A recent New York Times article writes about a young lawyer, Lina Khan, with a “breakthrough” view of monopolies and antitrust regulation, and she is targeting Amazon in her activism.
She says that Amazon “should not get a pass on anticompetitive behavior just because it makes customers happy. Once-robust monopoly laws have been marginalized, Ms. Khan wrote, and consequently Amazon is amassing structural power that lets it exert increasing control over many parts of the economy.
Amazon has so much data on so many customers, it is so willing to forgo profits, it is so aggressive and has so many advantages from its shipping and warehouse infrastructure that it exerts an influence much broader than its market share.”
All of these things are true, and yet current views of antitrust regulations say that Amazon has plenty of competitors: Overstock, Walmart, Target, etc.
How have past transitions looked?
There is no concept of monopoly in red. Red is about amassing as much power as possible.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, when the center of gravity was at blue, monopoly was used as extensions of government policy. In England, the East India Company existed because it was granted a monopoly by the crown. The idea of restricting monopolies for any non-geopolitical reason just never crossed anyone’s mind. What was right and wrong, or good policy, was what God and/or the emperor or king said it was.
As humans moved into the orange phase and developed the concept of economics, the economy started to be viewed as something to be “managed”. The extreme version of this was Communism, where it was thought that bureaucrats could micromanage every part of the economy, including telling manufacturers how much of each item to make.
Less extreme versions of this idea gave us the Bretton Woods fiat currency system, fiscal and monetary policy, and the rise of antitrust regulation with the breakup of Standard Oil.
At the time, Standard Oil had amassed one of the largest monopolies in history: it owned land and the towns on it, railroads and other transportation infrastructure, the means to finance its own operations and lend money (which it did on multiple occasions to the US government), and it had a virtual stranglehold on both prices and wages.
If there was ever an argument for antitrust action, it was that argument: Standard Oil’s domination was total and complete to the degree that it caused other countries to create sovereign oil companies (Royal Dutch Shell is but one example).
As we figured out this capitalism thing, and markets became more competitive, regulation became lighter and more sophisticated.
An example in the late 1990s was the Microsoft antitrust actions. These actions were at the very height of orange sentiments, in the middle of the dot-com bubble (a time when, recently, many people thought the Internet was going to make things so competitive that monopolies would be impossible). The justification given for the actions was anticompetitive behavior which harmed consumers. however, ultimately the settlement reached with the government resulted in adjustments around the edges and some limited changes in how Microsoft Internet Explorer was packaged. Two decades later, Microsoft could hardly be seen as a monopoly anymore.
And now we find ourselves in the middle of a transition between orange and green. The strict economic calculations of orange are now giving way to concern for not just consumers but for workers and “the little guy”. The question “is it crushing competitors and causing prices to be artificially high?” has given way to “does it have so much market power that it’s driving wages down and hurting independent businesses?”.
To some degree, the green arguments are masked as orange arguments, considering the early state of these ideas. I expect over the next decade that green will become more bold about making arguments based on fairness, equity, inclusion, and diversity, and perhaps even environmentalism, with few real results (because green is inept at actually doing anything but criticizing and deconstructing).
However, I look forward to the transition into yellow, and a rethink of antitrust regulation from an integral, systemic perspective…similar to the transition from 20th century capitalism to the newly emerging Conscious Capitalism, the integral version of capitalism.
As a final speculative point, it remains impossible to see to the other side of the coming AI and robotics singularity to know whether capitalism even survives as a system or whether the words “monopoly” or “antitrust policy” will even make sense.