Bigger Is Not Better


Michael Pollan wrote an article, previewed today in the NY Times, about big agriculture and the failure of the Obama administration to act to rein in its excesses. For those interested in the specifics, you should read the article. I am referring to it primarily as an example of a more general problem: the excessive, uneconomic, undemocratic power of the corporate sector. Pollan’s story has a plot that can be found in many cases outside of the food sector: pharmaceuticals, military armaments, commercial banking, retail, drug stores, office supplies, air travel, online retail, online travel accommodations, beer, and more. But here’s one I am sure you never would have included: eyeglass frames. Luxotica provides about 80% of all frames sold in the United States. Not too much political power, perhaps, but, if you have bought glasses recently, you know what economic power they command. Big bucks for a cheap piece of plastic.

Some monopolies are content to squeeze out what the economists call rents, income larger than what they would get if the sector were competitive. That’s what the original trustbusters were after. Today’s problems are much larger and much more threatening. Economic power has been joined by political power. Pollan’s story is one where the use of money to lobby and engage in public relations campaigns stymies attempts to put much needed controls to protect the public. The rise of inequality is due to many causes, but the drive to get bigger and bigger is one of them. The consuming public pays more that they might in a truly competitive market. The rents that result from this go disproportionately to the already wealthy owners and managers.

This disparity is nothing new. It was behind the Occupy Wall Street failed movement and Bernie Sanders’ failed campaign. The argument that bigness brings economies of scale is true only in part. At some level, gains in efficiency are overcome by monopolistic practices. The price gouging attempts, both successful and not, in the pharmaceutical sector are just one example. Have you bought an airline ticket lately? Or, as I noted, a new pair of glasses?

The problem extends far beyond the cost of everything to the choices available to the public. Pollan’s article shows how Big Food controls what we eat, not just how much we pay for it. One thread follows Michelle Obama’s campaign against obesity, which has been tied to the poor eating habits of the American public. When Big Food was threatened by her speaking out for changes, they gathered a pile of money and used it to lobby against any form of regulation and placed what some might say were misleading advertisements to quell public concerns.

I am not a professional economist, but I have enough understanding of the field to know that the current situation and trends are bad news for most of us, poor and not so poor alike. The choices we have are growing smaller and smaller. Some argue that enough competition remains to allow choice. Maybe, but if you want to avoid the hand of Big Food on your dining habits, you are free to go to Whole Foods. Free only in theory because the prices keep all but affluent buyers away. Blackberry, the original smartphone, just has been withdrawn from the market!

I usually don’t write about issues like this. Pollan’s article got to me. My political (small p) juices started to flow. I think this issue should be front and center in the coming election, but the shenanigans of the candidates and the media have focused on trivia. I have no question as to who will get my vote, but am the least engaged this time around than ever before in what has become a pretty long life.

I write, as most of you know, about flourishing. It occurs to me that what I have just written has a lot to do with flourishing or, better about not flourishing. To flourish, one must act authentically, that is, from a source that is owned by the actor. This concept is often hard to fathom because it is so rare today. So let me take the opposite tack. Action today is largely inauthentic, that is, it is driven by the loud, booming voice of society. Most of us, if asked why we did something, would say something like, “Well, they say it is the thing to do.” When choice becomes limited, some agency is in control, metaphorically telling you what you should or can do.

Flourishing as the expression of one’s own self comes, in part, from the nature of the choices one makes. The freer and more self-determined they are, the more possibility of flourishing shows up. The growth of bigness casts a pall over our choices. Their economic power limits the choices we have in the marketplace. In essence, by the nature of the products, certainly in the food sector, we have limited choices. Not only are we not flourishing, we are unhealthy as a result. There is a large irony at play these days. Doctrinaire economists claim the free market and the corporate/private sector that controls it as the way to maximum choice. Nice theory, but a theory only evident in the breech.

The second important place for choice is political; the choices available every time you go into the voting booth. A funny thing happened years ago on the way to the polls. Corporations were found by the US Supreme Court to be a person. Not so good as a principle, but now not at all good in practice. Bigness permits corporations to buy their way into the democratic process of choice. If anyone thinks for a minute that this is a partisan issue, you are wrong. It is an existential issue concerning democracy and, ultimately, the possibility of flourishing.

If you think I have just made a huge leap connecting democracy and flourishing, you are mistaken. I haven’t got space to go into great details but the inherent idea of democracy, of choosing the government that will guide the polity where you live bears on the ability to care, to live authentically, to avoid domination, and more. For those who have been following me, I think you understand where I am going. For any new readers, there are about 20 recent blog posts on the right-hand side of the webpage. Pick a few at random, and you will begin to find the reasons I tie democracy and flourishing together. My cynical side has broken out today, but pay no heed and make sure you vote in November.