A handful of huge conglomerates produce the majority of consumer products. What buying options do Americans have left?
In an old episode of 30 Rock, Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) is obsessed with her new jeans, made by a fictional company called Brooklyn Without Limits. The jeans are supposedly locally-sourced and eco-friendly, and she has no problem bragging about this fact at every turn. That is until Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) explains that Brooklyn Without Limits is actually owned by oil giant Halliburton, and that all of Lemon's jeans were made in a sweatshop. While this scene is hilarious, it's comic value comes from a place of truth. Kashi is owned by Kellogg's. Pepsi owns Naked Juice. Clorox owns Burt's Bees. Even Ben and Jerry's, the ice cream industry's paragons of civic responsibility and social justice, are owned by Unilever, the world's largest consumer goods company.
The marriage between smaller companies and large corporations is nothing new however, and there are certainly advantages on both sides of the aisle.
Smaller companies gain greater financial resources and wider distribution channels, while conglomerates purchase the marketing rights, and reputations of the companies they invest in. From a consumer standpoint, a buyout can occasionally mean a change in price or quality, but in today's brand-driven retail market a consumer is only likely to notice changes if she goes looking for one. Still, there's something fundamentally icky about the way so few companies control the majority of the American retail space.
On the one hand, this makes shopping for groceries a bit of a Hobson's choice, creating the illusion of alternatives without ever really providing any.
On the other, large conglomerates like General Mills and PepsiCo rob American citizens of a fundamental right: the ability to vote with their wallets. That's to say that the underpinnings of our democracy have been so corroded by corporate lobbyists and a largely nonsensical electoral system, that one of the most meaningful forms of political activism in this country is to purchase goods from companies whose (supposed) political agendas align with your personal beliefs. Without diverging into a history lesson or editorializing about the state of our republic, it's important to note that even this limited capacity to participate in the democratic process is being infringed upon.
This is where your food comes from
Conglomerates aren't isolated to the world of retail and foodstuffs though.
Tech giants like Google and Apple dominant their respective marketplaces in a way that would have John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie spinning in their graves. For example, what if someone had strong political opinions about sweatshops and the way southeast asian factory workers are treated? When forced to pick between Apple and Samsung, there's only the illusion of choice; both companies manufacture their phones in sweatshops. From a manufacturing standpoint, Samsung and Apple combined control over 70% of the US smartphone market. Other companies like HTC, LG, and Motorola–regardless of their (most likely loose) position on ethical labor– are pressured to use the same unsavory business practices in an attempt to stay competitive.
When it comes to operating systems, the monopolies become even more apparent.
Android (Google) and Apple have their operating systems in over 98% of America's smartphones, Android taking the lion's share at about two-thirds of the total marketplace. If Google's Android OS is in a phone, Google is making money, and by extension are complicit in whatever human rights violations are committed by the phone's manufacturer. Apple manufactures its own phones, so they're even more directly responsible for the human suffering involved in their factories. All this considered, the conscientious consumer really has no choice but to use the products or services from morally ambiguous companies. In order to properly boycott Google and Apple over their tacit endorsement of slave labor, one would have to give up Gmail, Google Docs, YouTube, iTunes, Apple Music, Google Play, The Zagat Guide, Shazam, Beats by Dre, Emagic, Siri, Texture, Apigee, HopStop, and Waze. Those are just the popular ones. The sheer volume of Google and Apple-made products significantly dilutes the value of voting with one's wallet.
Mark Zuckerberg in Congressional Hearing
The solution for our current predicament, as it's been in the past, is the enforcement of antitrust laws and the busting up of corporations found to be participating in de facto monopolies.
That said, it probably won't be easy, as we have a Republican majority on the Supreme Court and Washington's current economic position is one of deregulation. But even these things weren't true, certain companies–the tech giants (Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook) in particular are probably too big to be reigned in. Mark Zuckerberg made headlines when he was forced to testify in front of Congress about Cambridge Analytica, but outside of a minor PR crisis, Facebook didn't really suffer any consequences. In fact, Zuckerberg reportedly made three billion dollars during his time in Washington. Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook have a combined market capitalization equal to the GDP of France and a 24% share of the S&P 500. These tech companies now function more like independent, sovereign governments than corporations. The effort to slow their growth would require a tribunal on the world stage, and the largest antitrust lawsuit in the history of mankind.
The question we're ultimately left with, is who really holds power in America?
Some might say it's indexers and Wall Street money managers- the folks who determine a company's value, but they can only fudge their numbers so much. No one at McGraw-Hill is going to push Google out of the S&P 500. Others might say it lies with the government, but with the amount of corporate lobbyists currently in Washington, this claim feels dubious as well. As our government officials, backed by corporate money, lean into the deregulation of the markets, it's becoming more and more obvious that Congress doesn't really speak for the people. This may seem cynical, but here's a list of the how much certain members of Congress made from lobbyists during the 2017-2018 election cycle so far.
What's coming to the fore is a battle between the U.S. government and the large conglomerates that control most of the economy.
The implications of allowing these monopolies to win are much farther reaching than inconvenient pricing and a general lack of choice. The future of American democracy is hanging in the balance. As voter, all you can do is research candidates with no corporate ties, and try to put them in office. Whether or not the U.S. government has the clout to go against the quasi-sovereign tech company/nations, depends entirely on this.