A Market Controlled

The word “monopoly” has fallen out of the public lexicon within the past 20 years. When most people read that first sentence, it likely conjures traumatic memories of bloodthirsty fights for Boardwalk Avenue while sprawled out across the living room floor. The greatest corporate achievement in the 21st Century is the successful propaganda campaign that trivialized the idea of monopolies in the public eye. 

Through carefully calculated corporate rebranding, companies like Google, Amazon, Disney and many other large conglomerates have crafted their image as playfully innocent workplaces. However, when one peels away the layers of savvy social media campaigns and colorful offices with ping-pong tables, they’ll find the very same malignant entities as the Standard Oils of years past.

America has a massive problem with monopolies. Pick any industry and chances are it’s controlled by fewer than five companies. According to The Economist, Apple owns 62% of the market share of smartphones in America; American Express, Visa and Mastercard own 95% of the credit card industry; Google owns 60% of Internet browsing traffic; three cellular networks own 78% of the telecom market; four airline companies own 69% of the air traffic in the United States; and three companies own 75% of the beer industry. Through corporate mergers, the average size of corporations has continuously risen since 1981 and the federal government has shirked its regulatory responsibilities by allowing these market takeovers.

The facts are irrefutable: most industries are controlled by too few corporations, but the usual response is, “So what?” Why should this issue matter to anyone, let alone college students? It’s important to remember that the losers of monopolization are always the consumers. With less competition, there’s less incentive for companies to offer customers lower prices or amenities. For example, the prices of airline tickets have steadily increased, while the airline companies like American and Delta have gradually eliminated incentives like free checked bags and legroom. In any normally regulated economy, consumers could see these issues and decide to purchase their tickets from someone else, but in reality, these companies know their customers are at their mercy.

Besides price gouging and hindrances on innovation, monopolization can have horrible repercussions for media and political structures. In 2012, Business Insider reported, “In 1983, 90% of America’s media was owned by 50 companies. In 2011, that same 90% is controlled by six companies.” Although it sounds dangerously Orwellian, most of the media these days is carefully coordinated by one of these six corporations each pushing their own corporate and political agenda.  For example, Sinclair Broadcast Group, the largest owner of local television news stations, forced many local stations to air “must run” segments about biased conservative talking points.  The incident at Sinclair along with controversies concerning the involvement of Fox News anchors in campaign rallies are just one of many examples of these companies using their platforms to interject themselves into the political process by muddying the waters around what is news and isn’t.

Besides monopolized news media, even artistic expression has been devoured by corporate takeovers. Most cinema fans have seen the headlines of the Disney/Fox merger but many fail to realize the negative effects this will have on the types of movies that’ll be produced in this new Hollywood. After this merger, Disney now owns 40% of the film industry and currently owns five of the six highest-grossing films of 2019. A company of Disney’s size is going to try to minimize their risks by greenlighting films they know will make a profit, so one can expect the output of Hollywood’s near future to be composed of sequels, spin-offs and remakes, since it’ll be harder for creative newcomers to break into the film industry with Disney acting as the artistic gatekeeper to the silver screen.

Monopolization also affects the job market. Most new jobs created in the past few years have been in the tech industry under the employment of corporations like Apple and Amazon. With few competitors or government oversight, these companies can run inhumane sweatshops. Recent testimonials from Amazon warehouse employees describe employees being forbidden to take bathroom breaks, while Apple’s iPhone manufacturer was forced to set up “safety nets” around its iPhone factories to prevent employees from throwing themselves off the buildings. Less competition for jobs means monopolies can set up a corrupt system of pseudo-indentured servitude, trapping those under their employ in a sadistic cycle of corporate abuse.

With an issue this complex, it’s easy to get lost in the search for a solution, but one must remember that the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging there is one, so it’s important to look past the shiny veneers of these companies and recognize them as the fundamental threats they are. Once their manipulations are exposed, they’ll lose the ability to hide from society’s scrutiny, paving the way for meaningful changes.

Charlie Jones is a freshman public policy & administration major. Contact Charlie at jones7cr@dukes.jmu.edu.