The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up On Free Markets by Thomas Philippon

Why do Americans pay more than Europeans or Asians for cellphone service that isn’t even as good as theirs? That’s a question Thomas Philippon, a professor of finance at New York University and an adviser to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, asked himself one day. He attempts to answer the question in this book. His answers aren’t encouraging.

Philippon says he will offer three main arguments:

One: Competition has declined in most sectors of the US economy. Measuring competition is easier said than done, for we can find only imperfect proxies. We will look at prices, profit rates, and market shares. None is perfect, but together they can form a convincing picture.

Two: The lack of competition is explained largely by policy choices, influenced by lobbying and campaign fiance contributions. We will look at the dollars spent by every US corporation over the past twenty years to lobby their regulators, their senators, their congressmen, and members of key committees, as well as to finance federal and state elections. We will show how these efforts distort free markets: … corporate lobbying and campaign finance contributions lead to barriers to entry and regulations that protect large incumbents, weaker antitrust enforcement, and weaker growth of small and medium-sized firms.

Three: The consequences of a lack of competition are lower wages, lower investment, lower productivity, lower growth, and more inequality. We will examine how the decline in competition across industries has effects that reach into the wallets and bank accounts of everyday Americans. We will also demonstrate why lower competition leads to less of the sort of thing that we traditionally associate with growing economies: investment, technological advancement, and rising wages [9].

The author explains that economists look at three main variables “to assess the degree of competition in an industry”:

…the degree of concentration (that is, whether there are lots of small firms or whether the industry is dominated by a few large firms); the profits that these firms are making, and the prices that customers pay….The bad kind [of concentration] occurs when incumbents in an industry are allowed to block the entry of competitors, to collude, or to merge for the primary purpose of increasing their power over market-wide pricing…[25].

In most US industries, market shares have become more concentrated and more persistent. Industry leaders are less likely to be challenged and replaced than they were twenty years ago. At the same tine, their profit margins have increased [60].

The Great Reversal is filled with data and references to journal articles, but the material is presented in digestible form (the more technical explanations are marked off from the main text). One result of all the data and all the related concepts is that the book is a kind of introduction to economics. I came away with a much better understanding of the work economists do when they look for patterns in all the buying and selling a society does.

I also came away convinced that things will only get worse — there will be less competition and more inequality — unless we reform our political culture. I already knew that American political campaigns are incredibly expensive compared to campaigns in Europe. But on average 50 times as expensive? I didn’t realize that the European Union now does a better job insuring competition than we do. As Sen. Elizabeth Warren emphasizes, we need big, structural change if we’re going to increase competition, reduce inequality and deal with the major challenge of global warming.

The book’s title, The Great Reversal, refers to the fact that the US economy used to work better for society as a whole. The data shows that it was mainly in the last twenty years that competition seriously declined. Can the reversal be reversed in the next twenty?

However, after spending “hundreds of hours researching and writing this book”, the author was surprised to realize “how fragile free markets really are”:

We take them for granted, but history demonstrates that they are more the exception than the rule. Free markets are supposed to discipline private companies, but today, many private companies have grown so dominant that the can get away with bad service, high prices, and deficient privacy safeguards. Only two decades ago, the United States was effectively the land of free markets and a leader in … antitrust policy. If America wants to lead once more in this realm, it must remember its own history and relearn the lessons it successfully taught the rest of the world [287-288].

Adam Smith: Father of Economics by Jesse Norman

I’m very glad I read this. I mainly knew of Smith that he wrote The Wealth of Nations and a rarely read book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments; that he explained how productive a division of labor can be; that he was a very good friend of David Hume; and that he is viewed as a champion of “the free market”, especially by libertarians and so-called “conservatives” (who sometimes wear Adam Smith ties around their right-wing necks). The most important thing I learned about Smith was that he wasn’t a libertarian at all. He understood that a market economy cannot work properly without government regulation. He also knew that economic decisions cannot be divorced from politics or morality.

I’ll quote from the book’s last chapter, “Why It Matters”:

How can the benefits of markets be safeguarded and extended, and their ill-effects contained?… We need a new master-narrative for our times. We need better frameworks of public understanding, better explanations … through which we can come to terms with these issues. But to create them, we must return to the dawn of our economic modernity and to Adam Smith himself. Not to Smith the caricature one-note libertarian alternately celebrated by his partisans and denounced by his detractors, but to what Smith actually thought, across all his writings, from ethics to jurisprudence to political economy…

The real Smith was not an intellectual turncoat who switched from altruism in The Theory of Moral Sentiments to egoism in The Wealth of Nations. He was not a market fundamentalist, an economic libertarian, or in that strong sense a laissez-faire economist. He was not an advocate of selfishness, … the creator of homo economicus or the founder of predatory capitalism… He is rightly called the father of economics, conceptually because he was the first to put markets squarely at the center of economic thought, and practically because there are few if any economists … who do not stand in his intellectual debt….But his political economy ranges far wider that economics alone, and he could with equal justice be considered one of the founding father of sociology….

For many people, Smith’s political economy will always hold center stage; both as a model of economic analysis and for his specific insights into human behavior, markets, trade, specialization and the division of labor, taxation and the negative effect of subsidies, bounties and protection. Others will admire his moral egalitarianism, his feeling for the underdog, his belief in the importance of dignity and respectability to people’s status and sense of self, the way he minimizes inequality within his “natural system of liberty”, his devastating attack on crony capitalism, his … theory of human development, his historical analysis of the supersession of feudalism by commerce and his extremely subtle exploration and defense of commercial society… Still others will recognize the foundational importance of his theory of moral and social norms….

We have a president who ignores moral and social norms, whose greed is without limit and who fully embraces crony capitalism. But he’s a Republican, so most people would say he’s following in Adam Smith’s footsteps. That does Smith a disservice. The truth is that a progressive Democrat like Senator Elizabeth Warren is much closer to Smith. She believes in capitalism but understands that the government has a crucial role in making sure markets work for the benefit of society as a whole. That is pure Adam Smith.

Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges

The title pretty much sums up the book. In five chapters, the author discusses five dangerous illusions that beset the United States. They’re the illusions of:

  • Literacy — crap like professional wrestling and reality TV and the distractions of celebrity culture in general)
  • Love — the popularity of pornography, especially the kind that demeans women
  • Wisdom — how colleges have been turned into glorified vocational schools
  • Happiness — the “positive psychology” movement that offers false promises and promotes conformity
  • America — how the “greatest democracy” on Earth is actually a militaristic empire in the service of corporate capitalism.

He often exaggerates how bad things are, but the book serves as a good corrective to the idea that this is a healthy nation. Some of the negativity derives from the fact that Empire of Illusion was published in 2009 during the financial turmoil of the Great Recession. For example, Hedges casts doubt on the idea that the Obama administration would make any improvement to our health care system, such as making sure that more of us have adequate health insurance.

Even if he overstates some of the problems, he criticisms all have a basis in reality. A brief sample:

Individualism is touted as the core value of American culture, and yet most of us meekly submit, as we are supposed to, to the tyranny of the corporate state…. There is a vast and growing disconnect between what we say we believe and what  we do. We are blinded, enchanted and finally enslaved by illusion…..[p. 182].

The more we sever ourselves from a literate, print-based world, a world of complexity and nuance, a world of ideas, for one informed by comforting, reassuring images, fantasies, slogans, celebrities, and a lust for violence, the more we are destined to implode. As the collapse continues and our suffering mounts, we yearn, like World Wrestling Entertainment fans, or those who confuse pornography with love, for the comfort, beauty and reassurance of illusion….And the lonely Cassandras who speak the truth about our misguided imperial wars, the economic meltdown, or the immindent danger of multiple pollution and soaring overpopulation, are drowned out by arenas of excited fans….[pp. 189-190].

I expect Mr. Hedges would offer our demagogic president’s scary political rallies as further confirmation of his thesis.