Attacking Monopoly Power Can Be Stunningly Good Politics, Survey Finds

A recent survey by Public Policy Polling found much more concern with the power and influence of major corporations than annual Gallup polls on the subject.

The Federal Trade Commission building in Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015. The nation's largest prepaid mobile provider, TracFone Wireless, will pay $40 million to settle government claims that it misled millions of smartphone customers with promises of unlimited data service. The FTC said that TracFone's advertising promised unlimited data, but the company then drastically slowed down consumers' data speeds, a practice known as throttling, when they had used a certain amount of data within a 30-day period. In some cases, the FTC said, the company cut off customers' data service when they ran over the limit. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
The Federal Trade Commission building in Washington D.C. on Jan. 28, 2015. Photo: Alex Brandon/AP

On Monday, the Open Markets Institute released new evidence of increased corporate concentration in 32 different industries, from cellphone providers (where four firms control 98 percent of the market) to peanut butter (four firms control 92 percent). The data, which has gone uncollected by the federal government since President Ronald Reagan’s Federal Trade Commission stopped the practice in 1981, came from a private industry analyst called IBISWorld.

Open Markets intended to publicize the data to show the enormity of America’s monopoly problem. But never-before-seen polling obtained by The Intercept suggests that the public already knows about, and is gravely concerned by, the concentration of economic power in fewer and fewer hands.

According to the survey, conducted in September by Public Policy Polling, 76 percent of respondents were either somewhat or very concerned that “big corporations have too much power over your family and your community.” The figure grew when asked whether big corporations have too much power over politicians: a stunning 88 percent were at least somewhat concerned, with 71 percent very concerned.

The poll finds more concern with the power and influence of major corporations than annual Gallup polls on the subject, which over the past few years have registered between 58 and 64 percent dissatisfaction.

The Gallup polls suggest a desire for mildly more regulation of American business. But by a 65-19 figure, those surveyed in the PPP poll believed that the government “should do more to break up corporate monopolies.” And by a 55-24 count, respondents said they were more likely to support a candidate who vowed to “work to break up monopolies and reduce corporate power.” After citing recent research suggesting that increased corporate concentration can reduce wages or make it more difficult to start a business, support for anti-monopoly candidates jumps to 60-15.

Even Trump voters pronounced themselves wary of corporate power by a 61-38 split and concerned about the political power of corporations by 83-12. Fifty-four percent of Trump voters said that the government should bust monopolies, with only 28 percent opposed. Anti-monopoly sentiment was relatively consistent among men and women, whites and nonwhites, young and old, even Democrats, Republicans, and independents.

The Open Markets Institute underwrote the polling but never released it.

The poll numbers suggest broad bipartisan support for anti-monopoly politics, which has been largely untested as a front-line platform since Woodrow Wilson’s 1912 presidential campaign or perhaps Franklin D. Roosevelt’s condemning of “economic royalists” in 1936. While more academics, writers, and thinkers have been raising the issue of corporate consolidation of late, and while some powerful politicians, including 2020 presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Amy Klobuchar, have embraced the concepts, it played only a minor role in the midterms.

The Democrats’ “Better Deal” campaign document had a plank on bolstering antitrust policy and cracking down on monopolies, but it never really took center stage and pointedly left out the modern age’s most fearsome trusts: the tech platforms. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, whose office was instrumental in putting together the “Better Deal” agenda, has a daughter who works in marketing at Facebook and reportedly told fellow Sen. Mark Warner to back off an investigation of the social media giant.

Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, a Schumer aide who drafted much of the “Better Deal” documents, was later installed by her former boss as a commissioner on the FTC, which has jurisdiction over the tech industry. On Tuesday, Kelly Slaughter commended the Open Markets Institute for compiling the information on concentration across sectors. “We should all be concerned about rising levels of concentration; understanding the scope of the problem across the economy is key to addressing it,” she wrote on Twitter.

The statistics on corporate concentration reinforce the fact that consumers, workers, and business owners cannot escape the ever-present shadow of monopolies in American life. Even when offered the illusion of choice, you don’t have it, because the same parent company often owns multiple different brands.

Two companies, Kraft and Unilever, control 87 percent of the mayonnaise market, selling numerous different brands. Three firms manufacture all washers and dryers, including market leader Whirlpool, which controls Maytag and Amana. Nestlé controls 57 percent of the cat food market; its portfolio includes Purina, Fancy Feast, Felix, and Friskies. Overall, four firms are responsible for 97 percent of all cat food sales. “They have all these little brands, from the low shelf to the high shelf,” said Austin Frerick, a former congressional candidate and a fellow with Open Markets who assembled the data.

This branding sleight of hand is presumed to fool the public into thinking that they have a wider array of choices. But the polling data suggests that virtually nobody is fooled.

If anything, concentration looks worse at the regional level, as cable and broadband companies divvy up the country to give consumers no choice, not even a figment of it, while local monopolies like hospital networks dominate individual metro areas. This increased concentration and political intervention has led to skyrocketing economic inequality, slashed entrepreneurship and innovation, and soaring political polarization.

The Open Markets data also looks at changes to industries over time, finding that virtually every industry studied has gotten more concentrated. Frerick highlighted the fact that the few industries that have opened to more competition in recent years did so in response to an actual divestment order from the FTC or the threat of one. “It shows that they do have power and we can have more competition,” said Frerick, “but not when the agencies are asleep at the switch.”

If the polling is even close to accurate, lawmakers would be rewarded for bold stances on reducing corporate power, whether through new anti-merger legislation or spurring antitrust authorities to act more aggressively to rein in the behemoths. On Tuesday, the Senate Commerce Committee did just that in an oversight hearing with FTC commissioners, urging them to do more to investigate and regulate Facebook. “Big tech is maybe no longer entitled to be as big as it is,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

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