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Anti-Monopoly

I loved board games as a kid, which is how I ended up with the game Anti-Monopoly, which billed itself as the "bust-the-trust game."

I don't think I ever succeeded in getting anyone to play it with me, or even understanding how the rules worked, but according to its Wikipedia page, players were supposed to "compete to return the state of the board to a free market system." It's hard to tell from that whether it was subversive or not. Perhaps there was an option for players to nationalize the monopolies in the name of revolutionary socialism and become oligarchic bureaucrats.

Anyway, Thomas Frank's recent WSJ editorial (paywalled, excerpted here by Mark Thoma) reminded me of it. Frank calls attention to Barry Lynn's book Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction, which, as Frank says, "presents us with an amazing catalogue of present-day monopolies, oligopolies and economic combinations" and shows how the economic liberalization that produced these monopolies "has actually yielded the opposite of freedom: a 'neofeudal' system of 'private corporate governments' answerable to no one." Perhaps Lynn played Anti-Monopoly when he was younger. He seems to be trying to bring trust-busting out of the dustbin of Depression history and restore it to the arsenal of progressive politics, to appeal to a theoretical coalition of disenfranchised workers and small-business owners -- those left out of the plutocracy now serviced by the state.

Lynn and Phillip Longman have an article in the most recent Washington Monthly that elaborates how consolidation has contributed to unemployment.

While the mystery of what killed the great American jobs machine has yielded no shortage of debatable answers, one of the more compelling potential explanations has been conspicuously absent from the national conversation: monopolization.... In nearly every sector of our economy, far fewer firms control far greater shares of their markets than they did a generation ago.

Indeed, in the years after officials in the Reagan administration radically altered how our government enforces our antimonopoly laws, the American economy underwent a truly revolutionary restructuring. Four great waves of mergers and acquisitions—in the mid-1980s, early ’90s, late ’90s, and between 2003 and 2007—transformed America’s industrial landscape at least as much as globalization. Over the same two decades, meanwhile, the spread of mega-retailers like Wal-Mart and Home Depot and agricultural behemoths like Smithfield and Tyson’s resulted in a more piecemeal approach to consolidation, through the destruction or displacement of countless independent family-owned businesses....

It is now widely accepted among scholars that small businesses are responsible for most of the net job creation in the United States. It is also widely agreed that small businesses tend to be more inventive, producing more patents per employee, for example, than do larger firms. Less well established is what role concentration plays in suppressing new business formation and the expansion of existing businesses, along with the jobs and innovation that go with such growth. Evidence is growing, however, that the radical, wide-ranging consolidation of recent years has reduced job creation at both big and small firms simultaneously. At one extreme, ever more dominant Goliaths increasingly lack any real incentive to create new jobs; after all, many can increase their earnings merely by using their power to charge customers more or pay suppliers less. At the other extreme, the people who run our small enterprises enjoy fewer opportunities than in the past to grow their businesses. The Goliaths of today are so big and so adept at protecting their turf that they leave few niches open to exploit.

I haven't read Galbraith's oft-mocked The New Industrial State lately, but if I remember it right, he paints a picture of a society in which giant firms administer a de facto planned economy; they make up a near impregnable "technostructure" that operates without any real competition. I wonder if his analysis is rounding into relevance again.

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