As you make your way through this well-reasoned, well-researched, densely written book, you may hear the sound of a scream, a crescendo of pain that builds from introduction to index. In my case, it turned out to be coming from the inside of my own head. We know, or have intuited, some of the issues and conclusions Zephyr Teachout proposes. But we probably aren’t taking in the entirety of what’s wrong and what’s at stake. It’s massive, and our future and our children’s future demands that we do something.
You may know Teachout from her noble but unsuccessful runs for political office in New York over the past few years. She’s an attorney who is also an Associate Law Professor at Fordham University School of Law, and the author of several books and scholarly articles. Clearly, she has sought societal change through legislation, whether writing it or seeking to enact it. But her new book, Break ‘Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money (All Points Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Publishing Group, New York, NY 2020), empowers all of us to be part of that change. What’s depressing is the overwhelming amount of it that she deems necessary. And she’s persuasive.
As she writes in the book’s introduction, we have “passively accepted corporate consolidation as a fact of life” and shown no resistance. “Although there are tens of thousands of community activist organizations dedicated to campaign finance, climate change, and gender equality, I know of no local antitrust leagues – unlike 120 years ago, when there were thousands.”
The various monopolies she goes on to describe are strikingly varied but operate in similar ways. One monopoly-controlled commodity is chicken.
It’s a multi-billion dollar industry that feeds us, yet many farmers live with crushing debt. Tyson (revenue $40.052 billion in 2018), Pilgrim’s Pride, (revenue $10.7 billion in 2017) and Perdue (revenue $6.7 billion in 2016) buy and sell almost all chickens in the U.S. even as they keep farmers in bondage through non-competition with one another, use of arbitration contracts (don’t tell your neighbor what you’re earning per chicken!), and strict, mortgage-gobbling specifications for chicken houses. The farmers take the hit when something goes wrong, but win no profits when things go well. Teachout likens it to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, “a vision of a jail designed to maximize control and quell dissent, where a jailer can see all the inmates, but the inmates cannot see each other.”
There was a turning point. “In the early 1980s, (Ronald) Reagan transformed antitrust policy and appointed hundreds of judges who gutted antitrust law,” she writes. This was also when the Justice Department stopped blocking the mergers of two companies in the same business. And this was when chicken processors consolidated power.
In the food realm the problem of monopolization spreads to corn, soy, wheat, and rice, crops controlled by Monsanto (revenue $15 billion in 2015), Archer Daniels Midland (revenue $64.341 billion in 2018), Cargill, (revenue $114.695 billion in 2018), John Deere (revenue $37.357 billion in 2018), and Caterpillar (revenue $54.7 billion in 2018). Thanks to Monsanto’s aggressive pricing, planting an acre of corn today costs over $400. Thirty years ago it cost a quarter of that amount. John Deere’s stranglehold on equipment repair is the result of 20 mergers. It’s now the fifth-largest Ag lender in the country – a third of its profits lie in lending.
Monopolization is an urban problem as well. Uber’s (revenue $14.147 billion in 2019) incursion into New York City threw that city’s taxicab industry into an uproar. As with farmers, drivers were driven to suicide. Although the so-called gig economy is argued to be a place of freedom for workers, Teachout notes that such freedom “is not given to workers, but to the monopolies that control their work.”
Uber got around those pesky city regulations simply by breaking the law, developing software that helped them evade law enforcement and spending millions on lobbying to get laws changed. And it didn’t mind losing money – it could afford it – during its years of growth. And even as New York’s fast-food workers celebrated, in July 2015, the adoption of a $15 per hour minimum wage, it was announced that there would be no cap in that city on the number of Uber drivers.
In the tech realms, monopolies manipulate more than money. Even as Mark Zuckerberg’s editorial decisions shape the way Facebook (revenue $70.697 billion in 2019) users think, “frequent users are three times more likely than non-users to feel isolated and to struggle with their mental health.” Social media, according to programmer Tristan Harris, “is a race to the bottom of the brainstem.” We are manipulated into staying on those sites for as long as possible, to the delight of the advertisers funding those entities.
Beyond its market dominance, Amazon (revenue $280.522 billion in 2019) gets some attention for its horrible treatment of workers, for its ongoing drone-development program to not only deliver packages but to gather and sell information to police departments, and for the stranglehold it has over anyone who sells on its platform. And its junkyard dog-domination of bookselling has punished publishers into agreeing to Amazon’s exorbitant demands. As Teachout describes it, “It is a vast infrastructure machine with an ambition to take over the body and soul of the country: the postal service, the trains, the trucking operations, the places we store our data, and our politics.”
Google (revenue $160.74 billion in 2019) meanwhile, got to where it is today by a manic spree of acquisitions, picking up a company per week during 2001 alone. In 2017, it spent more on federal lobbying than any other U.S. company, topping that amount a year later by spending $21.2 million and it also “burrowed deeply inside the intellectual leadership of this country.”
Google has recruited and cultivated hundreds of law professors who support its views. And it does not react kindly when those views are questioned. In 2017, a group of eight researchers working with the New America Foundation – a think tank heavily funded by Google founder Eric Schmidt – issued a brief statement praising the European Union for having fined Google on antitrust grounds. Google lost no time in making its displeasure known: within 72 hours, the American international lawyer, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the director of New America, had written a letter demanding that all eight team members resign. (Teachout knows well this pressure exerted by Google. She was one of the eight researchers, and she notes further that New America “got a black eye for kowtowing to donors.”)
Facebook and Google also have been reshaping our consumption of what they consider news, to the extent that daily journalism is imperiled, if not dead already, in towns and cities across the county – and around the world. A specific case described in the book is that of the NY Daily News, as it led a successful crusade in 2016 against the Catholic Church over the church’s hushed-up sex scandals. The paper survived the withdrawal of millions of dollars of print revenue from the Archdiocese of New York, but couldn’t survive the massive shift of ad dollars to Google and Facebook. And those two companies can target those ad buys like no other, because they have your personal information. The Daily News doesn’t. “Blogger Josh Marshall writes that a journalist’s relationship to social media is like a serf’s relationship to a landowner,” notes Teachout.
Open courts and independent judges are also considered, a judicial system though which we the people can seek remediation for the wrongs that wealthy entities commit. But all that changed 40 years ago – thank Reagan again – as arbitration crept in as the corporate world’s preferred legal recourse, Teachout notes that “arbitration is built on secrecy and the myth of efficiency, and allows big banks, big tech, and big agribusiness to control court proceedings.”
Corporate control of politics has exploded as super PACs throw unlimited amounts of corporate money at the candidates pledged to protect corporate interests. “Big corporations, which consider political strategy essential to their overall strategy, increasingly use the tools of authoritarianism – centralized regimes, opposition suppression, forced public displays of alignment – to hold on to their power, and they do so in the name of political speech.” This is a heartbreaking chapter that ramps up a feeling of helplessness even as it explains how we wound up in large measure with a Trump in the White House. The legal battles that need to be won to reverse these problems are do-able, but they’re formidable.
Although all of us (who aren’t obscenely wealthy) can join in feeling oppressed, a racial divide has ensured that African Americans and others of color have received more than their share. Just after the Civil War, the emancipated slaves had the right to vote (and very little else) and exercised it to the extent that sixteen African Americans served in Congress and hundreds more in the state legislatures. But this ended quickly as the only source of credit of loans for the former slaves (now sharecropping farmers), usually a general store, began wielding the power to deny those loans, especially to those who exercised a perceived threat of political power. Forms of such discrimination persist today.
Teachout draws from a Washington Monthly piece by Brian Feldman that “chronicles the ‘wholesale collapse of black-owned independent businesses and financial institutions’ and lays out a persuasive case that black businesses have been routed by bad antitrust policy.” Black-owned business have been snapped up by larger, white-owned entities at an alarming but unsurprising rate.
Other issues inevitably follow. Wage inequality, which Teachout rightly terms “obscene,” and which has gotten to the point where “S&P 500 CEOs are paid 361 times the average salary of their employees.” And skillful union busting has ensured that corporations need not worry about those inconvenient job actions.
The 26 richest people in the world own the same amount of money as the 3.8 billion poorest: $1.4 trillion. And we know that most of those ultra-billionaires are white American men. The companies they control control Wall Street, and antitrust laws fall by the wayside. It’s maddening to learn this stuff. Fortunately, Teachout next eases into viable strategies to rectify the wrongs.
It begins with boycotts. Her advice: Don’t bother. When she talks to people about these problems, “the first reactions I hear are about personal consumer choice. Instead of being about policy (antitrust, data rules, outlawing arbitration), the conversation veers quickly into pride or guilt.” The notion that a boycott should be the reaction of choice “radically dampens activism: guilt gets in the way of protest, and complicated chains of self-justification take the place of simple chains of democratic demand.”
There is a history of antitrust activism in this country, with a significant example taking place in Chicago in 1900, when a group of oppressed farmers and business owners came together with enough vehemence to cause the dissolution of Standard Oil and the Beef Trust, and paving the way for Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era trustbusting, which included creation of the FDIC (over the screams of banking magnates). But in recent times, even as other laudable causes are taken to the streets, “there has not been one single, notable, in-the-street protest targeted at fracturing one of the giants.”
Current goals have to include demands that federal and state governments enforce existing laws, laws routinely flouted. And the punishments need to be systemic and severe. The Federal Trade Commission can help redefine the scope of federal laws, especially when we get a President who cares about the citizens. New laws are needed as well, laws that will counteract the bad effects of Reagan-era rulings. And it’s not just the familiar names – Google, Amazon, Facebook – that need to be knocked apart. Big Pharma and the global fossil fuel industry not only have become massive, price-fixing, legislation-dodging trusts, but they’re also killing us.
And so this dense, passionate book will anger you, depress you, and, alongside all of that, inspire you. It is a roadmap to informed activism, and a welcome salve to the guilt-susceptible liberal conscience.
(B.A. Nilsson, 9/23/20)