The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Matt Stoller Writes BIG: Anti-Trust

Matt was one of the writers at BOPNews, in what seems like a long time ago now. He also wrote for MyDD for years. After that he, among other things, spent time on the Hill as a Congressional aide, to learn how politics and governance actually works.

He left and joined an anti-trust think tank, Open Markets Institute, and in January he started an email newsletter about anti-trust issues.

I’ve been reading it, and it’s good. Matt’s knowledge is encyclopedic, and he writes clearly and well. Matt’s chosen “bigness,” which is to say concentrations of power as the, er, big, issue he’s going to devote himself to defeating, and he’s spent years learning everything about it.

So, you can read BIG’s back issues here, and if you scroll to the bottom, you can sign up for the emails. Matt’s also on Twitter and quite active. You can follow him at @matthewstoller

Matt’s a friend, to be clear, but I don’t push even my friends stuff if I don’t think it’s good. This list is far beyond good, it is excellent and will give you an education you can’t get anywhere else.

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Simple Decision Making


Open Thread


  1. nihil obstet

    Matt Stoller has been very good on the problems of concentration of power. His solution has been competition, particularly competitive markets. I’m having trouble always following him there. He has also occasionally written against concentration of power in government.

    In a market society, competition favors those who make it the cheapest and offer some real or imagined benefit (don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle!) to the buyer at the time of the sale. That won’t always set us towards the kind of society we want. This is obviously true with health care. Who wants more competitive insurance companies? It’s true with a lot of other things as well. Once upon a time, you could get the phone number of anyone with phone service. Now, unless I’m missing something, getting in touch with someone who isn’t on the same social platform as yourself or whose number you’ve already programmed into your phone is difficult. It’s like having different sets of roads that don’t connect with each other.

    And that brings up another problem with competition. Its vaunted efficiency is largely externalizing a lot of costs, such as the time to navigate confused and confusing markets. There are winners and losers. We are taught that the winners deserve to win and the losers deserve to lose, so it’s all fair and just. However, what if you’ve spent years of your life and thousands of your dollars to learn a skill set that economic predictors said would give you a decent financial life, but you graduate when the field is hurting and you end up in a “Want fries with that?” job? Having lots and lots and lots of applicants for a single job is regarded as a coup for a business, but think about the time for people to apply and for the HR department to review the applications. I recently read that top university science researchers rarely do research. They spend all their time writing grant applications. It’s competitive. A good success rate is to get one grant approved out of five applied for. Is that really efficient?

    The problems with capitalist monopoly are clear. Simply putting goods and services into the hands of smaller capitalist organizations doesn’t strike me as a clear solution.

  2. Hugh

    What we are increasingly getting are not just horizontal monopolies but horizontal and vertical ones. So a Bezos can use his platforms at Amazon to scope out any potential competition or new idea and either buy it up or squeeze it out. Or a Disney can decide that it wants to use its platforms (cable and TV channels) to favor and advertise Disney owned and produced products and content, also squeezing out any independently produced content or making it easier to buy: we buy you or you go under. Or we have the big telecoms dedicated to selling us the worst service at the highest price possible. Or we have big pharma with its opioids and patent-gaming. Or big media which has effectively killed local newspapers. Their mantra is raise prices, reduce content until advertisers and subscribers abandon them entirely.

    I agree too with nihil obstet. Competition is good if it occurs in a well regulated market fulfilling some socially useful function. But it is not a cure-all in and of itself. And it is not an absolute. It does not need to be maximized. All we really need is some level of competition, or efficiency, both well below the some hypothesized maximal.

  3. bruce wilder

    Matt Stoller has been very good on the problems of concentration of power. His solution has been competition, particularly competitive markets. I’m having trouble always following him there.

    Yeah — me, too.

    I wish he would stop already with the rhetoric of “market power” and “market concentration”.

    It isn’t just a matter of taste. Historically, antitrust enforcement was fatally undermined by the market framing, where it was all about “market competition” and “market price”. The Chicago School economists grabbed a hold of some very weak thinking and ad hoc storytelling about “markets, markets, markets” and managed to confound the whole thing.

    Stoller knows this, I think, but he does not seem to fully realize how much it matters that the analysis has to explicitly reject the market metaphor frame and embrace the reality of hierarchies of power and bureaucratic rule-making and control.

    I read some of his essay on Hollywood Media giants and how they eliminate “competition” by making rules and exercising bureaucratic control — it was really good and full of insight. He was pointing out how the ability of creatives to bear risk and responsibility is subverted along with feedback from consumers when Netflix makes a rule that it will buy only two seasons of original programming: a creative who scores a hit never gets the big payday, which is arguably good for Netflix, but bad for the rest of us. And, arguably it enables Netflix to control its subscription price, which makes it hard to make counterfactual arguments that this practice is equivalent to “raising” prices, when it is a strategy aimed at depressing the price Netflix pays for Hit shows.

    “Big” can be a good frame, but it cannot be about being a literal market monopolist, the “only” seller, because no firm is ever the “only” seller in any meaningful sense. And, it is rarely the issue anyway. It is about the political power generated by bureaucratic firms of great scope owning and unifying strategic control of what ought to be independent business firms — not just rivals in product markets, but the whole multi-dimensional networks of intertwined businesses that make up the Media or Finance sectors.

    I read a piece Stoller wrote on Hollywood and it was really good, with a lot of insight into how firms like Netflix or Disney strategically try to make and enforce rules that subvert the ability of anyone to take risks and responsibility for creating genuinely good product (as judged by consumers) and realizing rewards for it. It is about rules, bureaucracy, feedback and control in an economic system where there really are very few actual “markets” in products or services.

  4. Tom

    Speaking of Disney, anyone get the feeling George Lucas purposely sold his Studio in a long game bid to take it over?

    Given the screwups by Kathleen Kennedy in pissing off the fanbase with SJW nonsense, including its significant women fanbase to the point Lucasfilm has yet to turn Disney a profit, I think George knew what he was doing.

    It also helps George Lucas is now the second largest single shareholder of Disney after the estate of Steve Jobs. So if Episode IX fails to win back the fans which is likely, George is positioned to take over and laugh all the way to the bank. He’ll then come out of Semi-retirement and go listen here noobs, here is how we get the fans back.

  5. Ian Welsh

    The tentpole Star Wars movies did very well. They made money. Accounting that shows otherwise is BS, and standard in the industry, which is why you NEVER take a cut of “net.” Tolkein’s estate learned this the hard way, and are very very bitter about it.

    The Solo movie underperformed, unfortunately (to me, I liked it.)

  6. “In a market society, competition favors those who make it the cheapest and offer some real or imagined benefit…”

    That may be so today, in the day of the “milennials,” but it has not always been so. Competition in a healthy market favors the company that offers the best value, which is a balance between price and quality, and while sells a real benefit instead of an imaginary one. At one time we had informed and intelligent consumers which could constitute such a market, but today’s consumer is neither intelligent ot informed.

  7. Tom

    I don’t know what accounting you’re looking at Ian, but in terms of initial investment, merchandising, the cost of the films, and the declining sales of merchandise, and loss of the hardcore fanbase, Star Wars isn’t making Disney money especially with its theme park flopping.

    You may argue they are breaking even, but that is a stretch and Iger knows it, which is why he does all the Star Wars announcements now. Kennedy is now merely a figurehead Iger can’t fire because no one wants to clean up her mess as it means firing half of Lucasfilm just to even begin winning back fans. Abrams is a good director and had he kept control of VIII and Rebels hadn’t botched its tone, much less Resistance turning into an utter flop, things would be far better.

    But the damage is done due to Rian Johnson’s reckless manner of throwing out everything Abrams set up and in a rather stupid way that retcons the previous movie. Iger has one chance to save the Franchise with Abrams Hail Mary on IX. It flops, Iger can kiss his career goodbye.

    I hope Abrams can get the Franchise back on track, and IX succeeds, but unfortunately I think the damage has already been done by Rian and Kennedy pissing off the fans.

    Marvel is outperforming the Star Wars Franchise simply because they ruthlessly purge out the SJWs, subvert expectations in the correct way, and punish the few failures severely and publicly enough that fans aren’t turned off from the overarching narrative. Too bad Marvel’s head didn’t take over the Star Wars Franchise and bring its model into it, and looked into reincorporating Legends material up to TPM back into the canon and doing more anthologies to re-energize the fans.

  8. Ian Welsh

    Not going to go back and forth on i much more because it doesn’t matter that much to me. Perhaps you’re right.

    But what I’ve seen in terms of numbers looks good. Marvel is outperforming everyone right now, so being behind them isn’t that big a deal.

    I have no personal care. I though JJ’s movie was pretty boring, and haven’t even watched episode 8. What I heard of the world (not story) choices I didn’t like, it seemed to break lore. I’m pretty happy with just keeping the canon in my head to episodes 4-6, honestly. 1-3 were pretty bad also.

    But despite all that, they did sell a hell of a lot of tickets, etc…

  9. someofparts

    Well, as usual, the Scandinavians show us what it looks like when things are done right:

    “In the last century, Scandinavians, aiming for their egalitarian goal, refused to settle solely for any of the ideologies competing for power—not capitalism or fascism, not Marxist socialism or communism. Geographically stuck between powerful nations waging hot and cold wars for such doctrines, Scandinavians set out to find a middle path. That path was contested—by socialist-inspired workers on the one hand, and by capitalist owners and their elite cronies on the other—but in the end, it led to a mixed economy. Thanks largely to the solidarity and savvy of organized labor and the political parties it backed, the long struggle produced a system that makes capitalism more or less cooperative, and then redistributes equitably the wealth it helps to produce. Struggles like this took place around the world in the 20th century, but the Scandinavians alone managed to combine the best ideas of both camps while chucking out the worst.”

  10. Temporarily Sane

    Star Wars….meh, and super hero movies (yawn). Movies, at least the Hollywood variety, have become lame and devoid of imagination. Endless rehashing of yesterday’s blockbusters and a nonstop parade of comic book fantasy flicks for 12-year-old boys. Just another summer in an infantilized and declining culture.

  11. bruce wilder

    Movies, at least the Hollywood variety, have become lame and devoid of imagination.

    Stoller makes a pretty good case for why this performance outcome is a product of highly centralized structures of corporate strategic control. These can be both common ownership in one international behemoth or highly structured networks and ecologies where critical nodes/niches are dominated or manipulated by clever rule-making.

    The larger point Stoller makes is that risk-bearing responsibility and feedback are transferred away from creative and talented people who might try something, because they have genuine art, and in order to concentrate financial returns and top executive pay, low-risk strategies are executed by “the suits” and the result is formulaic, lots of sequals, etc.

    Just another summer in an infantilized and declining culture.

    Indeed. Just noticing that this isn’t a case of Friedmanite consumer sovereignty.

  12. nihil obstet

    If the consumer were sovereign, there would be no commercials on TV.

    Capitalists direct consumer choice in a number of ways. They trade off what the consumer actually wants with what they want the consumer to have. They restrict choices. They use all the techniques of propaganda to create desire.

  13. Chipper

    I have come to think of concentration of power (whether corporate or individual or institutional) as the biggest problem we currently face, because it prevents us from solving so many other problems (these days, it seems it’s preventing us from solving ANY problems).

    Matt Stoller wrote what I consider one of the most interesting things I’ve read in recent years (because I’m a bit to young to have understood what was happening politically in the mid-70s), an article in the Atlantic about how the Democratic party stopped fighting monopolies with the election of the Watergate Babies in 1974. Arguably that’s how long it took us as a society to forget the Great Depression and the lessons we learned from it.

    I do agree with nihil obstet that competition isn’t this magical solution we’ve all been taught it is. There are many cases where a regulated monopoly works better than competition, for example, but what I’d really like to see is non-capitalist solutions to the problems we as a society face. How crazy is it as a society to have vast numbers of luxury condos sitting empty because they were bought as investments while other people are homeless or struggle to pay their rent? It makes no sense to run things this way.

  14. Chipper

    Correction: a bit TOO young

    Why is it that I notice my typos right after submitting?

  15. atcooper

    Pixar is my favorite example of the phenomena described. They were largely unstoppable, keeping US animation alive and vital, and then they were bought by Disney. Took a few years, and then it was mostly sequels to franchises that had been created in their primacy.

    I’m glad Stoller decided to slow his pace in putting the articles out. His early pacing seemed over much.

  16. bruce wilder

    @ Chipper

    I am old enough to remember the politics of the 1970s and I agree Stoller’s Atlantic article is very good. Stoller’s knowledge — or simply awareness — of history is an antidote to the amnesia peddled by the propaganda machine which is the normal of corporate political news.

    I do not think I had much awareness or understanding in the 1970s of the political seachange that was ensuing. Like a lot of people, I had a sense of Watergate as the small-c political constitution kicking in to right the ship of state. I worked as an intern for a Congress critter with a seat on the House Banking committee in the Summer of 1975 and though repeal of Glass-Steagall was already being pressed by the incredibly sophisticated lobbying operation of the American Bankers Association (I think that is the right name for that business association, don’t diss me if working from memory fails me.), I thought resistance was holding firm. The ABA, I remember, had a database of every Congress person and most of the senior Congressional staffs, including such details as who their college roommates were — that was a trick they loved to use: have the college roommate call the Member or Staff to advocate for the Banks! They were that good.

    But, there was still a great diversity of financial institutions and institution types in 1975. It was not five or six holding companies or Universal Banks dominating the entire financial sector with half of banking assets. Congress critters played insurance companies off against the stock brokers and mutual funds, and savings and loans off against the commercial banks, the small banks against the inter-state “giants” and big city money-center banks, and so on. The Congress critter would do an inconsequential favor for a lobbyist (in say, sponsoring a bill or forwarding it to subcommittee), collect a modest campaign contribution and continue to keep his or her own counsel on actually passing legislation into law.

    In 1975, in the period Stoller recounts, the younger Democratic Members of Congress revolted against the seniority system, displacing some of the long-serving Southern populist New Dealers. One of these was Wright Patman, from the Texas first district, who was the longest-serving Member at that time, the Dean of the House, and had been Chairman of the House Banking Committee forever. He was displaced as chairman by Henry Reuss, a non-entity.

    Wright Patman was an author of the Robinson-Patman Act of 1935(?), a cornerstone of New Deal antitrust legislation. The Robinson-Patman Act regulated what a small or independent wholesaler or retailer pays for goods, and how far a manufacturer or large distributor can go in disadvantaging the small lot buyer, arranging for kickbacks and so. It is a remarkably vague statute, a model of constructive ambiguity; an important ethical topic for corporate lawyers in the 1970s was exactly how to handle a client who was arguably in violation of the Robinson-Patman, since it was both hard to say definitively if conduct violated the act and yet the ambiguity made large businesses liable to civil suits. In practice, I think, it did a lot to even the playing field for independent retailers and wholesalers against large manufacturers who want to control distribution directly. Not by drawing bright lines, but by failing to, and giving the “little guy” some recourse to political power in the law. Any way I digress.

    I did see Reuss and Patman chair a Banking Committee investigatory hearing — probably it was a subcommittee, technically; I do not remember such details. When Reuss left the room, Patman as senior member took the gavel. It was night and day in that room. The bankers testifying were visibly shaken to have Patman grill them. Under Reuss, it was all b.s. The bankers testifying knew the rules on time, and would run out the clock avoiding answers, and that’s when the questions were well-prepared, which they often were not. Under Patman, there were no rules on time if the witness failed to answer. All of a sudden, answers were short and to the point. Patman had power and knew how to wield it and wanted to wield it on the behalf of ordinary people not otherwise represented in that room. Reuss had no power and did not know it or understand why it mattered.

  17. bruce wilder

    @ Chipper

    The 1970’s shift in political consciousness that unleashed elite power based in business corporations is a big topic, with many aspects and connections.

    I really like Adam Curtis’ BBC documentary, Hypernormalization, for the way he makes some of those connections between the political culture and the exercise of power. I think it is on YouTube. A different way of contemplating how political culture works, but worth trying to absorb, I think.

  18. Willy

    There are many interacting ingredients mostly involving the common culture and the typical power centers, making up the shit pie that’s being served. Human historically, again. It’d probably be easiest to itemize them all the way a cookbook might, by name and quantity.

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