American oligopolies are the new monopolies

Tim Wu sez, "I wrote something quick in the New Yorker about America's big blind spot when it comes to big business -- if its not a monopoly, its no problem, so highly concentrated industries can get away with whatever they want."

This blind spot is of particular significance during an age when oligopolies, not monopolies, rule. Consider Barry Lynn’s 2011 book, “Cornered,” which carefully detailed the rising concentration and consolidation of nearly every American industry since the nineteen-eighties. He found that dominance by two or three firms “is not the exception in the United States, but increasingly the rule.” Consumers, easily misled by product labelling, often don’t even notice that products like sunglasses, pet food, or numerous others come from just a few giants. For example, while drugstores seem to offer unlimited choices in toothpaste, just two firms, Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive, control more than eighty per cent of the market (including seemingly independent brands like Tom’s of Maine).

The press confuses oligopoly and monopoly with some regularity. The Atlantic ran a recent infographic titled “The Return of the Monopoly,” describing rising concentration in airlines, grocery sales, music, and other industries. With the exception of Intel in computer chips, none of the industries described, however, was actually a monopoly—all were oligopolies. So while The Atlantic is right about what’s happening, it sounds the wrong alarm. We know how to fight monopolies, but few seem riled at “The Return of the Oligopoly.”

Things were not always thus. Back in the mid-century, the Justice Department went after oligopolistic cartels in the tobacco industry and Hollywood with the same vigor it chased Standard Oil, the quintessential monopoly trust. In the late nineteen-seventies, another high point of enforcement, oligopolies were investigated by the Federal Trade Commission, and during that era Richard Posner, then a professor at Stanford Law School, went as far as to argue that when firms maintain the same prices, even without a smoke-filled-room agreement, they ought to be considered members of a price-fixing conspiracy. (By this logic, the Delta and US Airways shuttles between New York and Washington, D.C., would probably be price-fixers, since their prices do vary by how far in advance you buy, but are always identical.)

The Oligopoly Problem