Monopoly Is Not a Game


Mike Mozart | Flickr

Antitrust: It’s tanned and ready. A century ago, the progressive movement, reacting against the monopolies of the oil barons, established antitrust law as the government’s chief tool for restoring competition. But from the Reagan era on, we’ve defanged antitrust enforcement, and that allowed a new generation of monopolists to take hold (The Atlantic). The rate of new-business formation has dropped in each decade since. Despite our cultural infatuation with startups, markets are actually concentrating, and competition is evaporating. That’s why leaders like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) advocate that the government brush off its antitrust arsenal. But today’s tech giants, like Apple and Alphabet/Google, are admired and beloved by consumers. Any newly invigorated antitrust enforcement that goes after them is likely to run into political resistance and face philosophical objections, too. Hasn’t the era of Big Tech also brought new efficiencies and lower prices? As one observer puts it in The Atlantic: “Where do we draw the line between ‘good’ bigness and ‘bad’ bigness?” Tough to say — but it’s useful to try.

It’s all Spotify’s fault. The global economy has behaved in confounding ways since the economic crisis of 2007–8: We have historically low interest rates and we’re awash in cash, but inflation remains vanishingly low, which is exactly the opposite of what conventional economics says should happen. Maybe our whole picture is askew because we’re failing to account for the production of “virtual goods,” like Spotify subscriptions (Business Insider). “What if deflation is not a sign of recession but rather a product of the relentless efficiency of tech services like Uber, Airbnb and Spotify?” In other words: Are we stuck in “a no-growth world” — or do we simply have a “measurement issue”? Sweden, Spotify’s native land, embodies this dilemma: With high growth and no inflation, it’s either an economic utopia or a bubble waiting to bust. A lot hangs on the answer, and no one really knows.

Is there a war on for-profit colleges? The Obama administration has unfairly targeted what once was a $60 billion industry and strangled it with regulations. That’s how many conservatives are interpreting the spate of legal and administrative rulings that have reined in or shut down many publicly traded for-profit colleges. Not long ago, during and after the financial crisis, these institutions raked in government dollars. “When angry voters refer to a ‘lawless’ government, this is what they mean,” wrote The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. Alternately, Buzzfeed suggests, people are angry that these schools charged so much while delivering so little and left their customers with crushing loads of debt. At the root of the problem, writes Rana Foroohar (The New York Review of Books), was the financialization of a system of higher education that ought to be serving the public good more than the bottom line. The resulting failures don’t only cheat their own students; they hobble the whole economy, which depends on effective education to boost productivity.

No say for shareholders. When you own stock you own a piece of a company, and as an owner you have a say in the company’s big decisions, right? That’s the keystone of the entire edifice of corporate governance. But as an increasing chunk of stock ownership is held in giant funds like Vanguard and Black Rock, that logic is being undermined (The New York Times) — because those shares’ votes are cast by fund managers, not by you. The result, says Gretchen Morgenson, is “a breakdown in one of the few accountability mechanisms available to individual investors in our so-called ownership society.” We pay the price for that breakdown in everything from ballooning executive pay to failures of transparency in political contributions and lobbying expenses.

Grubhub puts women in charge. Men still outnumber women in the ranks of executive leadership, particularly in the tech industry. Grubhub, the meal delivery service that also owns Seamless, is an exception: It’s got a male CEO, Matt Maloney, but its leadership is 50/50 male/female (Fortune). Maloney explains: “I think that I figured out pretty early on that I have a lot of great friends who are great coders — generally my age, generally men, generally from a tech background — but that group of friends doesn’t solve restaurants’ problems very well.” Next up: Let’s get to the point where a gender record like Grubhub’s is so common it’s no longer a story.

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