We don’t really talk about the dangers of monopoly in the United States anymore.
We praise it, if we’re VCs investing in start-ups.
We acknowledge a history of it, safely confined to a long-gone Gilded Age.
But we don’t discuss how much it dominates our current economy, or how much damage it does.
Which is strange, because fighting monopoly should be one thing the Right and the Left can agree on.
The Right should fight monopoly because it leads to giant corporations that centralize control of the economy. And centralized control — whether in the form of an unelected Politburo, or an unelected Board of Directors — should be one of the Right’s worst fears.
The Left should fight monopoly because it concentrates power in the hands of owners and financial gamblers at the expense of workers. When the company you’re trying to unionize against doesn’t have any competitors, and controls billions of dollars of assets, it can afford to wait out any strike, or hire enough scabs to stay in business. And it’s harder to organize across not just multiple states, but multiple countries, to ensure a strike even gets off the ground.
Notice I didn’t say anything about consumers. It turns out our obsession with consumer rights (and low prices) has crippled our ability to talk about the rights of producers, of the workers and small-businesspeople that should rightfully be the backbone of our economy. It’s left us defenseless against the new monopolies in our midst, that charge less not because of some “economy of scale” but because they have access to enough capital to underbid everyone else.
Think of Amazon, and how it spent decades without turning any kind of profit, all while its stock rose and rose. Would any normal business have been allowed to do that? Any sane business? No. Amazon was allowed to pursue its monopoly, and won it.
But I didn’t see any of this until after reading Matt Stoller’s book.
I felt some of it, sure. In the way Silicon Valley companies chased advertising dollars instead of solving real problems. In how Uber and Amazon set their prices artificially low, specifically to drive their competitors out of the market, and got praised for it.
And in the way I’ve come to look at running my own business as some kind of crazy dream, instead of the normal out-growth of a career spent in engineering.
Stoller’s given me a framework, and a history, to understand all of this. How we used to enforce anti-trust laws that would have stopped Facebook from buying out all of its competition, or Amazon from driving local bookstores out of business. How the financial markets used to exist to enable small businesses to get off the ground, not pour money into multinational behemoths that crushed them.
And how it all funnels money and power up the food chain, leading to today’s rampant inequality and distorted economy.
If you have any interest in economic justice, whether as a devoted capitalist or a socialist or just a plain liberal, I’d recommend reading Goliath. Stoller’s book restores the lost history of American anti-trust, placing us back in a historical context of the long fight between centralized control and distributed power.
It’s the one book I’ve read about recent events that’s given me hope.
Because we cut down the Goliaths once. We can do so again.