Playing Monopoly for Real

What the gutsy Boston Tea Party rebels were actually tossing was corporate monopoly power. Get your heave-ho muscles in shape, for the monopolists are back.

Shouting “Down with big government,” today’s tea party Trumpateers claim to be tax rebels — direct descendants of the Boston bunch who boarded three British ships in 1773 and heaved their cargo of tea chests into the harbor. But wait! That historic Tea Party wasn’t actually a tax protest. The audacious colonists were rebelling against the British East India Company’s tea monopoly, which excluded local importers.

What the gutsy rebels were actually tossing was monopolistic corporate power. Get your heave-ho muscles in shape, for the monopolists are back, and they’re going for more than our tea; they’re rapidly locking up major economic sectors. The louder Donald Trump touts his commitment to competition and free markets the faster his corporate operatives, lobbyists and congressional henchmen scheme to create cartels and combines. His justice department, regulatory agencies, monetary policies, tax rules, judicial appointees (especially Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch) and other inside players are all at work greasing the skids for the monopolization of America.

This era’s corporate dominance did not, of course, begin with Trump. The merger wave swelled in the Reagan years, but because his Federal Trade Commission stopped collecting industry consolidation data in 1981, its full extent is hidden. But we do know, thanks to public interest watchdogs, that a tsunami of monopoly power now threatens our economy at the very time Trump Inc. is dismantling consumer protections and facilitating the rise of dominating behemoths in airlines, banks, computer tech, pharmacies, groceries, hospitals, meatpacking, media, oil, online sales, pharmaceuticals, railroads, software, telecom services and other essential industries. While Americans are told to worship the magic of the free market, real markets are being hogtied by a handful of crony capitalist oligarchs.

Two giants, Verizon and AT&T, controlled 69% of U.S. cellphone service last year. Two others, Facebook and YouTube (owned by Google) have 64% of social network visits, and another two, Android (launched by Google) and Apple, control 99% of smartphone operating systems.

Five Wall Street megapowers now control nearly half of all U.S. financial assets; 20 years ago, the top five controlled only about 20%. In recent years six of the largest U.S. airlines merged into three, which now control 50% of U.S. flights.

Three decades ago, 50 conglomerates owned 90% of media outlets; today, just six megamonopolists control 90% of the market. America’s two largest newspaper owners are not even media chains but GateHouse Media and Digital First Media hedge funds that now own some 670 papers, including dailies in Augusta, Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Denver, Phoenix and St. Paul. And Digital First is now attempting to take over the Gannett chain of 100 more papers.

As of August 2018, Apple’s stock value has been greater than that of Bank of America, Boeing, Ford, Volkswagen, Walt Disney and 20 other colossal corporations — combined. In 2015, just 30 supersized corporations grabbed half the profits generated by all corporations listed on the stock market.

The two largest truck and bus manufacturers now control 62% of the market. The two largest drugstore chains, shipbuilders and mattress makers have over 60% of each of those markets. And the two largest home improvement chains control about 80% of the market.

Periodically throughout American history, the tension between democracy and plutocracy has reached a breaking point, and people have risen up in great confrontations with elites who assert that their property rights and wealth must reign supreme over the majority’s interests and our nation’s common good.

And here we are again. A handful of corporate consolidators and property rights supremacists are dictating pay and conditions for America’s workers, crushing unions, jacking up prices, squeezing out independent businesses, controlling the media, suppressing the vote and public dissent, literally running our government… and becoming even bigger, richer and more powerful. That’s our real fight. We’re not merely up against the Little Tweeter Man in the White House — but against the unfathomable greed and oligarchic ambitions of the moneyed powers who are using him.

Jim Hightower