Pluralistic: For 40 years, Big Meat has openly colluded to rig prices (04 Oct 2023)

Today's links

Two men in suits seated next to each other. The younger man is pointing at a brochure. The younger man's head has been replaced with a whole roast chicken. The older man's head has been replaced with a large beef roast. The brochure has been replaced with vintage meat ads. The background is a cropped section of of a high-magnification scan of a US $100 bill, colors faded and shifted.

For 40 years, Big Meat has openly colluded to rig prices (permalink)

Noted socialist agitator Adam Smith once wrote, "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the publick, or in some contrivance to raise prices."

Smith was articulating a basic truth: when an industry becomes concentrated, it grows cozy. Cultural differences between dominant firms are homogenized as top executives move from company to company, cross-pollinating attitudes and approaches. Ambituous, firm-hopping workaholic top brass make all their friends at the office, and so their former colleagues from one or two jobs back remain in their social circles.

Once an industry consists of half a dozen firms, the people running those companies constitute an incestuous financial polycule. They are executors of one another's estates, best men and maids of honor at one anothers' weddings, godparents to each others' kids. They play on the same softball teams and take family vacations together.

It would be heartwarming if it wasn't for the cost to the rest of us. Remember Smith's maxim: "the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the publick, or in some contrivance to raise prices." Class solidarity among corporate executives forms a united front to screw us in every conceivable way, from corrupting our politicians to maiming and cheating workers to gouging buyers.

That's the basis of American antitrust law. When Robert Sherman was stumping for the passage of the Sherman Act, America's first major antitrust law, he thundered "If we will not endure a King as a political power we should not endure a King over the production, transportation, and sale of the necessaries of life. If we would not submit to an emperor we should not submit to an autocrat of trade with power to prevent competition and to fix the price of any commodity":

Or rather, that was the basis of American antitrust law – until the Reagan era, when the fringe theories of the Nixonite criminal Robert Bork were elevated to a new orthodoxy. Under Bork's conception of antitrust, monopolies were evidence of excellence. If a company puts all its competitors out of business, that must mean that it is "efficient."

In Bork's fantasy world, the only way a company could attain dominance is by being so beloved by its customers that every competitor withers away. Governments that bust monopolies aren't protecting the public from "autocrats of trade"; they're overthrowing the winners of an election where you "vote with your wallet" to pick the best company.

But Bork and his co-fantasists couldn't quite manage all that with a straight face. They grudgingly admitted that a certain kind of bad monopolist could hypothetically exist, one that used its "market power" to raise prices or lower quality. Only when these offenses against our "consumer welfare" occurred should the state step in to protect its people.

This may sound good in theory, but in practice, it was a dead letter. The consumer welfare test isn't as simple as "If prices go up after a merger, punish the company." Instead, the government had to prove that the price raises came from "market power," and not from an increase in energy or labor costs, or some other "exogenous factor," like Mercury being in retrograde:

And wouldn't you know it, it turns out that the mathematical models prescribed to distinguish greed from unavoidable circumstance inevitably "prove" that the monopolist wasn't at fault. Surely, it's just just a coincidence that the priesthood that understood how to make and interpret these models were Chicago School Economists who sold model-making as a service to companies that wanted to raise prices.

Pro-monopoly economists insist that this isn't true, and that their theory still has room to prosecute bad monopolies and cartels where they occur – more, they say this is already happening. In particular, they insist that "greedflation" can't be real, because it would require the kind of conspiracy that Smith warned of, and that their sickly antitrust enforcement is sufficient to prevent:

This strains credulity. After all, the CEOs of giant companies in concentrated industries openly boast to their shareholders about how they've used the covid and Ukraine invasion shocks to hike prices to increase their profit margins – not just cover their additional costs:

While excuseflation is new, open, naked price-fixing by industry cartels is not. Take the meat-packing industry, dominated by a tiny handful of giant corporations whose executives literally ran a betting pool on how many of their workers would get covid each week while working in their cramped, unventilated factories:

These companies have seen their margins soar – up 300% over the lockdown – while their payments to ranchers and growers cratered:

All this might leave one wondering whether there isn't something a little, you know, "conspiracy against the publick"-y going on in Big Meat?

Let me tell you about Agri Stats. Agri Stats has been around since 1985. Every large meat packer pays to be a "member" of Agri Stats, and they each submit weekly, detailed statistics about every aspect of their business: all their costs, all their margins, broken out by category. Agri Stats compiles this into phone-book-thick books that each member gets every week, telling them everything about how all of their competitors are running their businesses:

The companies whose data appears in this book are anonymized, but it's trivial to re-identify each supplier. Tyson execs hold regular "naming process" meetings where they go through new books and de-anonymize the data. A Butterball exec confirmed that he "can pick the companies for rankings with 100% certainty."

As David Dayen writes in The American Prospect, these books are incredibly detailed: "bird weights, freezer inventory, and 'head killed per operating hour.'" Within the cozy meat cartels, Agri Stats acts as a clearinghouse that allows every business in the industry to act in concert, running the entire meat-packing sector as a single company:

As interesting as the list of Agri Stats members is, the groups that don't get to see Agri Stats' "books" is just as important: "farmers, workers, or retailers." Agri Stats also offers consulting services to its members. As an exec at pork processor Smithfield put it, Agri Stats advice boils down to four words "Just raise your price."

Agri Stats ranks its members based on how high their prices are – they literally publish a league table with the highest prices at the top. Meat packers pay bonuses to their execs based on how high the company's rank is on that table. Agri Stats meets with its members throughout the year to discuss "price opportunities" and to advise them to "exercise restraint" by restricting supply to keep prices up. When one Agri Stats member considered leaving the cartel, Agri Stats wooed them back by telling them how to make an additional $100k by raising bacon prices.

The reason Dayen is writing about Agri Stats now is that the DoJ Antitrust Division has brought an antitrust suit against them. This is part of a wave of antitrust actions brought by Biden's DoJ and FTC, who, along with his NLRB, are shaping up to be the most pugnacious, public-interest force against corporate power since the Reagan administration:

All this enforcement isn't a coincidence. It comes from an explicit rejection of neoliberalism's core tenets: inequality reflects merit, monopolies are efficient, and government can't do anything. In Biden's DoJ, FTC and NLRB, they're partying like it's 1979:

What's amazing about the Agri Stats conspiracy to raise prices is that it's been going since the Reagan administration. It's a smoking gun proof that "consumer welfare" never cared about price-fixing and robbing the public (can a gun still smoke after 40 years?). There was never a time when consumer welfare antitrust cared about consumer welfare. It was always and forever a front for "a conspiracy against the publick," a "contrivance to raise prices."

Big Meat has been robbing America for two generations. Some of those stolen funds were used to corrupt our political process. The meat sector gets $50 billion in public subsidies and still gouges us on prices and rips off its suppliers:

Which means that it's possible that we're simultaneously being ripped off with meat prices and that meat prices are artificially low. Try and wrap your head around that one!

The do-nothing, pro-monopoly neoliberal antitrust is a virus that spread around the world. The EU's antitrust laws were reshaped to mirror American laws after the war through the Marshall Plan, but since the late 1970s, European lawmakers and enforcers have ignored their own laws (just like their American counterparts) and encouraged monopolies as "efficient."

This Made-in-Europe oligopoly, combined with energy and grain shocks from Russian invasion of Ukraine, created the perfect storm for European greedflation. As food prices spiked across the EU, Austrian hacktivist Mario Zechner set out to investigate Austrian grocers' pricing. Using the grocers' own APIs, he was able to compile and analyze a dataset of prices at Austrian grocers:

When Zechner open-sourced his project, collaborators showed up to expand the project across other EU countries, and an anonymous party donated a huge database of prices stretching back to 2017. The data reveals clear collusion among the grocers, who raise prices in near-lockstep, and use gimmicks like cyclic price drops to hide their collusion:

Not every grocer has an API, and even the ones that do have APIs could easily block Zechner and co from accessing their data. When that happens, they could – and should – turn to scraping to continue their project. They should also scrape grocers elsewhere, including in Canada, where grocers rigged the price of bread:

Because Big Meat's "conspiracy against the publick" isn't unique to meat. It's in all our food, it's in all our goods, it's in all our services. The fact that the meat industry was able to rob American buyers, ranchers and farmers for two generations under a 200' tall neon sign that blinked "AGRI STATS AGRI STATS AGRI STATS" night and day is frankly astonishing.

But there's never just one ant. If the meatheads running Big Meat were able to do this in broad daylight since the NES years, imagine what all the other industries were able to get up to in the shadows.

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago DRM standards, the harmonica version

#10yrsago Firefox bug: “Pledge never to implement HTML5 DRM”

#10yrsago London School of Economics: piracy isn’t killing big content; government needs to be skeptical of entertainment industry claims

#5yrsago New Macbooks and Imacs will brick themselves if they think they’re being repaired by an independent technician

#5yrsago Advisor quits Google Toronto’s “smart city” project over privacy concerns

#5yrsago Tomorrow: come to our University of Chicago seminar on Renaissance censorship and internet censorship

#5yrsago America’s cities sue FCC for handing billions in municipal subsidy to wireless carriers

#5yrsago The first science fiction con was held in 1891 at the Royal Albert Hall

#5yrsago America’s super-concentrated telcoms industry unites to sue California over Net Neutrality law

#5yrsago Iowa gun distributor sends free AR-15s to North Dakota high schools

#5yrsago Ikea locked workers into a room and forced them to watch “scaremongering” anti-union powerpoints

#5yrsago Report: Chinese spies snuck tiny backdoor chips onto US corporate, government and military servers

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Jsha.

Currently writing:

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS JAN 2025

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS FEB 2024

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

Latest podcast: How To Think About Scraping
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest books:

Upcoming books:

  • The Lost Cause: a post-Green New Deal eco-topian novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias, Tor Books, November 2023

  • The Bezzle: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about prison-tech and other grifts, Tor Books, February 2024

  • Picks and Shovels: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about the heroic era of the PC, Tor Books, February 2025

  • Unauthorized Bread: a graphic novel adapted from my novella about refugees, toasters and DRM, FirstSecond, 2025

This work – excluding any serialized fiction – is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Medium (no ads, paywalled):

(Latest Medium column: "How the Writers Guild sunk AI's ship: No one's gonna buy enterprise AI licenses if they can't fire their workers"

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla