the Hadza, as described in Nicholas Blurton Jones’ new book: Demography and Evolutionary Ecology of Hadza Hunter-Gatherers (2016).

The Hadza are an ancient hunter-gatherer tribe living in northern Tanzania near Lake Eyasi. Traces of their culture in the area date back at least 130,000 years. The area is too dry for agriculture and the tsetse fly makes it unsuitable for livestock. But there’s an abundance of seeds, nuts, berries, honey, and especially, underground tubers. The Hadza live in small groups, moving every few weeks depending on seasonal availability of foods. While all other group-living animals, including apes, consist of close kin, Hadza groups are quite fluid, with unrelated individuals continually coming and going. Like all hunter-gatherers, the Hadza are extremely egalitarian and cooperative.

Hadza men spend their days hunting with poison arrows. But they don’t hunt the small game they learned to capture as boys. Rather, they hunt for big game, like baboons, antelope, zebra, or buffalo—which they very rarely catch. Some men never catch anything. But when a man does nail a big animal, the meat is equally shared among the whole group, gaining him prestige. One anthropologist has called this a “show-off” strategy.

Hadza women do almost all the work, including caring for children and gathering and preparing food. They get little contribution from their husbands–maybe an occasional piece of honeycomb or a small bird, which the men expect their wives to prepare. In compensation, however, it’s the women who chose their husbands (often for only a few years). What sort of men do Hadza women prefer? Successful hunters–not good providers!

When the men are not hunting, they sit around in “the men’s place” chatting, smoking, eating tubers prepared by their wives, and fiddling with their bows and arrows. There’s almost no violence among the men. Disputes are resolved by long discussions, or at the worst, one of the men will leave and join another group. If you look at pictures of Hadza, both sexes are small, thin and wiry–no great differences in size or appearance. Both sexes go for bead necklaces.

Like the blue manakins, the Hadza seem to fit Prum’s model of extreme female choice. The women don’t depend on their husbands for much besides sperm. They’re free to choose the “show-off” hunters, who sire more children, but may actually contribute less to their children’s nutrition. Judging by the peacefulness of the men, female choice seems to have tamed male-male competition.

While all hunter-gatherer societies are highly egalitarian, not all allow as much freedom to women. In the Amazon rain forest, Ache men supply some 80% of the food by hunting. These men may ritually sacrifice children over women’s objections, and engage in lethal quarrels. Hadza women seem to derive their independence from the terrain, where it takes no more than a sharp digging stick and knife, a leather sling and water gourd, plus long hours working in the hot sun, for women to fully provision themselves and their children—and grandchildren. Another unrelated African hunter-gatherer society, the !Kung, lead a very similar life.

The latest evidence from Africa shows hominids manufactured flint tools as long as 3.3 million years ago. Once there were stone knives, female hominids must have used slings to carry them—along with food and infants. A Hadza life style could date back millions of years. Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, in Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding (2009), attributes human cooperativeness to women’s shared mothering of children—a trait quite absent in apes. She draws examples from the Hadza. Blaffer Hrdy’s female cooperativeness together with Prum’s female preference for cooperative males might explain the evolution of the most cooperative species on earth: humans.

In Aristophanes’ comedy, Lysistrata (411 BCE), Lysistrata persuades all the women of Athens and Sparta to withhold sex until their men agree to end the long-running Peloponnesian war. Was Aristophanes onto something?