One of the greatest threats that modern America faces is the rise of a new, tyrannical oligarchy. While the oligarchs of the past, the “robber barons,” were certainly far too powerful, at least they loved America. This new class of plutocrats doesn’t. The masters of the universe like Dorsey and Gates, Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin, are globalists. They don’t care about you, their country, or even our nation’s values. Rather, they care simply about accumulating power and wealth and using it to remake the world in their demented, leftist image.
The question becomes, “how those tech tyrants amassed so much power?” Why does Google have the ability to shift election results? Why do Facebook and Twitter have the right to deplatform the POTUS? How did we get here?
While Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy never answers those questions directly, it does show the reader how the US went, over the course of the 20th Century, full circle economically. We started it with monopolists, rose up against them and briefly restrained their power, and then almost immediately began slowly loosening the controls on the bankers, corporatist industrialists, and budding monopolists. In other words, we started with Rockefeller and ended with Bill Gates and, in Goliath, Matt Stoller shows just how we got there.
Summary of Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy by Matt Stoller
Goliath is about many things. The railroads. The Gilded Age. The Progressive Era. The Great Depression, World War II, Cold War, and post-Cold War. It’s about business, politics, and law. It’s about individuals and movements, titans of industry and small owners of mom and pop stores. But, most of all, it’s about the path of monopoly power from the post-Civil War US to current times.
As he should, Stoller begins with the railroad barons and industrialists of the Gilded Age. They fixed rates, used financial schemes like Credit Mobilier to enrich themselves while treating stockholders poorly, and amassed previously unheard of levels of power and wealth. These were the heydays of laissez faire economics and free markets. Rockefeller, JP Morgan, Vanderbilt, and others built continent-spanning business empires that crushed the small businesses they replaced.
But the American public wouldn’t sit idly by as those men built fortunes on the misfortune of their countrymen; while Carnegie, Henry Ford, and others treated workers somewhat well, most industrialists of the time didn’t. Wages were paltry, worker rights nonexistent, and conditions poor. Mining conditions were so bad, both in the mines and in the mining communities, that West Virginia entered a state of near civil war. Pinkertons and striking workers shot at each other outside of steel mills and factories as the robber barons gobbled up yet more parts of the supply chain or leveraged their power to destroy competitors.
That set in motion decades of political battles between elites and the common man. Men like Mellon built huge business empires and then entered government, using their positions to secure their fortunes. Workers formed unions, went on strike, and elected politicians to fight for them, such as Rep. Patman of Texas.
Those battles came to a head with the Great Depression and New Deal. Wall Street was gutted, the banking industry became boring, and monopolists were gradually reigned in. As a result, small businesses boomed. Fair trade laws protected small retailers from massive chain stores, a neutered banking industry had a harder time supporting monopolist cronies at the expense of small businesses, and few businessmen were able to amass the wealth necessary to become as powerful as the robber barons of decades before.
But, as society became more prosperous thanks to those new rules, supported by both Republicans and Democrats, the rules gradually changed and revived the monopolists, something that Stoller blames on both liberal ideas as found in The Affluent Society and conservative ideas as found in books like Capitalism and Freedom; the left was accepting technocracy and the right wanted an unregulated economy. The result was a return of monopolists and their deleterious effect on society.
Wall Street and the banking industry gradually reclaimed their positions of prominence. Their new schemes, junk bonds, pillaging saving and loans, forming conglomerates, etc. did continual damage to the economy, as did the boom in Wall Street “boiler rooms” selling useless penny stocks to unwitting victims.
Meanwhile, industry began both expanding and focusing on the stock market rather than creating good products. CEOs became obscenely wealthy off of stock options while not doing anything good for the business or society and instead spending money on share buybacks or other financial trickery. Corporations lobbied against fair trade laws and other protections for small businesses, using their victories to spread like a virus across the nation. Walmart appeared in every town and used deep, unsustainable discounts to put the local competition out of business before raising prices. The result was that small business owners were devastated and competition disappeared.
But no one has dealt with those problems yet. In fact, continued policy changes have made it even easier for monopolies to form and Big Business to turn American citizens into corporate serfs. Because the protections for consumers and small businesses have all but disappeared in the past decades, the tech tyrants have risen and are far more powerful than any of the monopolists or robber barons that came before them.
There’s much more to Stoller’s story in Goliath than that, of course. The informs the reader of all the big names and important people involved, discusses why the societal changes that allowed the return of monopolists happened, and delves into the depths of how the monopolists got their way.
But, the story is what’s central to Goliath. It’s how Stoller shows the constantly changing tide of monopoly power in America. It’s how he shows the human effect of monopolies, how ideas about what the economy should look like let them return, and everything else in the book.
My Take on Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy by Matt Stoller
Goliath is a complicated book. On one hand, Stoller gets it exactly right; monopolies are bad for society and the economy. They lead to oligarchy, repress innovation, and enrich a scoundrel-like few at the expense of the many. But, on the other hand, he never seems to connect the dots between the deleterious effects of monopolies and why the specific type of power they have is problematic.
I’ll begin with the good; Goliath is, generally, an excellent book. Stoller is a good writer and the voluminous number of end notes is a testament to just how much research went into Goliath. Hundreds upon hundreds of books, articles, and other sources help prove Stoller’s point, or at least prove most of his facts to be true.
Furthermore, Goliath does a superb job of showing why it is that monopolies are a net negative for society. All of Stoller’s evidence points in that direction and it is generally quite convincing, especially when he discusses how the financialization of the economy and overdone focus on short term stock performance makes it difficult for companies to take risk and innovate. With monopoly power comes increased power for the banksters and Wall Street; they use that power for self-enrichment, not economic growth. Stoller shows all of that and more in a highly readable, interesting, and informative way.
However, Goliath does not adequately show that it is the connection between Big Business and Big Government that is the problem, not necessarily businesses themselves.
For example, in a true free-market economy businessmen would have to be responsible. If a crucial railroad goes bankrupt (the bankruptcy of Penn Central is crucial to the story of Goliath), then that’s it; it can either find creditors or close. That might be bad for consumers in the short term but, in the long term it will force executives to be good stewards of the businesses they run because they would otherwise see their careers and fortunes ruined.
It’s generally only when Big Government also gets involved that there are problems.
One is the moral quandary of whether or not to bail out a failing company that some call “too big to fail.” If the government does bail it out, as it has recently, then consumers and taxpayers will suffer in the long term because executives will have no reason to run their businesses responsibly. But, if the government does nothing (like Hoover was accused of doing during the Great Depression), then the public will blame the politicians and throw them out. So, wanting to stay in office, politicians act to save the businesses by bailing them out, thus teaching executives that there’s no reason to be responsible financial stewards of their companies.
The other problem is that if Big Business and Big Government both exist, then one can buy off the other, thus creating a corporatist system, the type of system found in most fascist nations. Companies or executives can bribe politicians (either legally through lobbying or illegally with cash) to have favorable regulations or deregulations passed and the little guy suffers as a result. Stoller does a better job of showing this problem in Goliath than he does the problem above, but his discussion of it is still limited. Although Mellon’s corporatist tendencies are noted, for example, Stoller never explicitly states, or even hints, that the only reason Mellon was so successful was that there was a Big Government apparatus he could latch onto.
To be sure, there are limits to that understanding of a political economy; without the government creating fair trade laws, for example, small businesses never would have bene able to compete with chains to the extent they did in the post-WW II era.
However, generally, it is not deregulation or the ideas in Capitalism and Freedom or The Road to Serfdom that are the problem, but rather the government growing big enough that buying it off would give a business a major advantage. Without government assurances and deposit protections, banks might be more responsible. Were the government to make starting businesses easier and cheaper, up-and-coming businesses might be more able to compete. If it weren’t involved in almost every aspect of daily life with regulations and a police presence, then consumers would be the ultimate judges of a company, not an easy to bribe congressman.
For example, the railroad barons, especially the ones behind the transcontinental railroads, are the type of men one generally thinks of when the term “monopoly” comes to mind. However, what is forgotten is that they didn’t become corrupt in a vacuum. The reason they bribed politicians, raised rates unfairly, or engaged in various other abuses is that the government was for sale and handing out favors. Without those favors, the companies would have been simply that; companies. Thanks to the easy opportunity for corruption, they became dangerous monopolies and rat dens of corporatism.
Those weaknesses make Goliath far from as good as it otherwise would be. The story Stoller tells is a good one and some of his points about what problems there are and what would fix them are accurate. However, he misses the mark significantly when identifying why monopoly power is so dangerous; as is usual, government and corruption is to blame, not businesses.
So, should you read Goliath? It’s certainly interesting. Stoller does a good job of telling a story and using it to identify the deleterious effects of monopoly power.
But, from a policy prescription point of view, Goliath is far less useful. Unfortunately, in chapter after chapter, Stoller misses the mark, never quite coming to the understanding the “why” behind the dangers of monopolies.
That major weakness makes it hard for me to give Goliath as favorable of a review as I would like. While it’s about an important issue and might wake some people up to the dangers of monopoly power, some of the other aspects of it are weaker than they need to be for me to be entirely enthusiastic about it.
If you like history, like economics, and want to learn more about either one or both of the two, then Goliath is probably for you. But, if you just want to learn about how bad monopolies can be, you’d be better served reading any of the many articles about the dangers of Big Tech.