Michael Moore Almost Gets It Right

Michael Moore, writing at Alternet (“Why Republicans Are Always Worried About Their Pet Corporations Facing Any Real Free Market Competition,” Oct. 21),  makes a very acute observation:  “whenever corporate executives begin talking about how they support ‘free markets’ and ‘competition,’ check to see if you still have your wallet.”  The reason is that “nobody” — not even Marxists — “hates competition more than corporations.”

Take a look at just about any industry.  The one that employs me, healthcare, is as good an example as any.  The two largest national hospital chains — HCA and CHS — are both headquartered in the Greater Nashville area (as are a number of other major hospital chains).  Although in legal theory the corporations are two distinct artificial persons, the same actual flesh-and-blood human beings shuttle back and forth as Directors and Vice Presidents from one organization to the other.  Their senior managers went to the same B-schools, they share the same corporate culture, they all socialize together with the same bunch of Rotary Club yahoos, and their wives are in Junior League together.  They all show up in the society pages kissing pigs for diabetes, wearing pink ribbons for breast cancer, or handing over a giant check to the United Way.

Meanwhile, the individual CEOs carry out massive downsizings and staffing cuts within their separate corporations, managing to keep straight faces while justifying them to their rank-and-file employees based on the need to provide “shareholder value” in a “hyper-competitive global marketplace” — and then get together and laugh themselves silly over martinis after eighteen holes of golf at the country club.  And they collect their own multi-million dollar salaries and pay hundreds of millions in administrator salaries in their local hospitals while earnestly informing their workers that “patient care staff is our biggest source of unit costs.”  (“We pigs need the milk and apples to keep up our strength for intellectual work, comrades.  You wouldn’t want Jones to come back, would you?”)

But it’s about the same in any other industry dominated by a handful of oligopoly firms.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Brezhnev and Nixon solemnly justified their respective systems of power to the domestic population in terms of the communist or imperialist “threat,” and then laughed it up about the gullibility of their domestic populations at the Happy Hour after the next summit conference.  (If you’ll forgive another Animal Farm reference:  “If you have your lower classes, we have our lower animals.”  Haw haw haw.)

Avoiding competition is the law and the prophets for large corporations.  As former ADM chief Dwayne Andreas put it, “The competitor is our friend; the customer is our enemy.”   The ideal world for large corporations is one in which competition between them is severely constrained if it exists at all, and the only real competition is that between workers desperate to get jobs on any terms offered — and the “competitive marketplace” exists only as a useful legitimizing myth for justifying downsizings and speedups to their respective workforces.  (Even as the CEOs collect enormous “performance bonuses” for hollowing out their organizations, of course).

Moore was so close — but he just missed it.  Moore frames the issue as one of big corporations trying to suppress competition by weakening the antitrust laws.  “When corporate executives start pushing for ‘free market policies,’ what they mean is a government that lets them become a monopoly.”

If he’d said they want “a government that HELPS them become a monopoly,” he’d have had it just right.  The main factor behind monopoly isn’t whether government lets it exist by failing to enforce antitrust laws.  It’s whether government enables it by erecting entry barriers, suppressing competition with cartelizing regulations, and enforcing legal monopolies like “intellectual property.”  Government doesn’t “allow” monopoly.  It props it up.

But Moore’s right about one thing:  Competition is for the little people.

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