Reviewed by Brian Tanguay
If you have flown on a commercial airline, rented a car, purchased tickets to a concert or sporting event, or shopped for an internet service provider, you have, knowingly or not, been exposed to a functional monopoly. You might think that American consumers have almost unlimited choices in products, services, and providers, but, as David Dayen argues in his latest book, Monopolized: Life In The Age of Corporate Power, choice is largely an illusion.
After decades of deregulation, mergers, acquisitions, consolidations, and leveraged buyouts, some monopolies are easily identified. American consumers are offered four major airlines, four major commercial banks, and four major providers of phone, cable, wireless, and internet services; one company, Amazon, controls about half of all e-commerce; another, Google, is the dominant web search engine; in most states, 80 percent of the health insurance market is controlled by three companies. These examples are the tip of the iceberg.
Dayen explains how a nation that habitually exalts “free” market orthodoxy got in this situation, starting with a seminal book written by Robert Bork in 1978 called The Antitrust Paradox, which reinterpreted the Sherman Antitrust Act. In Bork’s influential view, market consolidations were justified if they produced efficiencies and lower prices for consumers. Unfortunately, as Dayen documents, there’s no real evidence that market concentration delivers either. Look at the airline industry. Almost everything that passengers once received for the cost of a ticket now carries an additional cost: hot meals, checked baggage, comfortable seats.
Eye-opening and often infuriating, Monopolized exposes the wreckage wrought by concentrated economic power. Dayen argues that confronting monopoly power is as important today as it was during the first Gilded Age. If we are to rebalance the scales between consumers and corporations, wage earners and capital, voters and politicians, we must marshall the collective will to challenge the new robber barons.