EFFECTS OF MONOPOLY POWER

My last post described the efforts of the big food and agricultural corporations to block the labeling of food that contains genetically modified ingredients. Here are some other examples of the effects of the monopolistic power of large corporations, which is allowed and abetted by crony capitalism. (See my Crony Capitalism = Monopoly Power post for more information.)

Americans pay more for Internet service than do residents of any other developed country and typically get lower speed service. This is largely because for 80% of us our internet service provider (ISP) has a monopoly, i.e., we have no alternative choice for our ISP. This lack of competition allows ISPs to charge monopoly prices for low quality service.

Internet service in the U.S. costs three-and-a-half times more than it does in France, for example, where the typical customer can choose among seven providers. [1] In the U.S., there are just four giant telecom corporations: AT&T (includes DirecTV and U-verse services), Comcast, Charter Communications (includes Time Warner and Bright House), and Dish. They serve focused geographic areas that limit the competition among them and with the next three providers (Verizon, Cox, and Cablevision) who are roughly a third the size of the smallest of the four giants.

The giant U.S. telecom corporations have succeeded in getting 21 states to pass laws barring municipalities from creating or expanding their own, public Internet access, which typically provides cheaper and higher speed service than the commercial providers. In February, 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3 to 2 overrule the state laws that were preventing Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina, from expanding their municipal networks. This occurred soon after the White House’s release of a report on Community-Based Broadband Solutions that explains why escaping from the monopoly power of commercial ISPs is so important. It noted that America’s internet service is too slow, too expensive, and too unreliable to support a 21st century economy, especially in rural areas. [2] Hopefully, the FCC ruling and the White House report will lead to more competition and better service in the ISP business, but you can bet that the big, corporate ISPs will keep fighting in the states, in Congress, at the FCC, and in the courts to maintain their monopolistic power.

Due to limited competition in the airline business, prices are rising despite falling costs. Domestic airfares rose 2.5% over the past year, and are now at their highest levels since the government began tracking them in 1995. Meanwhile fuel prices, the largest single cost for the airlines, have plummeted. This can happen only because there are just four major airlines in the U.S. now (i.e., American, Delta, United, and Southwest) and many airports are served by only one or two. Ten years ago, there were nine major airlines, but the lack of enforcement of anti-trust laws have allowed mergers that have reduced competition. [3]

Similarly, food prices have been rising faster than inflation, while crop prices are now at a six-year low. Here again, the giant corporations that process food have the market power to raise prices due to limited competition. Four food companies control 82% of beef packing, 85% of soybean processing, 63% of pork packing, and 53% of chicken processing.

Because our big banks and financial corporations face limited competition, the interest rates we pay on home mortgages, college loans, and credit cards are higher than they would be if there were more competition. As recently as 2000, America’s six largest banks (JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley) held just 25% of all U.S. banking assets; they now hold 44%. We need to break up these giant financial corporations to increase competition and to protect our economy from the risks that led to the 2008 financial collapse.

Finally, health insurance is costing us more each year, and co-payments and deductibles are rising, because insurers are consolidating into bigger and bigger corporations. There are now only three major health insurers (i.e., Aetna, Anthem, and UnitedHealth) and due to the lack of competition, they have the power to raise prices. They say that mergers make their companies more efficient, but they really just give them more power to charge more and increase profits. This is borne out by the fact that their stock prices are skyrocketing and Standard & Poor’s index of health insurers’ stock prices recently hit its highest level in more than twenty years.

These over-priced goods and services produce a hidden upward redistribution of income from consumers to large corporations and their executives and big shareholders. These monopolistic corporations dominate our telecommunications, banking, air travel, food, health insurance, and other industries. [4] Crony capitalism has allowed the mergers and acquisitions that have built these giant corporations and produces the weak regulation that allows them to wield extensive power in the market place.

As long as the big corporations, their top executives, and wealthy shareholders have the political power to do so, they’ll keep redistributing as much of the nation’s income as they can upward to themselves. We, the American voters, need to assert our political power and stop monopolistic market practices and collusion, break up the giant corporate monopolies, and put an end to the rigging of the American economy.

In this election year, I encourage you to examine candidates’ positions on these issues and vote for candidates who support strengthening enforcement of anti-trust (i.e., anti-monopoly) laws, increasing market place competition, and reducing the power of corporations in our economy and elections.

I’ll share more examples of how and where corporate power and crony capitalism are rigging our economy in subsequent posts.

[1]       Reich, R., 11/1/15, “The Rigging of the American Market” (http://robertreich.org/post/132363519655)

[2]       Estes, A.C., 1/14/15, “Obama’s plan to loosen Comcast’s stranglehold on your Internet,” Gizmodo (http://gizmodo.com/obamas-plan-to-loosen-comcasts-stranglehold-on-your-int-1679463766)

[3]       Reich, R., 11/1/15, see above

[4]       Reich, R., 11/1/15, see above

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