Banks, Food, and Telecom: Break Them Up

Yesterday there was an eight-hour revolution going on in Washington. From 12 to 8, activists and politicians from across the political spectrum demanded a new economy and the breakup of big political-economic monopolies.

At at lunch the right-wing American Enterprise Institute hosted an event on consolidation in the food industry, and how it is hurting entrepreneurs. In the afternoon, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown and Republican Senator Vitter gave powerful speeches about why we need to break up the biggest banks because they are undermining stability. And in the evening, the left-leaning New America Foundation hosted an event with Susan Crawford, formerly of the Obama administration. Crawford gave a talk about how the telecom mergers have led to monopolies that are driving up prices, hurting services, limiting innovation, and leading to inequality.

12 PM: Tim Carney, at the American Enterprise Institute, presented a panel from the perspective of the entreprenuer and the small, organic farmer. His argument, made elsewhere, is that big mergers lead to a merger between government and monopolistic power, and once in power, the monopolies try to outlaw their competitors.

2 PM: Sherrod Brown calls for breakup from the perspective of stable society. His argument is about security and fragility. The banking system is now bigger than our GDP, entirely concentrated, and terrifyingly risky. There are now four banks with assets between $1.4 trillion to $2.3 trillion: a misstep by any one of these threatens the entire economy. And because they know that, the big banks can control and constrain American political choices.

Senator David Vitter is worried about the creation of oligarchies across the board. The idea of "systemically important financial institutions" could apply to other areas, where "systemically important" institutions could be designated and given unfair advantages in many sectors.

6 PM: Susan Crawford, a Cardozo Law Professor, spoke at New America last night about her new book on the extraordinarily powerful telecom monopoly. The effect of the concentrated power, as she said on Bill Moyers recently: "The rich are getting gouged, the poor are very often left out, and this means that we're creating, yet again, two Americas, and deepening inequality through this communications inequality."

Its not just food, banks and telecom -- its books, beer, chickens, and airlines, as the Markets, Enterprise and Resiliency Initiative has been studying.

There was a lot of typical surface chatter yesterday -- the sequester, the Pope, BW (Bob Woodward), BW (Business Week), Groupon -- but under the surface something far more important was happening. Three totally unconnected groups all made an argument for a different vision of the American economy and American politics. They revealed an emergent, multi-sector urgency for breaking up concentrated power. Brown, Vitter, Carney, and Crawford each channel a broad public demand for a different kind of economy.

A little over a year ago I was on a conference call with the pollster Alan Greenberg, where he was talking about his recent poll, which had found that 70 percent of Americans believe that "the solution is to break up big banks and empower communities." I asked him what the polling was on breaking up all big monopolistic companies with new antitrust laws. He said, "we aren't asking for that, are we?" We weren't then. But maybe we should be.