Is Capitalism a Myth?
Many people have labeled communism as but a myth: an unattainable fantasy. Jonathan Tepper and Denise Hearn have, by contrast, written a new book called The Myth of Capitalism: Monopolies and the Death of Competition. It contains a series of liberal and conservative critiques of the economic system of the U.S. in particular, and the West, more generally.
Tepper and Hearn chronicle the decline of competitiveness in almost every sector of the U.S. economy. Most people in the mainstream media are drooling over the record highs being recorded on the stock market, but the book notes, “Between 1996-2016, the number of stocks in the U.S. fell by roughly 50%, from more than 7,300 to fewer than 3,600, while rising 50% in other developed nations.” As Tepper and Hearn painstakingly explain by citing studies and charts, the U.S. economy has been stagnant by most truly relevant metrics since the Reaganomics of the 1980s, such as R&D spending, company longevity, competitive consumer product prices and the number of annual startups.
The superficiality of the recent Wall Street gains is enabled via trickery such as stock buybacks, oligopolistic mergers & lobbyist-sponsored deregulation and tax exemptions. Such corruption used to be illegal, in pre-Reagan and Buckley v. Valeo America. Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt both cracked down on monopolies like Standard Oil and the New York Central Railroad by enforcing the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts. Every president since Teddy, both Democrat, and Republican cracked down on potential monopolies until Reagan. This helped prevent a market crash akin to those of 1907 and 1929, which were the direct result of laissez-faire capitalism.
Wide-scale mergers started occurring during the Reagan administration and have only picked up steam ever since. Concerning our last president, Tepper and Hearn note that “Obama talked tough on big business and Wall Street, but he raised as much money from them as possible and was arguably even more pro-merger than Bush. His DOJ approved all the airline mergers, creating an oligopoly of four airlines…He allowed Google’s major acquisitions that vertically integrated parts of the ad industry…The FTC prevented Comcast from buying Time Warner in 2015 and AT&T from acquiring T-Mobile in 2011. These were the only notable mergers Obama’s DOJ blocked.”
The book lists all of the industries that have effectively become oligopolies or even monopolies: search engines, beer, beverages, glasses, weapons, banks, telecommunications, social media, cell phone manufacturing, agriculture, airlines, pharmaceuticals, credit rating, tobacco, railroads, etc. The consolidation of market share to a handful of billion-dollar companies has throttled the entry of new companies in our so-called Age of the Startup. Tepper and Hearn write how Facebook has (after buying out Instagram) been able to devastate upstart platform Snapchat by mimicking all of Snapchat’s features. Such treachery, combined with Facebook’s 2B+ user base, ensured Snapchat would end up in the financial spiral that’s it’s currently in. This is but one example of how the post-merger era has sabotaged the fresh competition. The book relays this sobering stat: “In 1995, the top 100 companies accounted for 53% of all income from publicly traded firms, but by 2015, they captured a whopping 84% of all profits.” After decades of decline, the number of new firm entries fell below the number of firm exits in 2013. This decline in the number of startup innovators inevitably ends up hurting technological innovations.
The merger bonanza may be great for Wall Street, but it’s horrible for Middle America. For instance, Tepper and Hearn write, “When workers have fewer employers to choose from in their line of work, their bargaining power disappears. Corporate giants can squeeze their suppliers, but the main thing companies buy is labor, and they have been squeezing workers.” Thus, wages have struggled to keep up with inflation for decades. Benefits are cut, while stock buybacks soar. Unhappy workers in all but 3 states can be shackled to soul-sucking jobs via non-compete clauses. Furthermore, “56% of private sector non-unionized workers are forced into mandatory arbitration and of those, 23% were also denied any access to class-action lawsuits. This means that nearly a quarter of working Americans in the private sector don’t have the basic right to sue their employer.”
Mergers aren’t good for consumers either, despite what the corporatist rhetoric will tell you. Tepper and Hearn give countless examples of how industries became less innovative after drinking the Oligopoly Kool-Aid. The lack of competition this environment leads to complacency and, thus, a lack of product innovation or even concern for customer service. The book also reports that “In mergers that led to 6 or fewer significant competitors, prices rose in nearly 95% of cases…On average, post-merger prices increased 4.3%.” Industries from beer to pharmaceuticals are infamous for fixing prices, due to high barriers of entry for startups and tacit (and sometimes explicit) collusion. According to the book’s data, the average specialty pharmaceutical medication cost jumped 217% from 2011-2015. Unsurprising, when you consider that, “In 2017, drug makers paid for 882 lobbyists and spent more than $171.5 million in an effort to oppose lower prescription drug prices.”
Ironically, lobbyists will argue that mergers lead to lower prices and greater innovation. They make the dishonest argument that the goal of the antitrust acts was solely to help consumers. In fact, the legislation never even mentioned consumer efficiency; the bills were all about breaking up the power of the trusts. People like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson saw how monopolies exceeded government authority in many cases; a lack of government enforcement of industry ultimately led to the Great Depression and the resulting New Deal reformations.
In the era of the Too-Big-to-Fail banks and corporations, the lessons of The Myth of Capitalism are more important than ever. They expose the façade of the post-recession “economic recovery” for what it is: stock buybacks and mergers puffing up the economy. Everyone and everything from workers, consumers, people with medical conditions, startups and the IRS suffer from the corruption of American capitalism. Tepper and Hearn frame their central thesis with liberal ideals and arguments (protecting the consumer, income inequality, maintaining government independence from corporate influence), as well as conservative (market competitiveness, cutting red tape for small business, low consumer prices).
A lot is written about the thoughts of Hayek and Friedman, but also leftists like FDR and Marx. The final chapter offers some solutions to the problems of our times, but they’re pretty predictable if you’ve been reading along the whole way. Page after page of charts succinctly illustrate the points Tepper and Hearn make about trust-busting, the corrosiveness of the lobbyist class, the benefits of competitive markets, and livings standards for people on Main Street. The Myth of Capitalism is a very readable, even-handed and informative primer for anyone questioning whether or not they’re being gaslighted by the nonstop barrage of praise for the economy by the oligopolistic mainstream media.