Markets

I criticized Google. It got me fired. That’s how corporate power works.

Barry Lynn formerly directed New America’s Open Markets program and is the author of “Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction.”

I’ve studied monopolies for about 20 years. I got into this line of work back in 1999, when an earthquake in Taiwan resulted in the shutdown of factories all over the United States. How? It turned out that the earthquake had disrupted the flow of energy to foundries in Taipei, where most of the world’s semiconductors were produced, which led to an overall industrial crash. For me, this realization opened a window into a world that shouldn’t exist: A world of industry in which major corporations controlled all of various types of production and supply. I wondered how it had come about that some companies controlled, say, all semiconductors, all airlines, all of telecommunications.

It didn’t seem right to me. So I looked into it. Since then, I’ve written two books on monopolies, edited several more, penned countless papers and dozens of op-eds. Over time, I’ve worked to expose how concentration in business can yield the same kind of risk that concentration yields in financial institutions: Just as the failure of one big bank can trigger a cascading economic collapse, the same thing can happen if one big producer or supplier fails. And there are people — mainly corporate executives — who have an interest in concentrating their industries. After all, it gives them massive control over power and wealth, and so they lobby for policies that are favorable to concentration. Little by little, they’re rigging our political system to give themselves all kinds of power — not only over how we do business but over how we speak, think and act.

A new program called Store Sales Measurement allows Google to see consumer credit and debit purchases. The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a legal complaint with the FTC July 30. (Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

If you want a good example of what big corporations do with the power concentration gives them, just look at what happened to me.

For the past 15 years, I’ve directed the antimonopoly Open Markets division of the think tank New America. Shortly after my group published a statement praising the European Union for fining Google for violating antitrust standards in June of this year, I was contacted by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the president of New America, who said that Eric Schmidt, Google’s parent company’s executive chairman, was furious about the statement. Schmidt, she said, was threatening to pull his name and substantial funding from New America in retaliation. On June 29, a mere two days later, I received a summons to meet with Slaughter. She told me that it was time for New America and Open Markets to “go their separate ways.” (She sent an email to that effect the evening of June 30.) Slaughter gave me two months to sever ties with New America and find a new source of funding for Open Markets.

I was stunned. I told my boss that I didn’t want to leave — I had been with New America for 15 years, and my colleagues and I helped build the think tank to what it is. I asked her to reconsider her decision. But she wouldn’t. She gave me until Sept. 1 to find a new home and a new place for my colleagues and me to work.

A Google software engineer penned a controversial memo, suggesting that the gender pay gap stemmed from “biological causes” between men and women. He was subsequently fired. (Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

Slaughter claimed in New America’s statement that Open Markets was severed from New America because I, personally, have been less than collegial and open. But over the 15 years of my employment with New America, my attitude has never been a problem. No think tank wants to appear beholden to the demands of its corporate donors. But in this instance, that’s exactly the case. I and the entire Open Markets team were let go because it’s not in Google’s interest to finance criticism of its business model. It’s as simple as that.

We should all be worried about big business interfering with our speech, our thinking and our expression. Corporations are geared to pursue their interests, and criticism is not in their best interest. It’s our job as citizens to build a political economy that keeps those tendencies in check. But we’re failing. Wherever you work, whatever you do, as businesses grow and concentrate their power, your livelihood will be at risk if corporations continue to extend their reach into the world of ideas.

The United States was born out of rebellion against concentrated corporate power. But the fight in Boston Harbor against the British East India Company was driven not by fear that the giant trading company would charge buyers too much. As Tea Partiers Sam Adams and John Hancock made clear, the problem was the threat it posed to “public liberty.” The founding generation didn’t want an economic boss dictating how business was done here.

How did we drift so far from the founding generation’s deep fear of massive corporations? In the 1970s and 1980s, an alliance of economic and legal scholars from the right and left of the parties — including Robert Bork and John Kenneth Galbraith — combined to overthrow America’s two-century-old antimonopoly system. They said that rather than protect the liberties of producers and buyers, and rather than distribute power in ways that helped preserve our democracy, antimonopoly should aim only at promoting the “welfare” of the consumer. Some of these Chicago School intellectuals believed unleashing monopoly would improve the “efficiency” of the U.S. economy and drive down prices. Others understood that the changes would simply concentrate power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

In the years since, an entire generation of elite lawyers and economists have been trained to this way of thinking about competition. That’s why so few among these professional competition regulators see any way to take on monopoly power today, even if they personally fear it. While Sam Adams and John Hancock worried about monopolies disrupting our democracy, today’s generation of economists and legal experts have been taught that the law can be used only to prevent the hiking of prices. It’s a dangerous misperception that will continue to imperil democracy as long as the power of corporations continues to grow unchecked.