What's Coming in 2022 on the Monopoly Front?
What did we get done last year? What will happen in the coming year? And how did BIG do?
Welcome to BIG, a newsletter about the politics of monopoly. If you’d like to sign up, you can do so here. Or just read on…
I started this newsletter two and a half years ago to build the anti-monopoly movement, timed to the release of my book, Goliath: The Hundred Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy. I thought there might be an appetite for content focused on market power. It turns out, there is! So let’s take stock and ask the question, how have we done? And what’s likely to come?
But first, if you want something on specific market power problems, here are some short pieces I wrote over the last few weeks.
(I don’t always send out every issue over email, because I don’t want to overload your inboxes. But you can always find everything at https://mattstoller.substack.com)
We’ll start with the numbers. At at the end of 2021, 50,080 people had subscribed to BIG. That’s up from 35,513 at the end of 2020 and 17,690 at the end of 2019, which was the first year. There were 127 issues, with roughly 3.2 million views in total. BIG is now cited in antitrust cases and major publications, as well as read widely within the competition policy community around the world.
Also, after two and a half years of free content, we finally started a paid subscription tier. So far, over 2,100 of you signed up as paying supporters. With this new revenue stream, we are paying a copy-editor, as well as a few writers, and we have plans for expanding coverage. There’s also a Discord server for paying subscribers, where you can learn about everything from the nitty gritty of pharmaceutical pricing to a crushed rock monopoly. More importantly, you invested in making sure that I have the independence to offer the unvarnished truth.
Neat. (Oh and subscribe here!)
Top Ten Articles
Here are the top ten articles from BIG in 2021, by title, date published, and number of views.
Amazon Prime Is an Economy-Distorting Lie (5/30/21), 158k
Cryptocurrencies: A Necessary Scam? (12/7/21), 119k
Corporate Profits Drive 60% of Inflation Increases, (12/29/21), 92k
The World's Most Profitable Traffic Jam (12/18/21), 90k
The Cantillon Effect and GameStop (1/31/21), 87k
Of course, the goal wasn’t to be widely read, but to change policy. I’m pro-business, the problem is that, increasingly since the 1980s, much of what we call business is in fact cheating. Why? It’s not that the people who run our elite financial and corporate institutions are bad or that markets naturally lead anywhere in particular, it’s just that our legal framework fosters socially destructive behavior, like monopolization and other legalized forms of looting.
Why do we organize our laws this way? And is it a fixable problem? I think it’s a mixture of ignorance and fatalism. Over the past forty years, people forgot how to govern, and now they don’t believe they can govern. And yes, it’s fixable. How? Well, knowledge engenders confidence, and becomes power. So I try to learn about specific industries, and then teach the public and policymakers how to restore integrity to those markets. And it does actually work, though turning around massive bureaucracies takes time.
Of course, evaluating whether we’ve succeeded is inherently subjective. But I’ll offer a narrative on the broader anti-monopoly movement. This movement, like the anti-monopoly movement of the 1880s, is rooted in journalism and business, not academia or economics. I wrote about this history in one of my first issues of BIG. Basically, a series of writers in the early 2010s, inspired by the problem of Too Big to Fail banks, realized that Too Big to Fail was everywhere. We noted that markets in everything from seeds to candy were concentrated, and the cause was weak antitrust law. In 2013, I started working on a longer history on why the Democrats had allowed antitrust to collapse, the result of which was this article in the Atlantic in 2016, and then my book Goliath a few years later.
Then in June of 2019, three months before Goliath came out, I launched BIG. Two key events happened in the history of the movement that same month. First, the day after my launch, Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook would create its own global currency. it faced a buzzsaw; it was the first time a major venture by Facebook had been truly brushed back by elected officials.
Second, Congressman David Cicilline announced the most significant investigation of corporate power since the 1970s - a look into the business models of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google. He hired Lina Khan, a young law professor, as the lead investigator.
Since then, the Federal government, as well as states, have filed five different antitrust suits against Google, two against Facebook, and one against Amazon. Meanwhile, New York state is gearing up for a revolution in anti-monopoly rule-making, and Congress is going to re-regulate the entire ocean shipping sector. Facebook’s Libra project has (mostly) collapsed. And the Antitrust Subcommittee investigation has resulted in antitrust legislation that could very likely become law, and the underlying principles recommended in that report will certainly turn into law within the decade.
BIG is a reader-supported newsletter focused on the politics of monopoly and finance. This is journalism and advocacy that challenges power, so please consider a paid subscription. You can always get lies for free. The truth costs a few bucks, but in the long run it’s much cheaper.
Important anti-monopolists are in critical positions. Khan is now the head of the Federal Trade Commission, which was unthinkable a few years ago. Jonathan Kanter, a savvy antitrust lawyer, runs the DOJ Antitrust Division. And Rohit Chopra is at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau making trouble for bank mergers. The Republicans have shifted too. Trump initiated the first Federal suit against Google in 2020, Clarence Thomas has turned on big tech, Marco Rubio encouraged Amazon unionization, and Kanter and Khan both got 16 Republican Senate votes. Judges are rethinking antitrust, as is the small business lobby, and the conservative legal movement.
So I’d say, in terms of political goals, it’s been an astonishing ride for the broader movement. But what about this newsletter? In politics it’s often hard to tell just what one has gotten done. People often pretend that they created the wave, just because they surfed it. Here a few of the things I think we’ve accomplished together.
We suggested that the government investigate the role of big business in shortage profiteering. The FTC is now doing that.
We argued that the Biden administration should pick strong enforcers for both the FTC and Antitrust Division at the Department of Justice. Biden picked Lina Khan at the FTC and Jonathan Kanter at DOJ.
We focused on the New York state legislature’s potentially revolutionary antitrust legislation.
What’s exciting about this ride is that you never know what kind of impact you have. I learn so much from all of you, and I’ve gotten emails from people who start businesses or careers based on something I’ve written, just as I decided to arrange my career years ago when I first learned about the problem of market power. These ideas are contagious. It’s astonishing reading work written a hundred or more years ago, making the same points we make today. This tradition, of fighting for human dignity against the wishes of concentrated power, is our birthright.
The Year Ahead
So let’s talk predictions and goals.
I think the ride of the anti-monopoly movement is going to get more interesting, and rougher. So far, we’ve been able to operate outside of the government, which means we didn’t have the responsibility of bringing forth rules and cases and having them upheld in courts. But now we do.
We’re going to make mistakes. And I think there’s going to be a powerful backlash, and that it will roll back some of the progress we’ve made. At the same time, the anti-monopoly movement will spread to more and more business sectors. As naive as it may sound, one of the key reasons that most people in labor or business don’t ask for fair markets is because they don’t know they can. That’s been changing, and it’s going to keep changing.
Here are some predictions for the year ahead.
Congress will regulate the ocean carrier sector by passing the Ocean Shipping Reform Act, which is the first major regulatory bill passed since the Cable Act of 1992. Additionally, Congress will pass serious legislation to subsidize the domestic semiconductor industry.
The first antitrust trial led by government against a big tech firm will start, and antitrust enforcers will take a firmer line on mergers, monopolization, and consumer protection/privacy. Regulators in the financial space will also show some aggressiveness. Meanwhile public officials throughout much of the rest of the government will remain mostly passive versus concentrated corporate power.
A civil war in the Republican Party will begin to openly break out, as the prospect of GOP victory in the midterms gets closer and the libertarians and populists are no longer be able to paper over their divergent governing philosophies.
There will be one major piece of legislation to address big tech that will pass Congress, and it is the nondiscrimination legislation authored by Amy Klobuchar and Chuck Grassley. That legislation will lead to endless litigation in the courts, but will have a modestly beneficial effect for enforcers.
There will be serious government actions against pharmacy benefit managers and meatpackers.
The Brandeisian anti-monopoly movement will suffer significant losses in the courts, but a few judges will begin breaking from the pro-monopoly consensus.
The UK will lead the world in addressing big tech dominance, an anti-monopoly movement will develop in Canada, and the EU’s perceived aggressiveness on antitrust will evaporate.
Food inflation will be a key global political story through 2022.
Angry workers will begin to find ways to express their anger through new institutional forms.
So those are predictions. What about goals for BIG?
What we will work on this year is tracking what happens as an inchoate anti-monopoly social movement begins writing law and regulations, and begins tangling with judges. The Republican Party is poised to win control of Congress, so we will be paying attention to debates on that side of the aisle. And we hope to continue looking at big tech, Hollywood, supply chains, crypto, health care, enforcement outside the U.S., and niche monopolies, as well as beginning to focus on our energy systems. We will also try to find more ways of getting you involved in policymaking.
Any predictions on your end? I’m particularly interested in what will happen in specific concentrated industries. Add your thoughts below.
Thanks for reading.
And please send me tips on weird monopolies, stories I’ve missed, or comments by clicking on the title of this newsletter. And if you liked this issue of BIG, you can sign up here for more issues, a newsletter on how to restore fair commerce, innovation and democracy. And consider becoming a paying subscriber to support this work, or if you are a paying subscriber, giving a gift subscription to a friend, colleague, or family member.
P.S. I am part of a nonprofit called the American Economic Liberties Project, which focuses on the problem of private market power. We’re hiring for a bunch of positions, from research to legal to communications. It’s a good group doing useful work, so apply if you think it makes sense for you, or send this link to anyone you think might be interested. https://www.economicliberties.us/careers/