Tag Archives: economics

The Growth Of Monopoly Power

Cross-posted at Reports from the Economic Front.

Market advocates have had their way for years now and one of the consequences has been the growing dominance of industry after industry by a select few powerful corporations.  In short, unchecked competition can and does produce its opposite: monopoly.

As John Bellamy Foster, Robert W. McChesney, and R. Jamil Jonna explain:

This [development] is anything but an academic concern. The economic defense of capitalism is premised on the ubiquity of competitive markets, providing for the rational allocation of scarce resources and justifying the existing distribution of incomes. The political defense of capitalism is that economic power is diffuse and cannot be aggregated in such a manner as to have undue influence over the democratic state. Both of these core claims for capitalism are demolished if monopoly, rather than competition, is the rule.

The chart below highlights the rise, especially since the 1980s, in both the number and percentage of U.S. manufacturing industries in which four firms account for more than 50% of sales.

Number and Percentage of U.S. Manufacturing Industries in which Largest Four Companies Accounted for at Least 50 Percent of Shipment Value in Their Industries, 1947-2007:

As the table below shows, the concentration of market power is not confined to manufacturing.

Percentage of Sales for Four Largest Firms in Selected U.S. Retail Industries:

Industry (NAICS code)  1992    1997    2002    2007
Food & beverage stores (445)  15.4    18.3    28.2    27.7
Health & personal care stores (446)  24.7    39.1    45.7    54.4
General merchandise stores (452)  47.3    55.9    65.6    73.2
Supermarkets (44511)  18.0    20.8    32.5    32.0
Book stores (451211)  41.3    54.1    65.6    71.0
Computer & software stores (443120)  26.2    34.9    52.5    73.1

As impressive as these concentration trends may be, they actually understate the market power exercised by leading U.S. firms because many of these firms are conglomerates and active in more than one industry.  The next chart provides some flavor for overall concentration trends by showing the growing share of total business revenue captured by the top two hundred U.S. corporations.  Notice the sharp rise since the 1990s.

Revenue of Top 200 U.S. Corporations as Percentage of Total Business Revenue, U.S. Economy, 1950–2008:

These are general trends.  Here, thanks to Zocalo (which draws on the work of Barry Lynn), we get a picture of the market dominance of just one corporation–Procter and Gamble.  This corporation controls:

  • More than 75 percent of men’s razors
  • About 60 percent of laundry detergent
  • Nearly 60 percent of dishwasher detergent
  • More than 50 percent of feminine pads
  • About 50 percent of toothbrushes
  • Nearly 50 percent of batteries
  • Nearly 45 percent of paper towels, just through the Bounty brand
  • Nearly 40 percent of toothpaste
  • Nearly 40 percent of over-the-counter heartburn medicines
  • Nearly 40 percent of diapers.
  • About 33 percent of shampoo, coffee, and toilet paper

A recent Huffington Post blog post, which includes the following infographic from the French blog Convergence Alimentaire, makes clear that Procter and Gamble, as big as it is, is just one member of a small but powerful group of multinationals that dominate many consumer markets.   The blog post states: “A ginormous number of brands are controlled by just 10 multinationals… Now we can see just how many products are owned by Kraft, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Mars, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, P&G and Nestlé. ”   See here for a bigger version of the infographic.

And, it is not just the consumer goods industry that’s highly concentrated.  As the Huffington Post also noted: “Ninety percent of the media is now controlled by just six companies, down from 50 in 1983…. Likewise, 37 banks merged to become JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and CitiGroup in a little over two decades, as seen in this 2010 graphic from Mother Jones.”

Not surprisingly, there are complex interactions and struggles between these dominant companies.  Unfortunately, most end up strengthening monopoly power at the public expense.  For example, as Zocalo reports, Wal-Mart, Target, and other major retailers have adopted a new control strategy in which:

…these retailers name a single supplier to serve as a category captain. This supplier is expected to manage all the shelving and marketing decisions for an entire family of products, such as dental care.

The retailer then requires all the other producers of this class of products — these days, usually no more than one or two other firms — to cooperate with the captain. The consciously intended result of this tight cartelization is a growing specialization of production and pricing among the few big suppliers who are still in business…

It’s not that Wal-Mart and category copycats like Target cede all control over shelving and hence production decisions to these captains. The trading firms use the process mainly to gain more insight into the operations of the manufacturers and hence more leverage over them, their suppliers, and even their other clients… Wal-Mart, for instance, has told Coca-Cola what artificial sweetener to use in a diet soda, it has told Disney what scenes to cut from a DVD, it has told Levi’s what grade of cotton to use in its jeans, and it has told lawn mower makers what grade of steel to buy.

And don’t think that such consolidation within the Wal-Mart system makes it easier for new small manufacturers and retailers to rise up and compete. The exact opposite tends to be true. . . . This [system] boils down to presenting the owners of midsized and smaller companies, like Oakley or Tom’s of Maine, with the “option” of selling their business to the monopolist in exchange for a “reasonable” sum determined by the monopolist.

This was the message delivered to many of the companies that in recent decades managed to develop big businesses seemingly outside the reach of the Procter & Gambles, Krafts, and Gillettes of the world. Consider the following:

  • Ben & Jerry’s, the Vermont ice cream company that reshaped the industry, was swallowed by Unilever in 2000.
  • Cascadian Farm, one of the most successful organic food companies, sold out to General Mills and was promptly transformed into what its founder calls a “PR farm.”
  • Stonyfield Farm and Brown Cow, organic dairy companies from New Hampshire and California, respectively, separately sold con-trol to the French food giant Groupe Danone in February 2003 and were blended into a single operation.
  • Glaceau, the company behind the brightly colored Vitamin Water and one of the last independent success stories, sold out to Coca-Cola in 2007.

The practical result is a hierarchy of power in which a few immense trading companies — in control of and to some degree in cahoots with a few dominant supply conglomerates — govern almost all the industrial activities on which we depend, and they back their efforts with what amounts to police power. This tiny confederation of private corporate governments determines who wins and who loses in this country, at least within our consumer economy.

Of course the growing concentration nationally is matched by a growing concentration of power globally, with large transnational corporations from different nations battling each other and, in many cases, uniting through mergers and acquisitions.  We cannot hope to understand and overcome our current problems and the structural pressures limiting our responses to them without first acknowledging the extent of corporate dominance over our economic lives.

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Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of Economics and Director of the Political Economy Program at Lewis and Clark College.  You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

We’re Adding Jobs, but Hourly Earnings are Dropping

Cross-posted at Reports from the Economic Front.

The good economic news, which got plenty of attention, is that the U.S. economy added over 170,000 new jobs in October.  The largely unreported negative news is that average real hourly wages in the private sector declined that month, and have been in decline for most of the past year.

It is hard to remember that the economy has been in expansion since June 2009.

Jeffrey Sparshott, in a Wall Street Journal blog post, offered the following chart of the trend in hourly earnings in private industry, with each point showing the change from a year earlier.

Citing a Labor Department report, Sparshott noted that:

…hours worked were flat [in October] for the fourth straight month. Meanwhile, average hourly earnings for all employees on private payrolls fell by 1 cent to $23.58 in October. Over the past 12 months, earnings have risen a scant 1.6%. That’s not enough to keep up with inflation. The consumer price index was up 2% in September from a year earlier.

It’s even worse for blue-collar workers. Average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory employees edged down by 1 cent to $19.79, only a 1.1% increase over the past year.

The blog post quoted the HSBC’s chief U.S. economist who said:

This is the smallest increase in wages on record for the data going back to 1964. The persistently high level of unemployment over the past few years is clearly restraining wage gains and suppressing any inflationary pressures that might have possibly emanated from the labor market.

It also quoted the chief U.S. economist at J.P. Morgan Chase who said:

This pace of labor income growth may be quite acceptable for corporate profits, but it does pose headwinds for consumer spending growth.

Consumer spending did rise last quarter, helping to boost third quarter U.S. GDP, but this was largely because of a decline in the personal savings rate, which fell from 4.0% in the second quarter to 3.7% in the third.

We clearly don’t have a foundation for a sustained economic recovery, certainly not one that brings benefits to the majority of workers.  Instead of talk about austerity we need a real debate about the best way to strength worker bargaining power.

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Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of Economics and Director of the Political Economy Program at Lewis and Clark College.  You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Capitalism, Candy, and Halloween

Last Halloween my students (at a private liberal arts school) told me that it was considered embarrassing to wear the same costume to two separate parties. Many of them, then, had purchased two or more costumes for the week preceding the holiday.  I remarked about how convenient that was for the economy, creating a need to spend money that helped our economic engine keep churning.

I thought of their stories when I came across this vintage ad for Halloween candy.  It tells the viewer that a really cool house will offer trick-or-treaters more than one type of candy and allow them to take one of each.  How excellent for the candy companies if offering only one piece of one kind of candy is considered below the bar.

Via Vintage Ads.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Interactive Graphs of Recession Trends

The Russell Sage Foundation and the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality have put together Recession Trends, an interactive website that lets you create graphs about issues related to the recession. It takes a couple of steps to get to the database (you have to agree to the terms before entering), but once you’re there, you can choose data about a variety of topics — crime, housing, immigration, income, political attitudes, family life, and a lot more. It’s a great way to quickly get an overview of many aspects of life in the U.S.

I looked at the ratio of median family income between African American and White families. Between the early 1970s and 2010, we’ve seen a consistent gap in earnings, with Black median household income hovering between about 52 and 60% that of Whites:

The graph of the mean net worth of the individuals on Forbes’s list of the 400 richest people in the U.S. shows that while they certainly saw their wealth take a tumble during the recession — it fell to a mere $3.3 billion or so — they’re recovering well:

Unsurprisingly, the number of job seekers per job opening went up sharply after 2007; it’s finally starting to drop off slightly, though we still have about 5 people looking for every 1 job that’s available:

You can add more than one dataset for many topics. Here’s the growth in the prison population since 1980, by gender:

There’s lots, lots more. Whatever topic you’re particularly interested in, there’s a good chance there’s something there that’ll grab your attention for a bit.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

The Case For Raising Taxes

Cross-posted at Reports from the Economic Front.

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s low federal tax rate — 14.1% — has called attention to the fact that our tax code favors people who make their money from investments rather than labor.  According to the conventional wisdom, this is as it should be.  It encourages people, like our job creators, to invest their money, thereby boosting growth and the well-being of all working people.  Sounds plausible, but the facts don’t support the policy.

BusinessWeek lays out the background and political context for our current low taxation rates on investment income as follows:

Since 1950 capital gains have generally been taxed at a lower rate than income, to spur investment. The rate under President George W. Bush went from 20 percent to 15 — the lowest ever — and was billed as a way to stimulate the economy. (If nothing’s done by Jan. 1 to change tax and budget provisions already passed by Congress, the rate will snap back to 20 percent, a scenario both parties hope to avoid.) Mitt Romney wants to ditch capital gains tax altogether for people earning less than $250,000. President Barack Obama, in his Affordable Care Act, increased the rate by 3.8 percent for high earners beginning in 2013, and has proposed the so-called Buffett Rule, which would among other things end an accounting interpretation that allows private equity and hedge fund managers (and Romney) to save money by paying tax on their earnings at the capital gains rate. Neither candidate, though, contests the Bush administration’s basic logic: that a lower capital gains rate encourages investment, which creates jobs and helps the economy grow. That doesn’t mean they’re right.

Leonard E. Burman, a tax expert, took on this issue in recent testimony before the House Committee on Ways and Means and the Senate Committee on Finance.   A good place to start is with who benefits from lower capital gains taxes.

Not surprisingly, as the figure below (which is taken from Burman’s testimony) shows, the benefits are extremely concentrated.  As Burman noted:

In 2010, the highest-income 20 percent realized more than 90 percent of long-term capital gains according to the TaxPolicyCenter.  The top 1 percent realized almost 70 percent of gains and the richest 1 in 1,000 households accrued about 47 percent. It is hard to think of another form of income that is more concentrated by income.

Moreover, as the next figure shows, the concentration of capital gains has grown over time.  Given that the rich fund political campaigns, this certainly helps to explain why both political parties are so determined to keep the rate low.

But, to the main question — do lower capital gains taxes actually boost growth? This is what Burman had to say in his testimony:

The heated rhetoric notwithstanding, there is no obvious relationship between tax rates on capital gains and economic growth. Figure 4 [below] shows top tax rates on long-term capital gains and real economic growth (measured as the percentage change in real GDP) from 1950 to 2011. If low capital gains tax rates catalyzed economic growth, we’d expect to see a negative relationship — high gains rates, low growth, and vice versa — but there is no apparent relationship between the two time series. The correlation is 0.12, the opposite sign from what capital gains tax cut advocates would expect, and not statistically different from zero. Although not shown, I’ve tried lags up to five years and using moving averages, but there is never a larger or statistically significant relationship.

Burman notes that he posted this figure on his blog and offered the data to anyone interested, challenging readers to find support for lower rates.  “A half dozen or so people, including at least one outspoken critic of taxing capital gains, took me up on the offer, but nobody to my knowledge has been able to tease a meaningful relationship between capital gains tax rates and the GDP out of the data.”

As reported in a previous post, Thomes L. Hungerford, writing for the Congressional Research Service, came to the same conclusion about the lack of any relationship between the capital gains tax and GDP.  In fact, he concluded raising the top income and capital gains tax rates would likely reduce income inequality without causing harm to the economy.

So, if we are really concerned with the budget deficit, rather than slashing spending on social programs lets raise the top tax rates.  Wonder if this will come up during our presidential debates?

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Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of Economics and Director of the Political Economy Program at Lewis and Clark College.  You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Interactive Map of Median Income by County

The Census Bureau has created an interactive map that lets you see median household income by county. Median household income for the entire U.S. is $51,914, but of course there is enormous variety around the country. The map lets you select an amount and see which counties have medians below that level.

Three counties — Owsley and Breathitt in Kentucky and Brooks in south Texas — have median household incomes below $20,000 a year (the white spot in Louisiana is water):

So half of households in those areas are living on less than $20,000 a year.

If we go up to $30,000 a year, we see a clear pattern. The counties are particularly concentrated in the South, especially along the Mississippi River, in Appalachia, in southern Texas, a few areas of New Mexico, and several counties in South Dakota that include Native American reservations:

If we look at the $52,000 mark — right at the overall U.S. median — we see, unsurprisingly, a lot of counties on the coasts or that have at least mid-sized cities in them, though there are certainly some counties that don’t fit that pattern:

On the upper end, there are six counties where the median household income is above $100,000 — Hunterdon, in New Jersey; Howard, in Maryland; Los Alamos, New Mexico; and three Virginia counties, Fairfax, Falls Church, and Loudoun:

You can see the Census Bureau’s table of median household income in every county in the U.S. here.

Assisted-Living Prison Cells? On Aging Prisoners

“Today,” Mother Jones‘s James Ridgeway reports, “roughly 1 in 12 state and federal prison inmates is 55 or older.”  Prisoners sentenced to life without parole will die in prison, so that means they’ll convalesce there too.  In other words, prisons are part nursing home.

Photographer Tim Gruber captured these images of “the golden years” in the Kentucky State Reformatory:

According to a report from the ACLU, the number of elderly prisoners is expected to skyrocket:


Imprisonment is already expensive, but aging patients cost twice what a younger prisoner costs.  Today, we spent $16 billion a year to house elderly prisoners,  Soon we’ll have to start renovating our prisons.

Unless states start releasing them, [former warden Bob] Hood says, we will need to “retrofit every prison in America to put assisted living-units in it, wheelchair accessibility, handicapped toilets, grab bars — the whole nine yards.”

Prisons increasingly feature assisted-living cells and hospice units.

Some argue for “compassionate release.”  After all, elderly prisoners have a very low recidivism rate.  But the ACLU cautions us to remember that release shouldn’t mean abdicating responsibility.  “For many elderly prisoners,” the director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project explains, “particularly those with serious medical needs, simply pushing them out the prison door will be tantamount to a death sentence.”

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

North Korea: An Ad-Free Utopia?

This post is an updated version of one originally published in 2010.

Skipping through a set of images of North Korea by photographers David Guttenfelder and Vincent Yu, I was reminded that the city is almost entirely devoid of advertising.  There is political propaganda everywhere, of course, but there is an overwhelming absence of the marketing for products characteristic of capitalist societies.  All of the print and electronic media is under state control, and the state administers and controls the economy as well.  Accordingly… there is almost no advertising.  The images in the slide show give us a peak into this world without ads:

Images from a 2010 LIFE slide show after the jump:

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.