Pluralistic: One weird trick to make monopolies self-destruct (08 Dec 2022)

Today's links

The Google 'Googleplex' office by night. It has been split in two by a giant axe, whose handle is emblazoned with the Wall Street 'raging bull' statue.

One weird trick to make monopolies self-destruct (permalink)

Kim Stanley Robinson's 2020 novel Ministry For the Future was a groundbreaking work: it's the tale of a detailed, plausible transition from a world on a collision course with civilization-ending climate catastrophe to one where the challenge is met, with humanity collectively deciding to save itself:

Robinson's book is important: it not only disproves the (variously attributed) capitalist realism aphorism that "it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism" – it also imagines the means by which that ending was brought about.

It's a tale of what I've called "The Swerve": the day we stop listening to the first class passengers at the front of the bus that's barreling towards a cliff, rush the driver and yank the wheel before we go over the edge:

Since the book's publication, it has been the subject of intense ferment, such as the excellent Crooked Timber seminar on the book's strengths, flaws, and future:

The latest project inspired by the book comes from NESTA and The Prospect: "Minister For the Future" is a series of policy proposals to someone holding that office, as proposed in Robinson's novel, for dealing with inequality, food, demographics, networks, mental health, automation, pandemics, health, and other subjects:

I also contributed a piece: "Enticing monopolies to unwind themselves," which addresses the existential risk of monopolies: when monopolies reign, it is all but impossible to make good policy, because the monopolists can outbid all comers and turn every truth-seeking exercise into an auction that they win:

That is, after all, the story of the climate emergency itself: a handful of giant firms colluding to distort science, delay action – and risk billions of lives to make trillions of dollars. Monopolies create superdense concentrations of power that, like a black hole, warp the normal rules:

The best time to tackle monopolies would have been 40 years ago, when all over the world, regulators stopped enforcing anti-monopoly law. The second best time is now. Lucky for us, antitrust regulators now have the bit between their teeth and have vowed to halt the march towards market concentration, blocking mergers rather than waving them through:

They've also promised to take on the existing monopolies which now rule over their regulators, hurting us in a million ways with utter
impunity, and to unwind the predatory acquisitions and anti-competitive mergers that produced so much concentration in so many industries:

But while breaking up monopolies is important work, it's also slow work. It took 69 years to break up AT&T!

Blocking future monopolies without ending existing ones is a huge risk. Any monopoly in an industrial supply chain can destroy the smaller firms it buys from and sells to. Think of how Big Pharma's mergers let it gouge hospitals on drug prices, leading to regional hospital monopolies that had the bargaining power to push back. But then those hospitals turned around and started screwing insurers, who also formed regional monopolies in order to defend themselves from price-gouging.

In the end, monopoly leads to monopoly, with workers and consumers at either end of the supply chain, unorganized and vulnerable, which is why health workers make less money under worse conditions and patients spend more money for worse care. It's not enough to prevent future monopolies – we also have to break up the ones that are all around us.

How can we make that happen without waiting 69 years while the monopolists use their vast cash reserves and influence to delay the reckoning? That's where my proposal comes in.

I am old enough to remember when corporate raiders took over companies in order to break them up and sell them for parts, rather than merging them into monopolies. Rapacious, remorseless finance assholes once stalked the corporate world, shattering firms with impunity.

What if we brought those monsters out of retirement for one more job?

My proposal is simple: a two-year capital gains tax holiday on profits from unwinding any 21st century merger involving a firm with more than £10b in market cap: "Watch them do in months what decades of courtroom grinding couldn’t hope to accomplish."

This is a very Ministry For the Future kind of idea – one of the novel's subplots involves bribing oil companies to leave oil in the ground by buying up all their stranded assets, and swallowing the galling proposition of giving still more money to the people who wrecked the planet.

I'm ambivalent about my proposal for the same reason I was ambivalent about Robinson's stranded-assets thought-experiment. But the last time I talked with Robinson, he shrugged and said, "We'll just take it all back with a wealth tax."

The whole "Minister" package is a fascinating one, and there is something extremely refreshing about imagining a post-Swerve future, where high officials are bent on actually addressing our most urgent problems, backed by an unstoppable political will.

(Image: Sam Valadi, CC BY 2.0; Jimmy Baikovicius, CC BY-SA 2.0, modified)

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Email that won’t travel more than 500 miles

#20yrsago Tied to a tree for failing to pay utility bills in Azerbaijan

#10yrsago Pret fires longstanding employee who attempted to unionise, asked for the London Living Wage for all employees

#10yrsago Sony ceases production on cassette player/recorders

#5yrsago Square dancing was a racist hoax funded by Henry Ford to get white people to stop dancing to black music

#5yrsago Ajit Pai says an informed public (not Net Neutrality) will discipline ISPs (BTW, he’s also killing the rules forcing ISPs to inform the public)

#5yrsago Here are some of the lavish, lobbyist-funded parties that Congress and the Trump administration will attend this month

#5yrsago Share of national wealth held by America’s 1% hits 50-year high

#5yrsago Bosses seed Silicon Valley Christmas parties with models who impersonate fellow employees, after briefing them with back-stories

#5yrsago Congressman Trent Franks [R-AZ] resigns amidst accusations that he pressured his female staff to bear his children as surrogate mothers

#1yrago How elite hobbies let billionaires pay no tax

#1yrago Broken Promises: The Writers Guild of America West makes the case for media un-consolidation

#1yrago All the books I reviewed in 2021

Colophon (permalink)

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