Review: Sarah Chayes on Zephyr Teachout and Monopoly

“I get phone calls continually about suicide,” an Alabama chicken farmer tells Zephyr Teachout. That’s where Teachout, a legal scholar specializing in corruption, starts her new book about the crushing weight of monopoly on American economic and political life. Most economic coverage is written by city-dwellers. When they consider the threat of monopoly, the tech sector is usually top of mind. But, writes Teachout, “to understand the gig economy and the future of work, it helps to understand what is happening in farming.” By launching this superb book in the heartland, Teachout makes one of her most salient points: as with so many issues, rural and urban Americans have powerful interests in common here.

Many of us have been shocked by images from contemporary industrial agriculture. There is that scene in the movie Fresh: The camera zooms in on a couple who raise industrial chickens, looking pinched on their couch as they maintain that their birds are happy. The next scene shows crates of chicks being dumped out on cage floors.

Teachout exposes the corporate structure that undergirds such scenes. The couple’s contract with Tyson or Pilgrim’s or Perdue forbids them from disclosing how much they are paid per chicken. It details exactly how they must run their operation, down to the drugs they administer, the lighting of their barns. The rates paid differ from neighbor to neighbor and are not tied to the retail price of chicken meat. (Farmers are told that those who raise the plumpest chickens get more money per pound, but how can they know?) Processing conglomerates can conduct experiments: for example, giving a new feed mixture to only some farmers. If their birds get scrawny, Perdue has gleaned priceless information, while the families shoulder the cost in lower per-pound prices for lighter birds. Such families, often hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt for the buildings they have erected to the processor’s specifications, do not have the option of returning to independence or changing their corporate affiliation.

Teachout shows how this “chickenization” has spread through rural America—to hog and beef production, to corn and soy—forcing nominally free agents from communities that have prized self-sufficiency for generations to serve a remote and unknowable corporate bureaucracy. Its executives do not just go unpunished for the damage they do to livelihoods and localities—they are rewarded, with wealth, celebrity, political influence.

Only after establishing this rural reality does Teachout move on to the urban gig economy, where the identical principles apply. National and multinational corporations control thousands of “self-employed” workers who shoulder all the risk and reap none of the rewards for delivering our packages, renting us vacation homes, cleaning up after us, or driving us around.

The analysis sheds light on some current anomalies. Why did the (pre-COVID) booming economy leave wages so persistently low? Because, Teachout explains, vertically-integrated mega-corporations reduce available employment alternatives by driving independent businesses out of local markets, and—where their territories overlap—by silently colluding on compensation and working conditions.

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When it comes to the tech giants, such as Facebook and Google, Teachout identifies ambitions that extend far beyond market power. Their interest in absorbing competition applies not just to commodities and even ideas, but to power. She describes cringing senators begging for Mark Zuckerberg’s help in regulating Facebook: “The senators,” she writes “were treating Zuckerberg as the governor of a separate country: Facebook. They came in peace.”

This terminology is Facebook’s own. “In a lot of ways, Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company,” its founder actually said in 2018. Teachout emphasizes the danger to democracy of such ambitions. A company that sees itself as transcending one country’s laws and its citizens’ interests is accountable only to its executives and shareholders. Nothing constrains such an entity from pursuing its own advantage: surveilling its customers, influencing political outcomes, extracting value from economies.

Teachout walks readers through the effects of monopoly on the key pillars of any democratic polity: independent media, especially of the small-town variety where local impacts of these practices could be investigated. And judicial recourse. We sign away our rights to take these companies to court every time we click that “I agree” box, to obtain services without which we cannot function. We cannot opt out; there is no alternative.

In one of her most impassioned arguments, Teachout draws on these insights to challenge a remedy currently in fashion: the spontaneous consumer boycott. The boycotts that marked America’s democratization, she notes—of tea in the 1770s and public buses in the 1960s—were different. They were not stand-alone efforts by isolated individuals. They were planned collective actions in pursuit of clear political demands. Trust-busting indignation galvanized protest during the First Gilded Age, which led to anti-monopoly legislation in the early twentieth century and robust enforcement of those laws later, from the mid-1930s to about 1980. Then the march towards consolidation began again. Today’s mega-corporations will never be curbed, Teachout argues, by way of individual consumer choices alone—no matter how well-meaning. Like the boycotts that helped force important changes in the past, such efforts today must be coordinated in support of specific public policy demands.

There are a few places where my own thinking on these issues diverges from hers. She refers to “corporations” as though these are in fact the sentient beings the Supreme Court has made them. But corporations are just vehicles constructed by humans to achieve certain aims. Teachout underplays the role of networks of people—government officials and wealthy business executives—in designing and implementing the policies she decries. She also ignores how the monopolies’ practices filter down to smaller businesses (I’m thinking of the food service industry), which mirror their poverty wages and ever-shifting schedules. Toward the end, also, the book loses some of its surefootedness. Its futuristic epilogue seems a bit rushed.

But those are quibbles with an exciting book. Teachout has taken a pervasive threat that hangs in the air around us like an amorphous mist and etched it in sharp, and disturbing, clarity. Her style throughout is deft. She zooms in on just a few emblematic images—the four coffins representing four New York taxi drivers who did take their own lives, for example, carried by their colleagues to the steps of City Hall—and then wide-angles the picture to frame the broader patterns. And she names names. Lots of them.

Her pages of recommendations are as inspiring as she means them to be. (Start by demanding federal and state governments enforce antitrust laws currently on the books, which would allow for unwinding some current monopolies; demand significant structural penalties for violations, not ineffective fines; ask Congress for new laws banning the worst abuses, such as predatory pricing and forced arbitration and non-disclosure agreements for employees and contractors.) Given the outsized political influence that, as Teachout describes, a few big players have come to command, it is hard to see how such measures get enacted, no matter who wins in November. But one way to be sure they won’t is not to fight for them. This book gives American citizens the reason to do so.

Note: I favorably reviewed Teachout’s first book, Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuffbox to Citizens United for the Wall Street Journal, in 2014. Some years later, I introduced myself and we have remained in touch. 

Sarah Chayes was a reporter for National Public Radio from 1996 to 2002, when she left journalism to help in the rebuilding of Afghanistan, which she had covered. She then served as special advisor to two commanders of the international forces in Kabul and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and was for five years a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace studying corruption and security. She is the author of the forthcoming On Corruption in America: And What Is at Stake.

Book notes
Among the urgent matters before the United States Congress this week as it considers a second round of emergency coronavirus spending is the fate of life-giving funds for the nation’s public libraries. Like our public schools, though perhaps less flagrantly so, our public libraries have for generations fed the roots of functioning democracy even as they remain chronically underfunded. As with public schools, the nation wrestles with how to balance the safety of public servants and those they serve with the crucial benefits they provide. The pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the necessity of some of the contemporary library’s core functions—the provision of public internet access, support for unemployed people seeking jobs, a public place for kids to play and learn—and yet, as with schools, a decisive mobilization to meet these needs safely seems slow in coming.

Libraries have been wrestling with the public consequences of the pandemic since Day One. When most of their buildings closed in the early weeks librarians working remotely ramped up their digital offerings, created new electronic reference platforms, and set up dial-in ask-a-librarian desks. (I appeared virtually “at” the Brooklyn Public Library myself in May! Thank you, BPL.) Libraries have gradually begun to offer limited in-person services such as curbside pickup (with creative variants: bookmobiles, mobile wifi, curated brown-bags for kids, delivery by schoolbus and drone, one-city-one-book reading programs, and outdoor events). Some have opened only to the most needy: Joel Jones, of the Kansas City Public Library, made their spaces available by appointment, taking referrals first from organizations working with poor and homeless people and people with mental illnesses; they are even calling at home older regulars they fear may be lonely. Seattle’s libraries opened their restrooms in April, to give homeless people a place to wash their hands, and developed hotspot lending programs for the underserved, installing wifi in weatherproof enclosures at homeless encampments and shelters and relief operations.

But there is a latent question of the human costs of such programs. An April report described librarians forced to choose between unpaid leave and high-risk work in hotels repurposed as homeless shelters and obliged to perform in potentially dangerous public settings work they could do from home. Librarians in San Francisco were commandeered as contact-tracers, committed as public employees to step in as “disaster service workers” when the mayor declares a citywide emergency. Librarians have expressed fear of returning to work, and their interests, like those of teachers, have passionate defenders, whose language strikes at the core of how we value our learning infrastructure and the rights of working people: the jobs that get identified as “essential,” even “heroic,” in this perilous moment, librarians note, seem also to be those we protect and pay the least. (Teachers have also challenged the moralizing language with which they are enjoined to return to work and potentially spread disease.)

Systems that are adequately funded and sensitively managed are making progress in adapting to the new conditions and honoring worker and patron safety. A long-awaited study in late June established that quarantining books and other lent materials for three days renders them virus-free; libraries are busy rearranging furniture, painting marks on the floor, and installing hand sanitizer stations, spit guards, and plexiglass dividers in their spaces, though patrons, not surprisingly, are not always supportive.

It seems glaringly visible here, as with public schools, that a significant and well-considered infusion of funds would have enormous public benefits. Wifi deserts, widespread unemployment, lost provisions for children are among our most pressing ills, and yet libraries, like schools, receive most of their funding from the states, funding that was chronically threatened even before the pandemic (remember the chain of teachers’ strikes of 2018, demanding not only improved salaries in an environment of austerity but even budget for basic materials?). The assault on state budgets by the coronavirus-induced recession places even existing library funding (like school funding) at perilous risk, not to mention facing a generational reinvention of the way they do their work.

Among the ranks of librarians (as with teachers) there are clear-headed calls for a deliberate process of opening that gradually initiates essential services as it develops stronger safety provisions, calls that lament the absence of clear direction from above. Such a process would reenvision these functions for a new era in which reliance on digital means would be integrated into our need for in-person connection. As Eric Klinenberg, the author of Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, told Publishers Weekly:

We now have millions of people who are feeling isolated, and stressed, and out of sorts. This is a moment in our history where we are going to need public spaces like never before. I think this pandemic has magnified the importance of the public library in American community life. There simply is no other place that has such capacity to bring people together … American voters are going to need to connect the dots, or we could soon find ourselves without many of the institutions that keep us stable.

Read some of our other pieces on public libraries!
Sue Halpern and Her Town Build a Library
Ruth Franklin on Susan Orlean’s
The Library Book
Book thoughts in the age of shutdown

Book notes: Libraries and the pandemic

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