I’ve studied monopolies for about 20 years. I got into this line of work back in 1999, when an earthquake in Taiwan resulted in the shutdown of computer factories all over the United States.
What happened was that an earthquake disrupted the flow of electricity to foundries in Taipei, where most of the world’s capacity for a key type of semiconductor was located. The loss of this capacity led to a cascading crash of industrial activity, similar to a financial crash.
For me, this realization opened a window into a world that our economic textbooks tell us shouldn’t exist: A world in which a few giant corporations control all of various types of production and supply. Worse, a world in which those corporations sometimes put almost all the capacity to build some vital industrial input in a single physical place in the world.
Since then, I’ve written two books on monopolies and written many articles and op-eds. Much of my work has continued to focus on the ways that concentration of capacity can make complex systems like banking and communications — in addition to industrial production — subject to potentially catastrophic disruption.
What I came to understand is that the changes in the enforcement of antitrust laws that had allowed a few corporations to use their power in ways that put all society at risk, had also resulted in huge threats to our economic and political well-being.
Antimonopoly law, I learned, dates to the founding of our nation. It is, in essence, an extension of the concept of checks and balances into the political economy. One goal of antimonopoly law is to ensure that every American has liberty, to change jobs when they want, to create a small business or small farm if they want, to get access to the information they want. Another goal of antimonopoly is to ensure that our democratic institutions are not overwhelmed by wealth and power concentrated in the hands of the few.
What I also learned is that since the early days of the Reagan Administration, power over almost all forms of economic activity in America has been steadily concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. This includes retail and transportation. It includes pharmaceuticals and farming. It includes almost every corner of the Internet.
This concentration affects our economic well-being. It’s what explains why, for example, the percentage of Americans who own their own businesses has been falling for the last generation. As more and more of the economy become sown up by monopolistic corporations, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for entrepreneurship.
It also explains why me must pay more for many services. As hospitals continue to merge into giant chains, for example, they are able to pass along ever higher prices without having to worry about losing business to competitors. And anyone who flies these days can attest to what happens when just four airlines control 80 percent of the market.
But even more important is the way increasing monopoly affects us politically.
It means that we all enjoy less freedom to do what we want in our jobs and our lives. It means that fewer and fewer companies are competing for our labor, allowing employers to gain more and more power not only over how we do business, but also how over we speak, think and act.
If you want a good example of how giant corporations sometimes misuse the power that concentration gives them, just look at what happened to me.
For the last fifteen years, I’ve done my antimonopoly writing and research at a think tank in Washington named New America. This last June 27, my group published a statement praising the European Union for fining Google for violating antitrust law. Later that day I was told that Google — which provides substantial support to other programs at New America — said they wanted to sever all ties with the organization. Two days later I was told that the entire team of my Open Markets Program had to leave New America by September 1.
No think tank wants to appear beholden to the demands of its corporate donors. But in this instance, that’s exactly the case. I — and my entire team of journalists and researchers at Open Markets — were let go because the leaders of my think tank chose not to stand up to Google’s threats. (In a statement, New America has denied that this was the case.)
We should all be worried about big business interfering with our speech, our thinking and our expression. By design, the private business corporation is geared to pursue its own interests. It’s our job as citizens to structure a political economy that keeps corporations small enough to ensure that their actions never threaten the people’s sovereignty over our nation. The first and most vital step to this end is to protect the media we use to communicate with one another from being captured by a few giants.
But today we are failing. Not only are we not preventing concentration of power over our economy and our media. We are not protecting the groups that are working to prevent and reverse that concentration of power.
Wherever you work, whatever you do, your livelihood and your liberties are every day more at risk as long as we allow a few giant corporations — especially in online commerce — to continue to extend their reach into and over the world of ideas.