For several years I’ve been dipping into the subject of rising inequality, usually in book reviews like this one of Hacker and Pierson’s Winner-Take-All Politics. But all along a mystery has been nagging at me, and I think I’m finally getting to the bottom of it.
Inequality. The basic story is simple: Inequality in the United States has risen dramatically since the mid-70s. And the effect gets more extreme the farther out you go. It isn’t just that the top 10% is pulling away from the bottom 90%. The top .01% is pulling away from the top .1% even faster. The multi-billionaires are pulling away from the mere billionaires. (If you want graphs and numbers, look here.)
Obviously you can’t account for all that with education or competition from China. Maybe those factors explain why unskilled workers are having such a tough time, but they say little about the millionaire/billionaire divergence. Ditto for tax rates. Sure, the rich pay a much lower tax rate than they used to, but the explosive growth in their net worth is much bigger than tax rates can account for, and the mega-rich don’t get a significantly better tax deal than the ordinary rich. (Plus, tax cuts start with Reagan in 1982, not the mid-70s.)
Clearly something has happened to the structure of the market, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what.
Monopoly. Barry Lynn’s book Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction looks like the puzzle piece I was missing. Lynn claims our economy is now full of monopolies and near-monopolies — businesses big enough to dictate terms to their customers and/or suppliers.
In the mid-20th-century industrial economy, you got mega-rich by imitating Henry Ford: You figured out how to make things people wanted for a price they wanted to pay. Now you get mega-rich by building choke-points between producers and consumers.
WalMart exemplifies the current paradigm. WalMart makes nothing, but it is big enough to dictate how its suppliers will make things and what prices they can charge. In many of its rural markets, WalMart also dictates what people can buy. If your product isn’t on WalMart’s shelves, it’s not for sale. (WalMart also drives consolidation elsewhere in the economy, which produces big fees for Wall Street. For example, Procter & Gamble bought Gillette largely to improve its negotiating position with WalMart. In slightly different ways, Amazon and Google are trying to duplicate the WalMart model in the online economy. If your book isn’t on Amazon, it’s not for sale.)
Many near-monopolies are less visible than WalMart or Amazon. Lynn begins his book with the story of a pet-food recall, which suddenly made it obvious that many “competing” brands of pet food were actually all packed in the same factory. And Ford lobbied for the government bailout of “competitors” GM and Chrysler because it feared their common suppliers would go bankrupt. Many markets, Lynn says, are hydras: The countless brands on the shelves are just heads that spring from a common body.
The ends against the middle. Reading Lynn, I’m getting a clearer vision of how markets work. The purest form of market is what you can see at any big farmer’s market: Lots of consumers dealing directly with lots of producers. It’s rare that anybody gets really rich from these interactions, but many small producers have a chance to make a living and become independent.
Obviously the global economy has to be more complicated than that. But markets are created by rules, and the rules can be structured to favor either the ends (producers and consumers) or the middle. Producers and consumers benefit from transparent markets, where the rules force middlemen to treat everyone more-or-less the same.
But markets can also be structured to give middlemen as much freedom as possible. The most profitable way to use that freedom is to create choke-points where a toll can be extracted or one producer can be played off against another. In an opaque market, the way to get rich is not to produce things, but to build middleman power that allows you to dictate terms up and down the supply chain. (I don’t have space to go into it here, but keeping the internet transparent is what net neutrality is about, and why Comcast doesn’t like it.)
In a nutshell, what has happened since the mid-70s is that deregulation of old markets and under-regulation of new markets has made our economy more opaque. The people in the best position to take advantage of this are the very rich. Meanwhile, workers and small businessmen — the middle-class people who actually make stuff and deliver services — lose out. In the short term consumers may win or lose, depending on whether the middlemen’s advantage is in raising or lowering prices. But in the long run consumers lose options, power, and quality.
The most interesting thing politically is how the rhetoric of freedom works. Freedom for the middleman leads to domination of producers and consumers. “Freedom” seldom works out to mean more options for everybody.
One worked-out example. If you’ve watched much cable or satellite TV lately, you probably saw Viacom’s ads against DirectTV, like this one.
If you’re a DirectTV subscriber, Comedy Central (and other Viacom channels) went dark for nine days before the two corporations resolved their dispute, so you had to do without The Daily Show or watch it online.
Here’s the point: Maybe you couldn’t watch Jon Stewart for a week, but the problem had nothing to do with either you or Jon Stewart. He wasn’t asking for a raise; you weren’t balking at the price of watching the Daily Show. But both you and Jon were irrelevant when two giant middlemen had a power struggle.
Each brought a lot of power to the struggle. In most of its markets, DirectTV is the only alternative to the local cable monopoly, while Viacom is one of a handful of megacorps that dominate TV content. (Disney, Time Warner, NBCUniversal, NewsCorp, and CBS are the others. National Amusements owns a big chunk of both Viacom and CBS. Comcast plays both sides of the street, being both a cable monopoly and a partner with GE in NBCUniversal.)
Viacom thought it had the upper hand, so it was demanding a bigger payout from DirectTV and insisting DirectTV carry its new Epix channel. I haven’t sorted out yet who won.
These middlemen outweigh both you and Jon Stewart. If Jon doesn’t work for one of the six big media companies, he can’t reach a major audience. If you don’t deal with either DirectTV or a cable monopoly, your TV choices shrink considerably.
Transparent markets. But it’s not hard to imagine a TV system that works differently: Cable or satellite systems could be common carriers, making a fixed amount whenever they connect a TV producer with a TV consumer. Cable and satellite would still compete, but only by changing that fixed amount or by offering more reliable service to the consumer.
With that kind of middleman transparency, small TV companies could spring up and get their shows seen, so Jon Stewart would have a lot more than six choices. You and Jon would have more power, Viacom and DirectTV less.
Even more interesting is what happens to the profit motive: The way to make money in this transparent system is to create shows people want to watch and deliver them reliably. Wheeling and dealing to amass middleman power wouldn’t accomplish much.
Government regulation would probably be necessary to bring this system about, but it would still be capitalism. The marketplace would just be structured differently, so that the benefits and opportunities of capitalism would accrue to producers and consumers rather than to financiers and empire-builders.
Probably this restructured marketplace would lead to more small companies and fewer megacorps, more millionaires and fewer billionaires.
Picture the same transparent-market principle spreading across the economy: More small businesses, more places to look for jobs, greater variety of products, and more opportunity to go into business for yourself. Less inequality.