America’s Monopoly Problem Goes Way Beyond the Tech Giants

By , executive editor of American Prospect, and cross posted from The Atlantic.

Congress grills Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, but many other industries also deserve antitrust scrutiny.

On Wednesday, the House Antitrust Subcommittee will hear testimony from the CEOs of the Big Four tech firms: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Aside from possibly bringing together more wealth than ever before assembled in a congressional hearing, the event marks a triumph for a nascent movement of antitrust scholars who have revived the debate about concentrated economic power in the United States. Members of Congress will be able to detail how large tech platforms abuse their position to invade user privacy, muscle out or buy up competitors, and gouge suppliers and partners—behaviors that ultimately damage innovation and exacerbate inequality.

These problems have only grown worse with the coronavirus pandemic, as smaller businesses succumb to the economic damage, and changing patterns in teleworking and retail accelerate in ways that make Americans more reliant on technologies produced by a few firms. Shares in the Big Four, along with Microsoft, Netflix, and Tesla, added $291 billion in market value in just one day last week. The dangers of Big Tech domination are more profound now than they were even a few months ago.

But the hearing may also have the unintended consequence of associating the problem of economic concentration with Big Tech alone. The truth is that, even if Congress somehow decreed the breakup of all four tech giants, the U.S. would still have an astounding number of industries controlled by a tiny number of firms. That’s because the structure of modern capitalism favors companies that operate at once-unimaginable scale, in the absence of a government will to prevent monopolies from forming.

Lawmakers and the public should be concerned about the surveillance networks by which Facebook and Google—which dominate the digital-advertising market—track users, build data profiles on them, and serve them customized ads. But millions of rural Americans cannot access the internet to begin with, in part because telecom companies harass, fight, and induce state legislatures to pass laws restricting municipal broadband. Across America, people send their kids to Starbucks parking lots to piggyback on the wifi and complete their homework.

Amazon’s rapidly expanding e-commerce empire—and the potential consequences for Main Streets and municipal tax bases across the country—is definitely worth worrying about. But among the other forces squeezing out small retailers are dollar stores, a market segment dominated by two firms that together have about six times more outlets in America than Walmart. Last summer in Marlinton, West Virginia, I saw a Dollar General right next door to a Family Dollar. Despite the pandemic, Dollar General still plans to open 1,000 new stores in 2020

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