Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University, spent the last decade establishing himself as one of the pre-eminent antitrust thinkers. In the Master Switch and The Attention Merchants, Wu used a wide-angle lens to examine the implications of the rising information cartels on American business and society. In The Curse of Bigness, Wu takes a magnifying glass to industrial concentration and the economic and political dangers it creates. The book succinctly distills a generation of research into one easily digestible volume. In this The Curse of Bigness Review, I summarize the main argument that Tim Wu’s central arguments
2018 was a year of contrasts.
From a personal level, things have never been better. I got promoted, bought a house, and got married. As I said, for me, things have never been better.
However, America seems to be edging itself closer and closer to outright fascism. Migrant children are dying because Government agents are kidnapping them. The Federal government is shut down — although the Republicans control all levers of the federal government. Our institutions are dying; seemingly at the same time.
So much is happening, and yet except for the mid-term elections, there doesn’t seem to be much hope against the constant attacks. In a 2016 interview with the New York Times, President Obama remarked that reading allowed him to better digest the constant bombardment of information pointed at the office. It slowed the assault, helped separate the signal from the noise, and gave him perspective.
Here are the books I read in 2018 along with a quick recap. Some are hopeful, others aren’t. They all provide some context to today’s ever-changing landscape. If reading recommendations are your thing, here are my recommendations for 2014, 2015, and 2016.
The Fall of Wisconsin, a 2018 book by New Yorker’s Dan Kaufman, analyzes how conservatives utilized Dark Money, Gerrymandering, and Weak Democratic opposition to enact a radical and dangerous conservative agenda in Wisconsin. “(Their) devastating success has allowed for the transformation of Wisconsin into a laboratory for corporate interests and conservative activists,” Kaufman writes. Act 10 (rightly) receives the majority of the press, but it’s really one of many extreme changes the Republican Party brought to Wisconsin. In the last two years, the Republican-controlled Senate supported a bill to remove all of the state’s air-pollution regulations. This book review will outline Kaufman’s core thesis and help explain how three forces, Dark Money, Gerrymandering, and weak Democratic Opposition created a nightmare scenario.
Dark Money fueled the Fall of Wisconsin
The Citizen’s United decision effectively allowed corporations to launder political spending through non-profits. According to Issue One, a non-partisan campaign finance reform organization, just 15 groups have spent more than $600 million “in secret money” influencing our elections. In Wisconsin, no organization has been more potent than the Bradley Foundation. Initially established by a Milwaukee industrialist looking to avoid inheritance taxes, it initially focuses on area hospitals and universities. In the 1980s it transitioned into a weaponized conservative outlet—focusing on school vouchers, destroying unions, and promoting white supremacy masked in academic jargon. The foundation’s assets have ballooned to nearly $850 million.
The Bradley Foundation’s most significant success has been Act 10—legislation that stripped collective bargaining rights from the state’s public workers (except police and firefighters—two groups who were neutral or supported Walker’s initial election). The legislation kick-started massive teacher protests, which Walker later compared to ISIS. The effects have been devastating for the state’s educational system. According to an analysis by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Act 10 resulted in a 30% drop in state granted education degrees resulting in 25 percent of school districts reporting an “extreme shortage” of qualified applicants. “Teaching,” current Governor-elect Tony Evers remarked at the time, “no longer considered an attractive career path.”
Perhaps the most insidious effect was villainizing teachers. The last thirty years left many Wisconsinites behind. Instead of asking “Why they no longer had health insurance,” people started asking “Why did teachers have it?” “A Wisconsin labor leader once told me that Act 10 succeeded,” said Kauffman. The leader’s answer is both telling and depressing. “Because Walker transformed the person who spent the day in a classroom teaching his child from “teacher” to “union member.”
Once in control over Wisconsin’s government, the Republican party launched a full-throated assault on voting rights in the state. They passed restrictive voter identification laws to suppress minority and student votes and cemented control by gerrymandering election boundaries. In the first election after the rigged voting maps, Republican received 175,000 fewer votes but ended the day with a 60-39 majority. This was a fundamental part of the Republican strategy. Restrict the rights of non-Republican voters, while reducing the impact of non-Republican votes. In 2018, after Governor Walker was surprisingly beaten by State Superintendent Tony Evers, Republicans began their second assault on Democracy and voting rights.
Weak democratic opposition
A portion of Republican success in the state is due to the Democratic party. Modern democrats had no interest in defending the average working person against the Republican onslaught. President Obama declined to even campaign in Wisconsin during the passage of the bill—creating a boom for Scott Walker. The book doesn’t dive into this, but in the mid-1990s, centrist Democrats began to move away from unions as a source of natural support. The transition started with Jimmy Carter but solidified itself after NAFTA. The logic was that for every union vote they lost, they’d make it up with the professional suburbs. Led by Bill Clinton, liberals began to abandon New Deal policies and adopt market “friendly” positions. The result was market deregulation and globalization—at the same time, Democrats reduced the welfare state. The result was two parties working against working people. This directly led to Donald Trump.
Should you read The Fall of Wisconsin?
The point of every review is basically, should I read this book? After I finished The Fall of Wisconsin, I would have said no. I didn’t really learn anything during it. However, I also live in Wisconsin and am active in Wisconsin politics. As I began writing my review, I realized that Kauffman did a solid job of distilling the state’s political revolution. If you don’t live here, you should absolutely read this book. The current state of Wisconsin is the nation’s fate if Progressives don’t start winning office and exterting political power.
In Hit Makers, Derek Thompson tries to explain why some ideas become popular and others fade away. It’s an important question and one facing every content creator in today’s hyper-competitive media landscape. Technology platforms like Spotify, Facebook, and Twitter have transformed media into a winner take’s all market. How does a new band break through on Spotify—when the top one percent of acts capture 80 percent of recorded music revenue? How can a television show break through hundreds of channels and streaming options? How can an unknown writer catch-on? Hit Makers claims to answer these questions. Unfortunately, Thompson fails to offer new insights to this question. Instead, Hit Makers is a book on how cultural hits are created, published in 2017, with arguments from 2010.
The central thesis of Nixonland, a sprawling look at the origin, rise, and decline of the Nixon administration, is that there was simmering white resentment underneath the optimism and change of the Kennedy Administration. Hidden behind the civil rights movement was a mass of unhappy middle-class white people. Nixon wasn’t the first politician to exploit white rage, that honor would go to Ronald Reagan. Nixon merely copied it, perfected it, and fractured the nation into Nixonland. Richard Nixon, Ron Perlstein writes, “so brilliantly co-opted the liberals’ populism.” Re-directing well-meaning reforms, “into a white middle-class rage at the sophisticated, the wellborn, the “best circles” — all those who looked down their noses at “you and me”…that sneered imperiously at the simple faiths of ordinary folk, their simple patriotism, their simple pleasures.”
In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson won 61.05 percent of the popular vote on a platform of expanding FDR’s New Deal to non-white Americans. Its sole goal was to eradicate poverty and racial injustice. He coined it the “Great Society.” When lighting the national Christmas Tree, President Lyndon Johnson described it as “the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem.” Eight years later Richard Nixon won 60.67 percent of the vote on a platform of “Law and Order”; an ideological repudiation of the Great Society. Nixonland is fundamentally about this uniquely American transformation. How America went from believing civil rights law leveled the playing field to one that held it caused race riots. How it went from viewing welfare as help for the weakest to help for the laziest. How political dissent became tantamount to treason. Nixon was at the center of it all, weaponizing a white populace’s fears into an “us versus them” political revolution. “Far from becoming a great society,” Nixon wrote in Reader’s Digest leading up to his Presidential election, “ours is becoming a lawless society.” The underlying context was that only Richard Nixon, and people like him, could protect society from the hordes of others.
Amazon has engulfed nearly every aspect of retail and is positioned for more. Its North American sales have quintupled since 2010. Between 2015 and 2016, Amazon captured well over a third of all American online retail sales—including 43 percent in 2016. Moves to vertically integrate its supply chain by solidifying an ocean freight license, marketing in-home deliver, and creating a $1.5 billion cargo airline would make the 1920s robber barons blush. Traditional retailers looking to compete against Amazon face even bigger obstacles: Amazon’s market capitalization. In the last 10 years, retailer mainstays Sears, JC Penny and Kohls lost an average of 82 percent of their value. Amazon gained 1,934 percent, allowing it access to the cheap capital the finances its growth.
It isn’t just the company’s world-class logistics traditional retailers are facing—it’s the threat Amazon poses to different retail segments combined with its reputation among consumers. The recent Whole Foods acquisition instantly erased $12 billion in shareholder value from six major food retailers. Meanwhile, consumers love Amazon. It is one of the most trusted brands in America. It controls one of the world’s least exclusive clubs: in 2017, 80 million Americans were members of its Prime 2-day shipping and entertainment program (by contrast, France has a population of about 69 million people).
How can retailers compete with Amazon? It’s an 800-pound gorilla that is beloved by consumers, with exceptional operations and a limitless pocketbook.
This is an attempt to scratch the surface of the tactics and strategies that powered history’s Fortune 100 retailers. The analysis is based off a data set created from Fortune Magazine, industry publications, Capital IQ, and public financial documents. It was then organized across 10 industries, 22 supersectors, and 30 sectors through Russell’s Industry Classification Benchmark (ICB). Drawing on this data, six major insights emerged—each powering the eras’ greatest retailers. Some are obvious, some aren’t. All are required if modern retail executives want to compete against Amazon.
Joshua Greene’s Devil’s Bargain is ostensibly about Steve Bannon, arguably mainstream Democrats biggest boogeyman not named Vladimir Putin.
The book, of course, covers his evolution from the Navy to Goldman Sachs, to World of Warcraft, to Hollywood, and to (supposedly) anti-Goldman right-wing crusader. However, the book is really about how three well-financed forces coalesced and resulted in the election of Donald Trump to President of the United States.
Google, Amazon, and Facebook are modern-day railroads. The technology companies are three of the few organizations that own and control our modern infrastructure.
Connor Dougherty published a nice look at how Google’s monopolist position impacts the businesses that rely on the infrastructure it owns. Like farmers and railroads before, web service providers like Yelp are effectively dependent on Google’s network and at the mercy of Mountain View. As the recent EU ruling confirmed, Google engaged in anti-competitive behavior that stifles innovation, destroys Yelp, and rewards itself.
Antitrust may seem somewhat obtuse and unimportant, but it may just be the number one issue of our time. It’s one thing to see a distant company like Yelp, who has been accused of similar thuggish behavior, struggle. It’s another to imagine what will happen when Amazon begins openly discriminating against local grocery suppliers to benefit their private label brand.
In July 1944, a little over a year before the end of WW2, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt looked tired and sick. Publicly, he was taking month-long rests under the guise of war planning. Privately, he was diagnosed with severe hypertension, heart disease, cardiac failure and acute bronchitis.
The stress of leading a nation at war, rehabilitating a depressed economy and a two pack a day cigarette habit had turned his heart into a time bomb. It wasn’t a question of “if”, but “when” FDR would succumb to a major stroke. Most insiders knew in the upcoming election, a Democratic vote for President was really a vote for the Vice President. It was under these conditions that FDR made a decision that transformed the next fifty years of American history. He removed Vice President Henry Wallace from the Presidential ticket.
Prior to the rise of Bernie Sanders, Henry Wallace was the last true Progressive leader to wield national power. A scientist farmer, and capable administrator, Wallace revolutionized American farming as the Secretary of Agriculture. He spearheaded the New Deal’s most revolutionary and innovative programs, fought concentrations of power, and transformed the Federal Government into a leading incubator of scientific research. He spoke openly about the need to end racial segregation, the benefits of international cooperation, and the importance of economic development. When Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize for developing disease-resistant wheat–it’s estimated that the hybrid grain saved over 1 billion lives—he credited Wallace as his inspiration. He was also popular. At the time of FDR’s decision, a Gallop poll showed Wallace was overwhelming backed by Democratic voters. “Nationwide,” wrote biographers, John Culver and John Hyde, “Wallace’s support equaled the next three (Vice-Presidential) candidates’ combined.” The man who ultimately replaced him, Harry Truman, a generic Democratic Party loyalist, earned 2 percent.
The question is, why? Why did FDR drop Henry Wallace from the 1944 Presidential ticket? Why did FDR want Henry Wallace, the consummate New Dealer, with vast popularity, and support among key voting-blocs removed? It’s one of the greatest “what-ifs” in American history. Critics argue that Wallace’s sympathetic view towards the Soviet Union would have weakened American interests. Supporters argue he would have ended the Cold War before it started. I don’t think there will ever be a clear answer to this question, but I wanted to illuminate 8 key drivers.
With a scope wide as it is personal, Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns paints a historical picture of one of the largest, but least reported events in the 21st century: the mass northern migration of African Americans.
Despite losing the Civil War, an open caste system remained in the South. Blacks were restricted in both their opportunities and possibilities. Most were relegated to sharecropping—in practice a form of pseudo-slavery. Voting was technically legal but practically unheard of. Lynchings were common. At the turn of the 20th century, 90% of African Americans lived in the south. By the end of the 1960s, roughly half called the North home.