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Over a century ago, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the United States enjoyed a period known today as the Gilded Age. Great fortunes were made and lost, and America rapidly ascended to become the preeminent industrial power in the western world. During those critical years, four industries dominated the land: oil, railroads, steel, and shipping. These industries were controlled and exploited by vast monopolies that squashed out any forms of opposition or competition. In the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century, President Teddy Roosevelt broke up the monopolies and reinstalled more competition in American markets. In the decades that followed, no companies would ever again rise to the ascendancy of companies like Standard Oil and Carnegie Steel Company in the Gilded Age.
In the 2010s and 2020s, however, history may finally be repeating itself. Corporate titans have once again come to dominate the United States, squeezing the life out of smaller companies. From the technology sector, with big companies like Apple and Microsoft, to entertainment companies like Disney and pharmaceutical companies in medicine, monopolies have once again captured the attention of a great many Americans. This article aims to evaluate the true extent of American monopolization in the twenty-first century, and whether there is anything to be done to stop modern-day monopolies.
“Corporate titans are have once again come to dominate the United States, squeezing the life out of smaller industries…”
At the end of the Gilded Age in the first decade of the twentieth century, just a few monopolies controlled more than twenty percent of the United States economy. As late as 1894, around 4,000 companies had made up what would become the monopolistic sector of the economy, but in just a ten-year span they were all bought up and consolidated into just a few companies. In forty-one different high-profile American industries, more than seventy percent of the profits were controlled by a single company. As companies tightened their hold over particular industries, the quality of products being produced started to fall off a cliff. Without established competition holding companies accountable, they had no incentive to produce commodities well, just cheaply. It was primarily for this reason, among others, that Theodore Roosevelt broke them up.
In the decade of the 2010s and into the early 2020s, monopolies in the United States have increasingly come to resemble those of the late Gilded Age. Outside of the obvious industries like technology, medicine, and entertainment, other industries have begun to face problems. In United States agriculture, sixty-six percent of the industry is controlled by just four companies. Three companies have seventy-five percent control of the beer industry. Eighty percent of hardware companies are now controlled by just two companies. The list goes on and on. Most experts agree that American monopolization in the 2020s is beginning to rival that of the Gilded Age, and some argue that modern-day monopolization has even surpassed it. Small businesses around the country are being choked out, the quality of products is decreasing, and more money than ever is going to the super-rich in control of the biggest companies. What is to be done to solve the problem?
“In United States agriculture, sixty-six percent of the industry is controlled by just four companies…”
Oftentimes, the struggle against monopolies begins at the state level as opposed to the federal level. States and even cities can target monopolistic companies by hiking up taxes and subsidizing small businesses and other forms of competition. When states are unsuccessful in curbing the strength of multi-state or even multinational corporations, it is up to the federal government to step in. The federal government is able to provide larger tax hikes against large companies and bigger subsidies to stop monopolies. The greatest power of the federal government, however, is in legislation and legal action. The Federal Trade Commission was formed in order to sniff out monopolies and can advise Congress and the president on what to do about them. As a last resort, the federal government can also invoke the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, which can be used to break up companies that are considered monopolistic.
While very little has been done to combat monopolies as of yet, it is a matter of time before the federal government starts taking measures to break them up. The Democratic Party has always taken a more progressive, anti-corporate stance, but Republicans and their voters are now beginning to come around as well. Recent conflicts between Ron Desantis and Disney in the state of Florida and the purchasing of Twitter by Elon Musk have generated a hyper-focus on the subject of monopolization on both sides of the aisle. While a shift in government attitudes and policy towards possible monopolies may not be immediate, it is coming sooner rather than later.