Many people have labeled communism as but a myth: an unattainable fantasy. Jonathan Tepper and Denise Hearn (T&H) have, by contrast, written a new book called The myth of capitalism: Monopolies and the death of competition. It contains a series of liberal and conservative critiques of the economic system of the US in particular and the West more generally.
T&H chronicle the decline of competitiveness in almost every sector of the US economy. Most people in the mainstream media are drooling over the record highs being recorded on the stock market, but the book notes, “Between 1996-2016, the number of stocks in the US fell by roughly 50%, from more than 7300 to fewer than 3600, while rising 50% in other developed nations.” As T&H painstakingly explain by citing studies and charts, the US economy has been stagnant by most truly relevant metrics since the Reaganomics of the 1980s, such as R&D spending, company longevity, competitive consumer product prices and the number of annual startups.
The superficiality of the recent Wall St gains is enabled via trickery such as stock buybacks, oligopolistic mergers & lobbyist-sponsored deregulation and tax exemptions. Such corruption used to be illegal, in pre- Reagan and Buckley v. Valeo America. Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt both cracked down on monopolies like Standard Oil and the New York Central Railroad by enforcing the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts. Every president since Teddy, both Democrat and Republican, cracked down on potential monopolies until Reagan. This helped prevent a market crash akin to those of 1907 and 1929, which were the direct result of laissez-faire capitalism.
Wide-scale mergers started occurring during the Reagan Administration and have only picked up steam ever since. Concerning our last president, T&H note that, “Obama talked tough on big business and Wall Street, but he raised as much money from them as possible and was arguably even more pro-merger than Bush. His DOJ approved all the airline mergers, creating an oligopoly of four airlines… He allowed Google’s major acquisitions that vertically integrated parts of the ad industry… The FTC prevented Comcast from buying Time Warner in 2015 and AT&T from acquiring T-Mobile in 2011. These were the only notable mergers Obama’s DOJ blocked.”
The book lists all of the industries that have effectively become oligopolies or even monopolies: search engines, beer, beverages, glasses, weapons, banks, telecommunications, social media, cell phone manufacturing, agriculture, airlines, pharmaceuticals, credit rating, tobacco, railroads, etc. The consolidation of market share to a handful of billion-dollar companies has throttled the entry of new companies in our so-called Age of the Startup. T&H write how Facebook has (after buying out Instagram) been able to devastate upstart platform Snapchat by mimicking all of Snapchat’s features. Such treachery, combined with Facebook’s 2B+ user base, ensured Snapchat would end up in the financial spiral that’s it’s currently in. This is but one example of how the post-merger era has sabotaged fresh competition. The book relays this sobering stat: “In 1995, the top 100 companies accounted for 53% of all income from publicly traded firms, but by 2015, they captured a whopping 84% of all profits.” After decades of decline, the number of new firm entries fell below the number of firm exits in 2013. This decline in the number of startup innovators inevitably ends up hurting technological innovations.
The merger bonanza may be great for Wall St, but it’s horrible for Middle America. For instance, T&H write, “When workers have fewer employers to choose from in their line of work, their bargaining power disappears. Corporate giants can squeeze their suppliers, but the main thing companies buy is labor, and they have been squeezing workers.” Thus, wages have struggled to keep up with inflation for decades. Benefits are cut, while stock buybacks soar. Unhappy workers in all but 3 states can be shackled to soul-sucking jobs via non-compete clauses. Furthermore, “56% of private sector non-unionized workers are forced into mandatory arbitration and of those, 23% were also denied any access to class-action lawsuits. This means that nearly a quarter of working Americans in the private sector don’t have the basic right to sue their employer.”
Mergers aren’t good for consumers either, despite what the corporatist rhetoric will tell you. T&Hgive countless examples of how industries became less innovative after drinking the Oligopoly Kool-Aid. The lack of competition this environment leads to complacency and, thus, a lack of product innovation or even concern for customer service. The book also reports that, “in mergers that led to 6 or fewer significant competitors, prices rose in nearly 95% of cases… On average, post-merger prices increased 4.3%.” Industries from beer to pharmaceuticals are infamous for fixing prices, due to high barriers of entry for startups and tacit (and sometimes explicit) collusion. According to the book’s data, the average specialty pharmaceutical medication cost jumped 217% from 2011-2015. Unsurprising, when you consider that, “In 2017, drug makers paid for 882 lobbyists and spent more than $171.5M in an effort to oppose lower prescription drug prices.”
Ironically, lobbyists will argue that mergers lead to lower prices and greater innovation. They make the dishonest argument that the goal of the antitrust acts was solely to help consumers. In fact, the legislation never even mentioned consumer efficiency; the bills were all about breaking up the power of the trusts. People like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson saw how monopolies exceeded government authority in many cases; a lack of government enforcement of industry ultimately led to the Great Depression and the resulting New Deal reformations.
In the era of the Too-Big-to-Fail banks and corporations, the lessons of The myth of capitalism are more important than ever. They expose the façade of the post-recession “economic recovery” for what it is: stock buybacks and mergers puffing up the economy. Everyone and everything from workers, consumers, people with medical conditions, startups and the IRS suffer from the corruption of American capitalism. Tepper and Hearn frame their central thesis with liberal ideals and arguments (protecting the consumer, income inequality, maintaining government independence from corporate influence), as well as conservative (market competitiveness, cutting red tape for small business, low consumer prices). A lot is written about the thoughts of Hayek and Friedman, but also leftists like FDR and Marx. The final chapter offers some solutions to the problems of our times, but they’re pretty predictable if you’ve been reading along the whole way. Page after page of charts succinctly illustrate the points T&H make about trust-busting, the corrosiveness of the lobbyist class, the benefits of competitive markets, and livings standards for people on Main Street. The myth of capitalism is a very readable, even-handed and informative primer for anyone questioning whether or not they’re being gas lighted by the nonstop barrage of praise for the economy by the oligopolistic mainstream media.
The Covid After-Effects and the Looming Skills Shortage
The shock of the pandemic is changing the ways in which we think about the world and in which we analyze the future trajectories of development. The persistence of the Covid pandemic will likely accentuate this transformation and the prominence of the “green agenda” this year is just one of the facets of these changes. Market research as well as the numerous think-tanks will be accordingly re-calibrating the time horizons and the main themes of analysis. Greater attention to longer risks and fragilities is likely to take on greater prominence, with particular scrutiny being accorded to high-impact risk factors that have a non-negligible probability of materializing in the medium- to long-term. Apart from the risks of global warming other key risk factors involve the rising labour shortages, most notably in areas pertaining to human capital development.
The impact of the Covid pandemic on the labour market will have long-term implications, with “hysteresis effects” observed in both highly skilled and low-income tiers of the labour market. One of the most significant factors affecting the global labour market was the reduction in migration flows, which resulted in the exacerbation of labour shortages across the major migrant recipient countries, such as Russia. There was also a notable blow delivered by the pandemic to the spheres of human capital development such as education and healthcare, which in turn exacerbated the imbalances and shortages in these areas. In particular, according to the estimates of the World Health Organization (WHO) shortages can mount up to 9.9 million physicians, nurses and midwives globally by 2030.
In Europe, although the number of physicians and nurses has increased in general in the region by approximately 10% over the past 10 years, this increase appears to be insufficient to cover the needs of ageing populations. At the same time the WHO points to sizeable inequalities in the availability of physicians and nurses between countries, whereby there are 5 times more doctors in some countries than in others. The situation with regard to nurses is even more acute, as data show that some countries have 9 times fewer nurses than others.
In the US substantial labour shortages in the healthcare sector are also expected, with anti-crisis measures falling short of substantially reversing the ailments in the national healthcare system. In particular, data published by the AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges), suggests that the United States could see an estimated shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034, including shortfalls in both primary and specialty care.
The blows sustained by global education from the pandemic were no less formidable. These affected first and foremost the youngest generation of the globe – according to UNESCO, “more than 1.5 billion students and youth across the planet are or have been affected by school and university closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic”. On top of the adverse effects on the younger generation (see Box 1), there is also the widening “teachers gap”, namely a worldwide shortage of well-trained teachers. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), “69 million teachers must be recruited to achieve universal primary and secondary education by 2030”.
From our partner RIAC
Accelerating COVID-19 Vaccine Uptake to Boost Malawi’s Economic Recovery
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries including Malawi have struggled to mitigate its impact amid limited fiscal support and fragile health systems. The pandemic has plunged the continent into its first recession in over 25 years, and vulnerable groups such as the poor, informal sector workers, women, and youth, suffer disproportionately from reduced opportunities and unequal access to social safety nets.
Fast-tracking COVID-19 vaccine acquisition—alongside widespread testing, improved treatment, and strong health systems—are critical to protecting lives and stimulating economic recovery. In support of the African Union’s (AU) target to vaccinate 60 percent of the continent’s population by 2022, the World Bank and the AU announced a partnership to assist the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT) initiative with resources, allowing countries to purchase and deploy vaccines for up to 400 million Africans. This extraordinary effort complements COVAX and comes at a time of rising cases in the region.
I am convinced that unless every country in the world has fair, broad, and fast access to effective and safe COVID-19 vaccines, we will not stem the spread of the pandemic and set the global economy on track for a steady and inclusive recovery. The World Bank has taken unprecedented steps to ramp up financing for Malawi, and every country in Africa, to empower them with the resources to implement successful vaccination campaigns and compensate for income losses, food price increases, and service delivery disruptions.
In line with Malawi’s COVID-19 National Response and Preparedness Plan which aims to vaccinate 60 percent of the population, the World Bank approved $30 million in additional financing for the acquisition and deployment of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. This financing comes as a boost to Malawi’s COVID-19 Emergency Response and Health Systems Preparedness project, bringing World Bank contributions in this sector up to $37 million.
Malawi’s decision to purchase 1.8 million doses of Johnson and Johnson vaccines through the AU/African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT) with World Bank financing is a welcome development and will enable Malawi to secure additional vaccines to meet its vaccination target.
However, Malawi’s vaccination campaign has encountered challenges driven by concerns regarding safety, efficacy, religious and cultural beliefs. These concerns, combined with abundant misinformation, are fueling widespread vaccine hesitancy despite the pandemic’s impact on the health and welfare of billions of people. The low uptake of COVID-19 vaccines is of great concern, and it remains an uphill battle to reach the target of 60 percent by the end of 2023 from the current 2.2 percent.
Government leadership remains fundamental as the country continues to address vaccine hesitancy by consistently communicating the benefits of the vaccine, releasing COVID data, and engaging communities to help them understand how this impacts them.
As we deploy targeted resources to address COVID-19, we are also working to ensure that these investments support a robust, sustainable and resilient recovery. Our support emphasizes transparency, social protection, poverty alleviation, and policy-based financing to make sure that COVID assistance gets to the people who have been hit the hardest.
For example, the Financial Inclusion and Entrepreneurship Scaling Project (FInES) in Malawi is supporting micro, small, and medium enterprises by providing them with $47 million in affordable credit through commercial banks and microfinance institutions. Eight months into implementation, approximately $8.4 million (MK6.9 billion) has been made available through three commercial banks on better terms and interest rates. Additionally, nearly 200,000 urban households have received cash transfers and urban poor now have more affordable access to water to promote COVID-19 prevention.
Furthermore, domestic mobilization of resources for the COVID-19 response are vital to ensuring the security of supply of health sector commodities needed to administer vaccinations and sustain ongoing measures. Likewise, regional approaches fostering cross-border collaboration are just as imperative as in-country efforts to prevent the spread of the virus. United Nations (UN) partners in Malawi have been instrumental in convening regional stakeholders and supporting vaccine deployment.
Taking broad, fast action to help countries like Malawi during this unprecedented crisis will save lives and prevent more people falling into poverty. We thank Malawi for their decisive action and will continue to support the country and its people to build a resilient and inclusive recovery.
This op-ed first appeared in The Nation, via World Bank
An Airplane Dilemma: Convenience Versus Environment
Mr. President: There are many consequences of COVID-19 that have changed the existing landscape due to the cumulative effects of personal behavior. For example, the decline in the use of automobiles has been to the benefit of the environment. A landmark study published by Nature in May 2020 confirmed a 17 percent drop in daily CO2 emissions but with the expectation that the number will bounce back as human activity returns to normal.
Yet there is hope. We are all creatures of habit and having tried teleconferences, we are less likely to take the trouble to hop on a plane for a personal meeting, wasting time and effort. Such is also the belief of aircraft operators. Add to this the convenience of shopping from home and having the stuff delivered to your door and one can guess what is happening.
In short, the need for passenger planes has diminished while cargo operators face increased demand. Fewer passenger planes also means a reduction in belly cargo capacity worsening the situation. All of which has led to a new business with new jobs — converting passenger aircraft for cargo use. It is not as simple as it might seem, and not just a matter of removing seats, for all unnecessary items must be removed for cargo use. They take up cargo weight and if not removed waste fuel.
After the seats and interior fittings have been removed, the cabin floor has to be strengthened. The side windows are plugged and smoothed out. A cargo door is cut out and the existing emergency doors are deactivated and sealed. Also a new crew entry door has to be cut-out and installed.
A new in-cabin cargo barrier with a sliding access door is put in, allowing best use of cargo and cockpit space and a merged carrier and crew space. A new crew lavatory together with replacement water and waste systems replace the old, which supplied the original passenger area and are no longer needed.
The cockpit gets upgrades which include a simplified air distribution system and revised hydraulics. At the end of it all, we have a cargo jet. If the airlines are converting their planes, then they must believe not all the travelers will be returning after the covid crisis recedes.
Airline losses have been extraordinary. Figures sourced from the World Bank and the International Civil Aviation Organization reveal air carriers lost $370 billion in revenues. This includes $120 billion in the Asia-Pacific region, $100 billion in Europe and $88 billion in North America.
For many of the airlines, it is now a new business model transforming its fleet for cargo demand and launching new cargo routes. The latter also requires obtaining regulatory approvals.
A promising development for the future is sustainable aviation fuel (SAP). Developed by the Air France KLM Martinair consortium it reduces CO2 emissions, and cleaner air transport contributes to lessening global warming.
It is a good start since airplanes are major transportation culprits increasing air pollution and radiative forcing. The latter being the heat reflected back to earth when it is greater than the heat radiated from the earth. All of which should incline the environmentally conscious to avoid airplane travel — buses and trains pollute less and might be a preferred alternative for domestic travel.
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