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“Robber Baron Recessions”: Growing Monopoly Power Is A Big Problem For The U.S. Economy

When Verizon workers went on strike last week, they were mainly protesting efforts to outsource work to low-wage, non-union contractors. But they were also angry about the company’s unwillingness to invest in its own business. In particular, Verizon has shown a remarkable lack of interest in expanding its Fios high-speed Internet network, despite strong demand.

But why doesn’t Verizon want to invest? Probably because it doesn’t have to: many customers have no place else to go, so the company can treat its broadband business as a cash cow, with no need to spend money on providing better service (or, speaking from personal experience, on maintaining existing service).

And Verizon’s case isn’t unique. In recent years many economists, including people like Larry Summers and yours truly, have come to the conclusion that growing monopoly power is a big problem for the U.S. economy — and not just because it raises profits at the expense of wages. Verizon-type stories, in which lack of competition reduces the incentive to invest, may contribute to persistent economic weakness.

The argument begins with a seeming paradox about overall corporate behavior. You see, profits are at near-record highs, thanks to a substantial decline in the percentage of G.D.P. going to workers. You might think that these high profits imply high rates of return to investment. But corporations themselves clearly don’t see it that way: their investment in plant, equipment, and technology (as opposed to mergers and acquisitions) hasn’t taken off, even though they can raise money, whether by issuing bonds or by selling stocks, more cheaply than ever before.

How can this paradox be resolved? Well, suppose that those high corporate profits don’t represent returns on investment, but instead mainly reflect growing monopoly power. In that case many corporations would be in the position I just described: able to milk their businesses for cash, but with little reason to spend money on expanding capacity or improving service. The result would be what we see: an economy with high profits but low investment, even in the face of very low interest rates and high stock prices.

And such an economy wouldn’t just be one in which workers don’t share the benefits of rising productivity; it would also tend to have trouble achieving or sustaining full employment. Why? Because when investment is weak despite low interest rates, the Federal Reserve will too often find its efforts to fight recessions coming up short. So lack of competition can contribute to “secular stagnation” — that awkwardly-named but serious condition in which an economy tends to be depressed much or even most of the time, feeling prosperous only when spending is boosted by unsustainable asset or credit bubbles. If that sounds to you like the story of the U.S. economy since the 1990s, join the club.

There are, then, good reasons to believe that reduced competition and increased monopoly power are very bad for the economy. But do we have direct evidence that such a decline in competition has actually happened? Yes, say a number of recent studies, including one just released by the White House. For example, in many industries the combined market share of the top four firms, a traditional measure used in many antitrust studies, has gone up over time.

The obvious next question is why competition has declined. The answer can be summed up in two words: Ronald Reagan.

For Reagan didn’t just cut taxes and deregulate banks; his administration also turned sharply away from the longstanding U.S. tradition of reining in companies that become too dominant in their industries. A new doctrine, emphasizing the supposed efficiency gains from corporate consolidation, led to what those who have studied the issue often describe as the virtual end of antitrust enforcement.

True, there was a limited revival of anti-monopoly efforts during the Clinton years, but these went away again under George W. Bush. The result was an economy with far too much concentration of economic power. And the Obama administration — preoccupied with the aftermath of financial crisis and the struggle with bitterly hostile Republicans — has only recently been in a position to grapple with competition policy.

Still, better late than never. On Friday the White House issued an executive order directing federal agencies to use whatever authority they have to “promote competition.” What this means in practice isn’t clear, at least to me. But it may mark a turning point in governing philosophy, which could have large consequences if Democrats hold the presidency.

For we aren’t just living in a second Gilded Age, we’re also living in a second robber baron era. And only one party seems bothered by either of those observations.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, April 18, 2016

April 19, 2016 Posted by | Economy, Monopolies, Verizon | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Republican Balanced Budget Amendment: The Worst Idea In Washington

Bruce Bartlett takes a look at the Balanced Budget Amendment all 47 Republicans signed their names to and pronounces it “quite possibly the stupidest constitutional amendment I think I have ever seen. It looks like it was drafted by a couple of interns on the back of a napkin.”

I think “stupid” is the wrong word. “Dangerous” is more like it. And maybe “radical.” This isn’t just a Balanced Budget Amendment. It also includes a provision saying that tax increases would require a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress — so, it includes a provision making it harder to balance the budget — and another saying that total spending couldn’t exceed 18 percent of GDP. No allowances are made for recessions, though allowances are made for wars. Not a single year of the Bush administration would qualify as constitutional under this amendment. Nor would a single year of the Reagan administration. The Clinton administration would’ve had exactly two years in which it wasn’t in violation.

Read that again: Every single Senate Republican has endorsed a constitutional amendment that would’ve made Ronald Reagan’s fiscal policy unconstitutional. That’s how far to the right the modern GOP has swung.

But the problem isn’t simply that the proposed amendment is extreme. It’s also unworkable. The baby boomers are retiring and health costs are rising. Unless you have a way to stop one or the other from happening — and no one does — spending as a percentage of GDP is going to have to rise. This proposal doesn’t interrupt those trends. It simply refuses to acknowledge them — or, to be more generous, it rules them unconstitutional. This is the equivalent of trying to keep your kid cute by passing a law saying he’s not allowed to grow up.

Another problem: In a recession, tax revenue plummets and GDP stops growing, but spending has to be sustained, or even increased, to a) give people unemployment insurance and Medicaid and other services they need and b) keep the economy from contracting violently. This amendments includes no provisions for recessions, meaning that when the economy contracted, the government would have to contract as well. That is to say, we’re still not out of one of the deepest recessions in American history, and every Senate Republican has co-sponsored a constitutional amendment to make future recessions worse. It’s just breathtaking.

A world in which this amendment is added to the Constitution is a world in which America effectively becomes California. It’s a world where the procedural impediments to passing budgets and raising revenues are so immense that effective fiscal management is essentially impossible; it’s a world where we can’t make public investments or sustain the safety net; it’s a world where recessions are much worse than they currently are and the government has to do more of its work off-budget through regulation and gimmickry. I would like to say something positive about this proposal, say there’s some silver lining here. But there isn’t. This is economic demagoguery, and nothing more. It’s so unrealistic that it would’ve ruled all but two of the last 30 years unconstitutional, which means it’s so unrealistic that there has not yet been a Republican president who has proven it can be done. And that doesn’t just suggest it can’t be done: It suggests that when Republicans are actually in power and have control of the budget, they know perfectly well that it shouldn’t be done. They’re just pretending otherwise for the moment.

By: Ezra Klein, The Washington Post, April 1, 2011

April 4, 2011 Posted by | Conservatives, Constitution, Democracy, Economy, Federal Budget, GOP, Ideologues, Neo-Cons, Politics, Right Wing, Unemployment Benefits | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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