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.