February 20, 2012
By John Rubino
The US government’s obliteration of the Bill of Rights via the Patriot Act, the recent defense bill that allows the military to detain citizens indefinitely without trial, the health care law that forces citizens to buy insurance, and the attempted takeover of the Internet through SOPA and PIPA has gotten a lot of attention lately, and in a few rare cases has generated some effective push-back.
But according to an article in this month’s Harper’s Magazine (Killing the competition: How the new monopolies are destroying open markets, by Barry C. Lynn), US corporations are evolving into forms that are more threatening to their victims than anything emanating from Washington. As the author characterizes it, a new generation of monopolists are imposing their own private governments on their industries — and not always the industries one would expect. This long, detailed article should be read by anyone with a desire to understand how the US is evolving. Here I’ll highlight a few excerpts to summarize the major plot points:
Just a few years ago a software engineer’s talents were almost completely portable, allowing a programmer to move effortlessly between tech companies. In other words, there was a functioning market for talent in which the individual had power and choice vis-à-vis local employers. Then a handful of companies began to accumulate near-monopoly control over their product lines — and their workers.
But perhaps the best way to understand the true structure of America’s political economy in the twenty-first century is to talk to some of the people who publish, edit, and write books in America. These days, most articles on the book industry focus on technology. The recent death of the retailer Borders is depicted as a victory of Internet sales over brick-and-mortar stores, the e-book market as a battle between the Kindle e-reader and the iPad. But if we look behind the glib narrative of digitization, we find that a parallel revolution has taken place, one that has resulted in a dramatic concentration of power over individuals who work in this essential, surprisingly fragile industry.
A generation ago, America’s book market was entirely open and very vibrant. According to some estimates, the five largest publishers in the mid-1970s controlled only about 30 percent of trade book sales, and the biggest fifty publishers controlled only 75 percent. The retail business was even more dispersed, with the top four chains accounting for little more than 10 percent of sales. Today, a single company—Amazon—accounts for more than 20 percent of the domestic book market. And even this statistic fails to convey the company’s enormous reach. In many key categories, it sells more than half the books purchased in the United States. And according to the company’s estimates, its share of the e-book market, the fastest-growing segment of the industry, was between 70 and 80 percent in 2010. (Its share of the online sale of physical books is roughly the same.)
Not surprisingly, then, we find the same sort of fear among our book publishers as we do among the chicken farmers of the Sweedlin Valley. I recently sat down with the CEO of one of the biggest publishing houses in America. In his corner office overlooking a busy Manhattan street, he explained that Amazon was once a “wonderful customer with whom to do business.” As Jeff Bezos’s company became more powerful, however, it changed. “The question is, do you wear your power lightly?” My host paused for a moment, searching for the right words. “Mr. Bezos has not. He is reckless. He is dangerous.”
Later that same day, I spoke with the head of one of the few remaining small publishers in America, in a tattered conference room in a squat Midtown office building. “Amazon is a bully. Jeff Bezos is a bully,” he said, his voice rising, his cheeks flushing. “Anyone who gets that powerful can push people around, and Amazon pushes people around. They do not exercise their power responsibly.” Neither man allowed me to use his name. Amazon, they made clear, had long since accumulated sufficient influence over their business to ensure that even these most dedicated defenders of the book—and of the First Amendment—dare not speak openly of the company’s predations.
If a single event best illustrates our confusion as to what makes an open market—and the role such markets play in protecting our liberties—it was our failure to respond to Amazon’s decision in early 2010 to cut off one of our biggest publishers from its readers. At the time, Amazon and Macmillan were scrapping over which firm would set the price for Macmillan’s ebooks. Amazon wanted to price every Macmillan e-book, and indeed every e-book of every publisher, at $9.99 or less. This scorched-earth tactic, which guaranteed that Amazon lost money on many of the e-books it sold, was designed to cement the online retailer’s dominance in the nascent market. It also had the effect of persuading customers that this deeply discounted price, which publishers considered ruinously low, was the “natural” one for an e-book.
In January 2010, Macmillan at last claimed the right to set the price for each of its own products as it alone saw fit. Amazon resisted this arrangement, known in publishing as the “agency model.” When the two companies deadlocked, Amazon simply turned off the buttons that allowed customers to order Macmillan titles, in both their print and their e-book versions….
In 1978, 43 firms made and sold beer in the US, with the biggest controlling less than a quarter of the market. Today, more than 1,750 companies make beer in this country but Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors control 90% of the market. Harper’s asserts that this gives them the ability to decide which small brewers survive, and quotes a microbrewer: “When I want to get my beer on a store shelf, I don’t call the retailer. I have to beg Anheuser-Busch.”
In the 1980s, there were more than a dozen large ad agencies and scores of smaller ones on Madison Avenue. Today four—WPP, Interpublic, Omnicom, and Publicis—control almost the entire industry. “WPP alone controls more than 300 ad agencies, including such once iconic shops as the Grey Group, Ogilvy & Mather, and Hill & Knowlton. And the four giants vigorously shore up this power with strict non-compete employment contracts.”
Musicians are being squeezed by Live Nation, doctors by hospital management corporations. Retailing is concentrating into a few mega-box chains. The list just keeps going.
April 7th, 2011
By: Douglas McIntyre
For most Americans, it is unimaginable that the U.S. could put its iconic properties on the market. But as the nation struggles to balance its balance sheet, should the federal government take a look at selling some of its most valuable assets?
It wouldn’t be the first time that a large nation has pondered taking such drastic steps in recent years. Just two years ago, the Greeks and the British probably never would have thought that some of their famed assets would hit the auction block.
But since then, Greece has been saddled with such onerous budget restrictions due to E.U. bailout guarantees that some have suggested that it sell some of its popular islands. A number of the country’s politicians are attempting to block the transactions. One of the jokes about Greece — which sadly now has some basis in reality — is that it will have to sell the Parthenon. The Greeks don’t find the joke very funny.
The British have also begun the sale of assets, which could eventually include the Royal Mail.
Asset sales by governments have a long history. A large percentage of the geographic area of the United States was acquired through the purchase of land from other governments. In the Louisiana Purchase, Napoleonic France, strapped for cash due to its wars in Europe, sold the United States land that is now part or all of 14 states for the 2010 equivalent of $219 million.
24/7 Wall St. has identified nine U.S. assets that could generate a total of $543 billion — or about a third of the annual budget deficit for the government’s current fiscal year. The list is by no means comprehensive, but shows that the U.S. has salable assets that, in some cases, are worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
Each of the nine assets on this list were compared to private companies or entities that already have established public valuations. For example, to put a value on the U.S. Postal Service, 24/7 Wall St. looked at FedEx (FDX) and United Parcel Service (UPS), and to estimate a sale price for the New York Federal Reserve building, they examined nearby Wall Street real estate. We looked at cash flow and revenue figures when comparable values were not available. We determined the size and dimensions of each asset using U.S. government data, which was taken from dozens of departments and agencies.
It’s worth noting, though: While these nine sales and licensing agreements might make a big dent in a single year’s budget deficit, they wouldn’t balance the budget, and the current federal debt — the overall amount we owe — is around $14 trillion. That $543 billion is just a drop in the bigger bucket — we’d need to find many, many more assets to put on the auction block to significantly reduce the debt. But this is a huge country, and this list is just the tip of the iceberg.
1. New York Federal Reserve Building
Guesstimated price tag: $750 million
Location: Manhattan, New York
U.S. ownership: 87 years
Who should buy it: Donald Trump, SL Green, Tishman Speyer
Why it’s valuable: Location
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York is located in a massive building that takes up an entire block in Manhattan’s Financial District. Construction of the building was completed in 1924. It’s 14 stories tall and features an additional five floors underground. If the bank relocated to less valuable real estate, the government could make a significant amount of money. A recent notice issued by the New York City Department of Finance estimated the building’s value for the 2011 to 2012 tax year to be $88,594,000. While this may be the value for tax purposes, a review of comparable buildings in Manhattan revealed this wold likely be significantly less than its market price. On Madison Avenue, a similar building was sold for just under $1 billion. In all likelihood, considering its location and the historical significance of the building, the government could fetch closer to $750 million from a buyer like Donald Trump or SL Green.
2. Hoover Dam
Guesstimated price tag: $415 million
U.S. ownership: 75 years
Who should buy it: Duke Power, Con Edison, Southern Company
Why it’s valuable: Hydroelectric power
The Hoover Dam includes one of the largest hydroelectric installations in the country. If a company were to purchase the structure, it would most likely do so to privatize the dam and reap the benefits from the sale of the power it generates. According to the Department of the Interior, the average annual net generation for the Hoover Dam from 1947 through 2008 was about 4.2 billion kilowatt-hours. The Energy Information Administration calculates the average retail price of a single kilowatt-hour, as of 2010, at 9.88 cents. That means the energy produced by the dam each year is worth roughly $415 million. Of course, the operators of the power plant must deal with additional, necessary costs, such as flood control. Without the benefit of a profit and loss statement for the dam, one year’s revenue is a reasonable — though quite conservative — valuation.
3. Randolph Air Force Base
Guesstimated price tag: $1 billion
Location: San Antonio, Texas
U.S. ownership: 81 years
Who should buy it: City of San Antonio
Why it’s valuable: Could be converted to a commercial airport
There are many cases of former Air Force bases being converted into commercial airports, including the fields that are now Bangor International in Maine and Southern California Logistics in the Golden State. This usually happens only after a base has been closed, but there’s no reason to believe the government wouldn’t sell an operating base in an area where it could get a premium price for it. According to the Census Bureau, San Antonio is the fourth fastest-growing city in the U.S. The metropolis also happens to have a nation-high three Air Force bases within its city limits. Randolph AFB has two substantial runways capable of supporting all but the largest jetliners. Incorporating the costs the city of San Antonio would have to sustain to upgrade facilities and build a new terminal, Randolph could be sold for as much as $1 billion.
4. Naming Rights to the Grand Canyon
Guesstimated price tag: $1 billion
U.S. ownership: Became a national monument 103 years ago
Who should buy it: Large international brand
Why it’s valuable: Brand recognition
It’s very common for large venues, like stadiums and convention centers, to sell naming rights for tens of millions of dollars. The new Citi Field in New York (formerly the Met’s Shea Stadium) sold naming rights to Citigroup for $400 million. The U.S. government would likely get much more for a major national attraction like the Grand Canyon, which has more than twice as many visitors each year as Citi Field, and has the added branding value of being a major national landmark. This trend could spread to any of the hundreds of national monuments in the U.S., such as Mount Rushmore or the Washington Monument.