Economic Update: Competition and Monopoly in Capitalism



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Capitalism's growing problems (inequalities, instabilities, unsustainability etc.) lead some defenders to argue that the cause is monopoly displacing competition in many  industries. We disagree: capitalism's history is oscillations between competition and monopoly, each causing the other. Capitalism is the problem, not its oscillating forms.

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 This transcript has been edited for clarity. 


Welcome, friends, to another edition of Economic Update, a weekly program devoted to the economic dimensions of our lives – jobs, debts, incomes, all of that – as it affects us, our families, our children, now and into the future. I'm your host, Richard Wolff. 

Today I'm going to devote the program to something many of you have asked me to present, to talk about, to analyze, and that is the question of monopoly. It has to do with the assertions we hear often these days that somehow our capitalist system, here in the United States and beyond, is being negatively affected because monopolies have replaced or displaced competition. The idea here is if only we can get competition back, recreate a competitive capitalism, why then the problems we face will go away. Today's program is a design to show you how and why that is not the case, to think about these things in a different way from this nice story that capitalism is basically fine; it's just the monopoly form we have to get rid of so we get back to the competition which we're all supposed to believe is wonderful and presents us with no problems to solve. So let's go, and let's do it in a systematic way.

First, it is of course easier, faced with a declining capitalism, a capitalism that's all around us with its extreme inequalities, with its instabilities – here we are, trying to cope with the effects of the Great Crash of 2008, even while we anticipate the next downturn coming down the road soon – an economic system that has shown (that is, capitalism) that it is not respectful of the natural environment; it is not, as the words now go, sustainable in a reasonable way. Yeah, we're surrounded by problems of capitalism. So it's comforting in that situation to get the idea from somewhere that this really isn't a problem of capitalism as a system but rather the problem brought in somehow from the outside – monopoly – a situation in which competition among many companies gives way in some way we're not quite sure about to a domination by one or a small handful of companies. And so the argument goes, we don't have to be critical of capitalism; we don't have to think about an alternative system. No, no, we just have to deal with this little detail, the monopoly problem. And if we can deal with that, well, we'll get back to a competition, to a competitive capitalism that is good.

There are three big mistakes involved in this way of thinking, which is nonetheless very widespread and very popular, more so now than in quite some years. First mistake: Capitalism has been wrestling with the problem of monopoly from day one. We have had repeated periods of monopoly. They have eventually led to movements, often of many people, to destroy or remove monopoly. We used to call that in America trust-busting, or antitrust. We even have a department within the Department of Justice in Washington devoted to antitrust activities. Yeah, we've been waging battles against monopoly over and over again, and you know why? Because we keep having monopolies over and over again. Google is a monopoly. Amazon is a monopoly. They're all around us: companies that have effectively no real competition. This is a problem that capitalism has always displayed. And that ought to lead you to wonder whether thinking about it as something we can do away with isn't maybe the best possible example of wishful thinking.

The second big mistake is to imagine that competition is some unmixed blessing. It never was, and it isn't today. A competitive market is a human institution. Like every other human institution, it has strengths, and flaws, and weaknesses. To think of competition as some magical perfection is a silly abnegation of your own rational capability to evaluate something. It's sort of advertising thinking. By that, I mean the advertiser tells you what's good about the product they've been told to advertise; they don't tell you what's bad about it. If you want to evaluate it, you don't talk to an advertiser because they only give you one side. The people who promote competition use advertising logic. We're not going to do that here. Competition is no unmixed blessing.

And finally, I'm going to show you that competition is itself the major cause of monopoly. So that even if we ever got back to a competitive capitalism, all that would mean is we're back in the process that produces monopoly – as it always has.

All right, so let's begin. I'm going to start with explaining how competition has all kinds of consequences that most of you, like me, don't like, don't want. It's a discussion, if you like, of competition's other side: you know, the part that the advertiser doesn't tell you about.  The used-car salesman who wants you to buy that junk doesn't tell you about what happened last week in the car crash that that was part of, etc., etc.

All right, let's begin. One of the major reasons that American corporations shut down their operations in the United States and moved them to China, among other places, is because of – you guessed it – competition. They wanted to make more money than they had been before. They were afraid of other companies beating them in the competitive game, so they said wow, let's go to China, because there you can pay workers a lot less. There you don't have the same rules to obey. There they don't care that much about pollution as they do here. So we can save on all kinds of costs, and that will allow us to undercut our competitors. Yeah, one of the consequences of competition was the exodus of American companies to other parts of the world, and the enormous unemployment that resulted from it. Yeah, that was a result, among other things, of competition.

Here's another one: Capitalists, employers, seeking to compete with one another, often engage in what we call automation. They bring in machines that are cheaper to use than human laborers, and that gets them a step ahead of their competitors. Okay, if we replace people with machines, we throw those people out of work. That has an impact on them, their self-esteem, their relationship to their spouse, their relationship to their children, their relationship to alcohol – should I continue? What are the social costs of automation? They're huge. They've been documented over and over again. Competition provokes and produces automation.

Let me give you another example: Companies are competing, say, in the food business – you know, trying to get a customer like you or me to buy this kind of cereal rather than another. So they get their labs to go to work, and they discover we can replace wheat, which we used to put in our little flakes, with – Lord help us – some chemical that is cheaper than wheat. We're not going to worry about what that chemical does to your chemistry in your body because we can now lower the price of our cereal, because we're saving on wheat, and undercut the competitor. The human beings who eat this stuff will suffer, now and in the future, but competition left our producer of cereal no choice. 

And in case you think I'm making some up, let me give you some concrete ones. The Boeing Corporation, the major producer of airplanes in this country, is in a crisis as a corporation. You know why? Because the 737 Max crashed a couple of times, killing hundreds of people. And you know why? It turns out they economized on safety measures, and training measures. And you know why they did that? Because they're in a very tight competition with European and other airplane manufacturers, and that leads them – as it usually does – to look to cut corners: that race for, quote, "efficiency." Yeah, it was competition that contributed to those deaths and to that problem. That's competition too. You can't whitewash this story; they're real. One of the ways Amazon beats its competition is it speeds up the work process. It has figured out ways to make people work much more intensely, using up their brains, their muscles, their nerves, in ways that cause real long-term physical damage to working people. That, too, is a result of the competitive effort. 

And you know, it wasn't so long ago that children were part of the labor force. That's right, kids as young as five and six years of age. We were told they have little fingers, you see. They can be more productive than people who are adults with big fat fingers, you know – that doesn't work. And by the way, you should be grateful because poor kids are the ones we hire, and that gives their poor families more income than they would otherwise have. We heard those arguments. Competition, the companies said, required them to use the more productive, and the lower-wage, children rather than adults. So child labor was also a result of competition. It was so ugly and so troubling to so many people that finally there were movements in the United States and many other countries simply to outlaw child labor. So it became a crime for any employer to use a worker who was under 16 or 18 years of age. That was a way in which people said we are not going to allow competition among capitalists to destroy our children. They were recognizing that competition has an awful effect in what it does to children. 

Well, it has many awful effects. So let's be clear: In the history of capitalism, the monopoly problem (which we're going to get to in the second half of today's program) is no worse, it's just different, from the competition problems. Capitalism goes through phases of competition and monopoly, going from one to the other, as I will explain. But we shouldn't bemoan the one in favor of the other, any more than vice-versa. These are neither of them solutions; they are both phases of the problem. And the problem is capitalism, which does its number on us both in the period when it's competitive and in the period when it's monopoly. People who want us to engage one more time in an anti-monopoly crusade are doing something that in the end evades the problem, which is the system – capitalism – not this or that form of that system, such as competition and monopoly.

We've come to the end of the first half of today's Economic Update. This gives me an opportunity to remind you, please, to sign up if you haven't already, to subscribe to our YouTube channel. It's a way easily for you to support us, doesn't cost any money, and it is a big help to us in terms of our reputation and what we can accomplish. Likewise, please make use of our websites. They are there for your communication with us. They are there for you to be able to, with a click of a mouse, to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And finally, a special thanks goes, as always, to our Patreon community for their ongoing enthusiastic support. It means the world to us. My final, very final for this first half, is about a new book that we have just produced and released. It's a follow-up to an earlier volume I have spoken to you about that was called Understanding Marxism. For the same reason, we have now produced a brand-new book, just out, called Understanding Socialism. It is a response, as this program is, to issues, questions, comments you have sent to us in large numbers. It's an attempt to give an overview of the different interpretations of what socialism means, of what happened in countries like Russia and China that tried to create this – the strengths, the weaknesses, the lessons to be learned, what to do, and what not to do. Please, if you're interested and want to follow up, check us out, check the book out:  lulu.com is how you find both books. And I will be right back; stay with us. 

Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today's Economic Update. This program, as I explained, is devoted to the analysis of competition and monopoly as two interactive, sequential phases of capitalism as a system. The first part of the program was devoted mostly to competition, so let's turn now to monopoly. What is the basic definition and criticism of monopoly? Strictly speaking, monopoly is defined simply as a situation in which the producers of a particular commodity – shoes, software programs, haircuts, it doesn't matter – have been reduced to only one. Literally one seller – a monopolist. But in general language, it includes also situations where many producers who once competed with one another have been reduced to only a handful. The strict term for only a handful is "oligopoly," but we don't have to split hairs about this. "Monopoly" will be the word we use for either one or a very small number.

For example, there were once dozens of automobile companies, but very quickly their competition reduced them to basically three for much of the post-World War II period, and you know their names: Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. And likewise there were once many cigarette producers, there were once many television-set producers, and they became very few, whose names, therefore, we all know. 

What's the criticism of a monopoly or oligopoly situation? Again, very simple: The idea is, if there's only one seller of something, that seller can jack up the price way above what he might have otherwise because he doesn't have any competitor. If he had a competitor, if he raised the price, the competitor would get all the business because we'd all go to the competitor who hadn't raised the price rather than buy it at a higher price from the monopolist. So we don't like monopolies, because they can jack up their prices and their profits because they don't have a competitor. And if it's a few, a handful, well then we talk about things like cartels: arrangements when a few get together over dinner, or out on the golf course, and tell us what the price is. If you ever wondered why the prices of different cars, different cigarettes, and so on, are so close to one another – mm-hmm – that's because there are few sellers, and somehow they worked it all out. But the basic criticism is that a monopoly is a situation in which the seller of something jacks the price up way beyond what they could otherwise get because there are no more competitors.

So let's talk about this monopoly problem and where the monopolies come from. Well, the first and most important lesson is this: Competition produces monopoly. It's not something external, imposed on competition. It has nothing to do with human greed or anything else. Are people greedy? You betcha – some more, some less – but that's really a separate matter. It's competition that produces monopoly, and let me show you how that works. In competition, we have, by definition, a whole bunch of producers. They all produce the same thing. They compete with one another, hoping we, the consumer, will buy from one rather than the other. They compete in the quality of what they produce and in the price of what they produce. And we are supposed, as consumers, to go look for the best quality at the lowest price, and to patronize that one who offers that to us better than the others that we could buy from but choose not to.

Okay, that's a fair definition. Now let's follow the logic. Company A produces – however it manages it – a better quality and/or a lower price than Company B. So we all go to Company A. Company B can't find any buyers because it's not competitive. Or to say the same thing in other words, Company A outcompetes Company B. Here's what happens: Company B collapses. Because it can't sell its goods, we're all going to Company A. So Company B sooner or later declares bankruptcy. It can't continue. It lays off its employees, it stops buying inputs, because it can't compete. Good. Now what happens in Company A? Company A says hey, there's a whole bunch of workers that have just lost their job at Company B; they're trained in producing what we produce; let's go hire some of them. And likewise, Company A says, they're not using their computers, or their trucks, or their other inputs. They're going to have to sell them on the secondhand market. We can get some important inputs we need at a lower price than we would have to pay if we bought them new. So what begins to happen is, where before there were two companies, A and B, there's now one larger A, and B has disappeared. Or to say the same thing in simple English, A – the winner in the competitive struggle – eats, absorbs into itself, what's left of Company B.

And this process is repeated over and over, until 30, or 300, companies have become one, or two, or three. That's the result of competition. That's how competition is supposed to work. That's how competition does work. It's important to understand: Monopoly is where competition leads. And as if that weren't enough, let me make sure you understand this from the business point of view: It is the great dream of every entrepreneur to become the last one standing in the competition, to win the competition, not just because it makes you feel good you outmaneuvered your competitors, but because if you're the last one standing, you're the monopolist. The reward for having outcompeted the others is that you're now in a position to jack up the profits, and the prices, way beyond what you could have done before. 

So we have a system that produces monopoly, and all the incentives for every entrepreneur in competition to work as hard as possible to become the monopolist. So why is anyone surprised that monopolies keep happening, because they're the whole point and purpose of capitalist competition. If you ever were – and we never have, but if you ever were – able to get rid of all the monopolies and re-establish competition, all you would be doing is setting this same process in motion again for the umpteenth historical time. In other words, fighting against monopoly is pointless as long as you have capitalism, because it is the endless reproducer of this problem – as it always has been. 

Now, how do monopolies maintain themselves? If you're the only one standing, you're a monopolist. Or you're an oligopoly, you're a few, and you get together and jack up your prices together. The question becomes look, a monopolist makes very high profits – much higher than a competitor can achieve – and isn't that an enormous incentive for other capitalists to get in on that business? Because look at the profits they're earning, because they're the only one. Apple, Amazon, Google – the profits are staggering. Everybody wants to get in. So the way a monopolist has to think is, I've got to create obstacles that block other people from coming in to get a piece of the enormous profits my monopoly allows me to get. We call that in economics "barriers to entry." Monopolists need to create barriers. Let me give you a couple of examples. 

The major soft drink makers in the United States – basically Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola – they produce a drink that has sugar and coloring in it, and lots and lots of water. Let me assure you, there is nothing difficult or complicated about producing a mixture of sugar, color, and water. It doesn't take a genius; it never did. Pepsi and Coca-Cola make a fortune off of their product, as we know, and they have for decades. They have a virtual monopoly. Now, lots of other people could produce water, sugar, and color close to, if not identical with, whatever they produce, but they can't break through. They can't really get to that status. And you know why? Because Coca-Cola and Pepsi erected a barrier to entry. And the way they did that was with advertising. Every billboard, every magazine cover, every doorway of every institution you've ever been to has a picture of smiling, happy people drinking one or the other. You've learned: that's the drink, that's the drink. Another company might make a perfect substitute, but they can't afford the enormous cost of advertising. The advertising costs more than the water, and the sugar, and the color. What you pay for when you buy Pepsi and Coke is the advertising that got you to buy it. You're paying for being hustled. But it works, because it means other companies know that they can't get in there by cheaply producing an alternative, because you have to produce the advertising that goes with it, or else you can't do it. And so their monopoly is maintained. 

Here's another way to maintain a monopoly: Get the government to step in. Here the famous example is the milk producers. Some years ago, there was a crisis with milk. There was contamination; people were getting sick. So the clever milk monopolies came in and said, we're going to support the enormously expensive, special equipment to guarantee pasteurization, and so on, of milk. Why did they support it? Because your small farmer, your small dairy producer, can't afford it, so they go out of business. Only the big, rich few that are left can afford the enormous equipment. They used governmental rules to create a barrier to entry.

Here's another way: corrupt public officials. President Trump denounces Huawei corporation because it compromises our national security. It denounces European car producers because somehow their shipping cars here compromises our security. Who cares? As long as the president blocks other companies from getting into the business that might compete with an American, a barrier to entry exists. Monopolists have been very creative in coming up with ways to preserve their monopolies.

I don't want to lose the basic point. The basic point is: Capitalism oscillates, back and forth between competition and monopoly – first this industry, then that one. For a while, Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler were the monopolies – or the oligopoly, if you like – in automobiles. But eventually, Toyota, and Nissan, and Peugeot, and Fiat broke the monopoly. In that case, it was foreigners who did it. And then we had some competition, and that, then, is now shrinking. The French – the last two producers in France – have just agreed to merge. You get the picture. Industry by industry, first this one, then that one, go through one phase or another. 

The important point is: The phases are not our problem. They merge into, and incentivize, each other. Each provokes movement in the other direction. The point to understand is that the problems of a capitalist system are not about this oscillation of phases. We're not going to solve the problem of monopoly by getting rid of them and re-establishing competition. We've been there; we've done that; it reproduces monopoly; and it doesn't change the basic inequality, unsustainability, instability of capitalism. We need to get beyond that stale, old debate – competition versus monopoly – and face the underlying reality: Capitalism is the problem, and getting beyond it is the solution.

Thank you for your attention. We've come to the end of this program, and I look forward to speaking with you again next week.


Transcript by Marilou Baughman
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