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Barry C. Lynn is the author of Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction. He directs the Markets, Enterprise, and Resiliency Initiative at the New America Foundation. His feature “Killing the Competition: How the New Monopolies Are Destroying Open Markets,” appears in the February 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine, and is excerpted here on Harpers.org. A previous article, “Breaking the Chain: The antitrust case against Wal-Mart” (July 2006), is available for free here.
In December, President Obama did something very rare among today’s politicians—he acknowledged that America’s history did not begin with the New Deal. In a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, the president led his audience all the way back to the grand campaign of 1912, when debate centered on who would rule our government, the plutocrats or the people.
Obama chose Osawatomie because it was there that Theodore Roosevelt took his first step toward abandoning the Republican Party to run as a Progressive, supposedly to battle the powers that had captured the G.O.P. and Washington. Obama, eager to portray himself as a fighter for today’s middle class, carefully draped Roosevelt’s mantle over his own shoulders. Roosevelt, he said, had “busted up monopolies, forcing those companies to compete.” Then, striking his own brave stance against Goliath, Obama boomed, “Today, they still must.”
The problem with Obama’s story is that Roosevelt’s reputation as a trustbuster is largely based on myth. As one genuinely progressive Republican leader of that era, Senator Robert La Follette (Wis.), wrote in 1913, Roosevelt’s anti-monopoly rhetoric “went just far enough to give color to the claim that he was upholding the law.” But when it came time to act, Roosevelt ran in the opposite direction, and for all intents “opened the floodgates for trust organization” in America. “Upon Theodore Roosevelt more than any other man,” La Follette wrote, “must rest the responsibility for the gravest problem which ever menaced the industrial freedom of the American people.”
Which brings us to a question: Is President Obama bad at history, or is he consciously following Roosevelt’s MO of talking tough, then carrying the rich man’s bags? Unlike in 2008, when for a few glorious months candidate Obama seemed truly to want to serve as the people’s man in Washington, we now have the record of three years in office. So far, it ain’t the stuff of glory.
Obama’s government can boast of blocking AT&T’s takeover of T-Mobile, but that deal was easy to queer, since companies at least as powerful as AT&T opposed the move. Meanwhile, his administration has approved mergers of banks, pharmaceutical companies, and airlines, as well as the marriages of Comcast and NBC, and of Live Nation and Ticketmaster. Perhaps most damning is the administration’s servile retreat from its promise to stand up for America’s farmers, such as the poultry growers I write about in “Killing the Competition.” Here we have American citizens in a condition of near complete economic enslavement to arbitrary power. Here also we have a realm where the administration had given the American people reason to believe.
In 2010, the Department of Agriculture and Department of Justice jointly organized five public hearings on monopoly in agriculture. The hearings took place in Iowa, Alabama, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Washington. Among those in attendance were Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The highlights included a dramatic offer made by the head of Justice’s antitrust division, Christine Varney, to protect Alabama poultry farmer Garry Staples from retaliation, if only he’d speak on the record. For a brief moment, it seemed as though sober public servants were working for the American citizen.
The American citizenry can now weigh the harvest of that hope: a single insignificant change in the rules governing poultry tournaments
In Osawatomie, President Obama said that the American people today face the same “choice” they did a century ago. Indeed. But when we are finally ready to fight that fight, we’d do better to turn for guidance to the man who beat Theodore Roosevelt in 1912: Woodrow Wilson. “If there are men in this country big enough to own the government of the United States, they are going to own it,” Wilson said. “What we have to determine now is whether we are big enough, whether we are men enough, whether we are free enough, to take possession again of the government which is our own.”
I, for one, have complete faith that the American people will prevail. But we will do so only when we use our voices and votes to empower leaders with the guts to wield big sticks along with the shtick.
More from Barry C. Lynn:
From the February 2012 issue
Commentary — January 25, 2012, 10:44 am
Fleming awoke in the dark and his room felt loose, sloshing so badly he gripped the bed. From his window there was nothing but a hallway, and if he craned his neck, a blown lightbulb swung into view. The room pitched up and down and for a moment he thought he might be sick. The word “hallway” must have a nautical name. Why didn’t they supply a glossary for this cruise? Probably they had, in the welcome packet he’d failed to read. A glossary. A history of the boat, which would be referred to as a ship. Sunny biographies of the captain and crew, who had always dreamed of this life. Lobotomized histories of the islands they’d visit. Who else had sailed this way. Famous suckwads from the past, slicing through this very water on wooden longships.
A welcome packet, the literary genre most likely to succeed in the new millennium. Why not read about a community you don’t belong to, that doesn’t actually exist, a captain and crew who are, in reality, if that isn’t too much of a downer on your vacation, as indifferent to one another as any set of co-employees at an office or bank? Read doctored personal statements from underpaid crew members — because ocean life pays better than money! — who hate their lives but have been forced to buy into the mythology of working on a boat, separated now from loved ones and friends, growing lonelier by the second, even while they wait on you and follow your every order.
Rank of Detroit among major U.S. cities whose residents give the largest portion of their income to charity:
A South Dakota researcher concluded that only scant blood spatter results when chain saws are used to dismember pigs.
Four people were arrested for using a remote-controlled hexacopter to fly two pounds of tobacco to prisoners inside the yard at Calhoun State Prison in Georgia.
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Our congratulations to Alice Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature