Commentary — February 3, 2012, 1:58 pm

Obama’s Big Shtick

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 tournamentsWherein buyers pay more per piece to those who produce the most, pitting poultry farmers against each other while maximizing the return to capital.—a practice that shouldn’t have existed among a free people in the first place. Nothing more is on the way. Last July, Christine Varney traded the public’s trust for a hefty payday at the New York law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore, which is renowned for defending monopolists. And two weeks ago, the last dedicated agricultural reformer in the administration, Dudley Butler, jumped from the hay cart.

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.

Share
Single Page
undefined

More from Barry C. Lynn:

Context October 26, 2017, 10:55 am

Killing the Competition

Monopolization of our public markets is first and foremost a political crisis

From the November 2015 issue

The New China Syndrome

American business meets its new master

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2018

The Bodies in The Forest

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Minds of Others

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Modern Despots

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Before the Deluge

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Notes to Self

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Within Reach

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Minds of Others·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Progress is impossible without change,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1944, “and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” But progress through persuasion has never seemed harder to achieve. Political segregation has made many Americans inaccessible, even unimaginable, to those on the other side of the partisan divide. On the rare occasions when we do come face-to-face, it is not clear what we could say to change each other’s minds or reach a worthwhile compromise. Psychological research has shown that humans often fail to process facts that conflict with our preexisting worldviews. The stakes are simply too high: our self-worth and identity are entangled with our beliefs — and with those who share them. The weakness of logic as a tool of persuasion, combined with the urgency of the political moment, can be paralyzing.

Yet we know that people do change their minds. We are constantly molded by our environment and our culture, by the events of the world, by the gossip we hear and the books we read. In the essays that follow, seven writers explore the ways that persuasion operates in our lives, from the intimate to the far-reaching. Some consider the ethics and mechanics of persuasion itself — in religion, politics, and foreign policy — and others turn their attention to the channels through which it acts, such as music, protest, and technology. How, they ask, can we persuade others to join our cause or see things the way we do? And when it comes to our own openness to change, how do we decide when to compromise and when to resist?

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Within Reach·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a balmy day last spring, Connor Chase sat on a red couch in the waiting room of a medical clinic in Columbus, Ohio, and watched the traffic on the street. His bleached-blond hair fell into his eyes as he scrolled through his phone to distract himself. Waiting to see Mimi Rivard, a nurse practitioner, was making Chase nervous: it would be the first time he would tell a medical professional that he was transgender.

By the time he arrived at the Equitas Health clinic, Chase was eighteen, and had long since come to dread doctors and hospitals. As a child, he’d had asthma, migraines, two surgeries for a tumor that had caused deafness in one ear, and gangrene from an infected bug bite. Doctors had always assumed he was a girl. After puberty, Chase said, he avoided looking in the mirror because his chest and hips “didn’t feel like my body.” He liked it when strangers saw him as male, but his voice was high-pitched, so he rarely spoke in public. Then, when Chase was fourteen, he watched a video on YouTube in which a twentysomething trans man described taking testosterone to lower his voice and appear more masculine. Suddenly, Chase had an explanation for how he felt — and what he wanted.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Before the Deluge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the summer of 2016, when Congress installed a financial control board to address Puerto Rico’s crippling debt, I traveled to San Juan, the capital. The island owed some $120 billion, and Wall Street was demanding action. On the news, President Obama announced his appointments to the Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera. “The task ahead for Puerto Rico is not an easy one,” he said. “But I am confident Puerto Rico is up to the challenge of stabilizing the fiscal situation, restoring growth, and building a better future for all Puerto Ricans.” Among locals, however, the control board was widely viewed as a transparent effort to satisfy mainland creditors — just the latest tool of colonialist plundering that went back generations.

Photograph from Puerto Rico by Christopher Gregory
Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Post
CamperForce·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

After losing their savings in the stock market crash of 2008, seniors Barb and Chuck find seasonal employment at Amazon fulfillment centers.

Amount Arizona’s Red Feather Lodge offered to pay to reopen the Grand Canyon during the 2013 government shutdown:

$25,000

A Brazilian cat gave birth to a dog.

Trump’s former chief strategist, whom Trump said had “lost his mind,” issued a statement saying that Trump’s son did not commit treason; the US ambassador to the United Nations announced that “no one questions” Trump’s mental stability; and the director of the CIA said that Trump, who requested “killer graphics” in his intelligence briefings, is able to read.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today