Monopoly So Fragile

Container ships that have gotten “too big to sail” illustrate one of the less-appreciated harms of monopoly.

BY CORY DOCTOROW | July/August 2021

This article is from Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at

issue 355 cover

This article is from the
July/August 2021 issue.

Subscribe Now

at a 30% discount.

Note: The Ever Given, the container ship that blocked the Suez Canal for days back in March, finally reached port in Rotterdam on Thursday, July 29. —Eds.

A big boat, the Ever Given, stuck in the Suez Canal, catastrophically disrupting global logistics—it wasn’t just predictable, it was inevitable. For decades, the shipping industry has consolidated into just a few companies, and ships got bigger—too big to sail.

As economist and antitrust expert Matthew Stoller points out in a recent article, in 2000 the 10 biggest shippers controlled 12% of the market; today, it’s more than 82%, and even that number is misleadingly rosy because of alliances among the megashippers that effectively turn them into one company.

The Suez crisis illustrates one of the less-appreciated harms of monopoly: All of us are dunderheads at least some of the time. When a single person wields a lot of unchecked power, their follies, errors, and blind spots take on global consequence.

The “efficiencies” of the new class of megaships—the Ever Given weighs 220 kilotons and is as long as the Empire State Building—were always offset by risks, such as the risk of getting stuck in a canal or harbor.

Despite this, a handful of executives were able to green-light their deployment. Either these execs didn’t believe the experts, or they didn’t care (maybe they thought they’d retire before the crisis), or they thought they could externalize the costs onto the rest of us.

Running a complex system is a game of risk mitigation: not just making a system that works as well as possible, but also making one that fails as well as possible. Build the Titanic if you must, but for the love of God, make sure it has enough lifeboats.

Monopolies are brittle. The ideology that underpins them is fundamentally eugenic: that there exist among us superbeings, genetic sports who were born with the extraordinary insights and genius that entitle them to rule over the rest of us. If we let nature run its course, according to this ideology, these benevolent dictators will usher in an era of global prosperity. This is catastrophically, idiotically, manifestly wrong. First, even people who are very smart about some things are very stupid about other things.

Charles Koch took over his father’s hydrocarbon empire in the late 1960s and correctly concluded that the industry was being held back by a focus on short-term profits. He made a series of long-term bets on new production technologies and grew the business a thousandfold.

Being patient and farsighted made Koch one of the richest people in world history—and one of the most influential. He pioneered a kind of slow, patient policy entrepreneurship, investing in a network of think tanks that mainstreamed his extremist ideology over several decades.

And yet, this man who became a billionaire and changed the character of global politics with his foresight, has managed to convince himself that there is no climate emergency. That patience, foresight, and cool weighing of probabilities have gone out the window completely.

Smart people are often fools (so are regular people). History is full of them. Take William Shockley, the Nobel Prize-winning inventor of silicon transistors who failed in industry because he became obsessed with eugenics and devoted his life to a racist sterilization campaign.

Moreover, fools sometimes succeed. Take Mark Zuckerberg, who justified his self-serving “real names” policy for Facebook users (which makes it easier to target ads by banning pseudonyms) by claiming that any attempt to present yourself in different ways to different people is “two-faced.”

That is a genuinely idiotic thing to believe: Presenting yourself differently to your lover, your parents, your toddler, your boss, and your friends isn’t “two-faced,” it’s human. To do otherwise would be monstrous.

But even when monopolists aren’t idiots, they are still dangerous. The problem with Zuckerberg isn’t merely that he’s uniquely unsuited to being the unaccountable czar of 2.6 billion peoples’ social lives—it’s that no one should have that job.

Monopolists all have their own cherished idiocies (as do the rest of us), but they share a common pathology: the ideology, popularized by Thomas Friedman and others, that “efficiency” is the highest virtue.

The whole basis for 40 years of tolerating (even encouraging) monopolies is the efficiencies of scale that come from consolidating power into a few hands, and the shared interests that arise from a brittle interdependence. Who would go to war with the trading partner that controls the world’s supply of some essential item?

This was always, predictably, a system that would work well but fail badly. Clustering the world’s semiconductor production in Taiwan made chips cheap and plentiful, sure. But then the 1999 Taiwan earthquake shut down all of the world’s computer sales. There are plenty of examples like this that Stoller lists in his article, for instance, a single vaccine factory in England shuts down in 2004 and the United States loses half of its flu vaccines.

Despite the increasing tempo of supply-chain crises that ripple out across the world, we have allowed monopolists to “take the fat out of the system at every joint,” as Thomas Friedman advocated in a 2005 interview about his book The World Is Flat, setting up a thousand crises among us and yet to come.

Bed makers can’t make mattresses for want of foam. RV manufacturers can’t get enough “fridges, air conditioners, and furniture” to meet orders, according to Stoller. Often, the pivotal items are obscure and utterly critical, like the $1 flat-steel form ties, without which home construction halts.

“For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost,” starts the centuries-old proverb. We’ve understood that tightly coupled systems have cascading failures since the 13th century. “Resiliency” is inefficient—but only if you ignore what happens when brittle systems fail. Every monopolist necessarily shares an ideology that elevates brittleness to a virtue. They must, because monopolies are brittle. One foolish mistake, one ship wedged in a canal, one delusive denial of climate change, and we all suffer.

Every monopolist believes in their own infallibility. They must, because to have someone as fallible as me or you in charge of the world’s social media or shipping or flat steel form ties is otherwise a recipe for disaster.

Of all the dangerous things monopolists are wrong about, this belief in their own inability to be wrong is the most dangerous.

is a science fiction author, activist, journalist, and blogger. This article originally appeared at Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow (

Matt Stoller, “What We Can Learn from a Big Boat,” BIG Newsletter, March 28, 2021 (; Daniel H. Pink, “Why the World Is Flat: The playing field is being leveled, says globalization guru Thomas Friedman—from Shanghai to Silicon Valley, from al Qaeda to Wal-Mart,” Wired, May 1, 2005 (; Amanda Anderson, “‘Never experienced a shortage like this’: RV industry warns trailers could be hard to find this summer,” CTV News Edmonton, March 27, 2021 (; “Shortage in Form Ties Could Create Temporary Shutdown in Residential Construction, says CFA,” press release, Concrete Foundations Association, March 15, 2021 (

Did you find this article useful? Please consider supporting our work by donating or subscribing.

end of article