Will there be a third era of American trust-busting?

Two new books take stock of the American market, and what they find isn’t good: Monopolies control industries like meat, technology, and more.

Courtesy of The New Press and Macmillan Publishers
“Monopolized: Life in the Age of Corporate Power” by David Dayen, The New Press, 336 pp.; and “Break 'Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money” by Zephyr Teachout, All Points Books, 320 pp.

Americans hunkered down at home early in the COVID-19 pandemic found beef and pork nearly as hard to buy as toilet paper.

The culprit: Outbreaks of the coronavirus among workers caused shutdowns at a handful of huge processing plants, which prompted calls for antitrust investigations from President Donald Trump and lawmakers in both parties.

Just how few companies dominate the U.S. meat industry would not surprise readers of two books offering liberal critiques of the threats posed by economic concentration.

The top four hog producers control two-thirds of the market while four companies control 85 percent of the beef industry, notes David Dayen, the executive editor of the liberal American Prospect magazine, in “Monopolized: Life in the Age of Corporate Power.”

Meanwhile, three processors control the sale of almost every chicken in America, points out Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout, at the start of “Break ‘Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom from Big AG, Big Tech, and Big Money.” In June, the Justice Department brought criminal price-fixing charges for pre-pandemic conduct against four poultry executives, including the CEO of Pilgrim’s Pride, one of the biggest U.S. chicken producers.

Meat shortages are just one example of why Dayen and Teachout could not have picked a better time to publish books advocating for more aggressive policing of monopolies.

Even before the pandemic, the rising power of Big Tech giants had already made antitrust a mainstream political issue for the first time in nearly a century, one resonating with populists on both the left and right. On July 29, members of Congress grilled the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, asking whether they squelched competition. 

Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts promised to break up major technology companies during her presidential bid. 

Every week brings new headlines about ongoing antitrust probes by the Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission, and state attorneys general led by Republican Ken Paxton of Texas. Earlier this month, for example, the Wall Street Journal reported the Federal Trade Commission is considering whether to take sworn testimony from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg.

Dayen and Teachout detail how monopoly power extends well beyond Big Tech into every corner of the economy and our daily lives, from concert tickets to military contractors and rental houses to funeral homes. The resulting damage includes the “murder” of American journalism as Teachout puts it, middle class wage stagnation, and woefully inadequate rural Wi-Fi.

Teachout, a three-time progressive candidate for elected office in New York, uses particularly colorful language to describe the perpetrators. She equates Big Tech “monopoly bosses” with the mafia and singles out Amazon as “a vast infrastructure machine with an ambition to take over the body and soul of the country.” 

Dayen focuses much of his fury on Wall Street bankers and their legal advisers who, along with executives and shareholders, get rich together off the “corporate money hose” of mergers and acquisitions.

Teachout argues that simply adopting an ethos of “ethical consumerism,” and boycotting Amazon isn’t enough. What’s needed is “a major, grassroots anti-monopoly movement” designed to “radically reshape our economy and democracy in the service of human needs,” she writes.

Teachout would bar companies from controlling more than 10 percent of their respective markets, break up Big Tech companies and regulate the pieces as public utilities. In her epilogue, Teachout lays out her vision of a glorious monopoly-free future in which Google has been cut up into 57 smaller pieces by 2040. 

It is every writer’s nightmare to have a book overtaken by events pre-publication, and perhaps one or both of these authors might update their work before the paperback version comes out to reflect the ways the world has changed due to Covid-19.

All signs so far suggest the big are just getting bigger as consumers flock to the likes of Walmart, Amazon, and Target. Big Tech companies are taking advantage of the moment, using their cash stockpiles to buy smaller, weaker rivals. Amazon boasted of hiring 175,000 people due to surging orders and announced plans in June to buy Zoox, a driverless vehicle startup, that could help the company eliminate delivery drivers one day.

Government antitrust enforcers may prove even more willing to allow mergers between giant airlines or hotel chains suffering from the travel shutdown, for example, if the alternative is letting companies fail altogether.

Or perhaps the pandemic will herald the third great period of trust busting in American history, akin to the Progressive Era and New Deal. After all, given how this year has gone so far, anything is possible. 

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