Sunday, July 17, 2016

Update On The Economy: Have a Coke(TM) and a frown.

When I was a kid, my dad worked for a local bottling company branch of Coca Cola. He was intensely loyal to Coke. When we went out to eat, he would ask for a Coke as his beverage. "Is Pepsi okay?" the waiter would sometimes ask. "No, it's not," he'd say, and embarrass us kids by telling the waiter that he worked for Coke and Coke was better.

People love their brands. That's why there are brands. Everything, right down to movie stars, sports teams, and authors, are brands. (If you doubt that, consider this: What is a John Grisham novel like? What kind of people root for the Pittsburgh Steelers? Are you likely to enjoy a movie starring Tom Hanks? You have answers to those questions, because those things are brands.)

Here is a chart (from Sploid) of who owns what brands:

My dad loved Cheetos, among other snack foods. My dad was a Coke man eating a Pepsi snack.

But it's even worse than you think. It's one thing to not realize you're enriching Pepsi even while preaching from your soapbox about how Coke is better.  Consider this chart (same source) of the mergers of financial institutions in the past few years:

54% of all money is now held in the hands of four corporations. Those four corporations are routinely ranked among the worst companies.  JPMorganChase, among recent malfeasance, was forced by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last year to admit that it routinely collected money it wasn't owed from credit card customers-- or sold that debt to collectors who hounded people and got judgments against them for money they didn't owe or which they shouldn't have had to pay back.

If you got a credit card in the past 15 years, odds are you are now a JPMorganChase customer. I wish you luck. Call me when they screw up your home mortgage and spend 5 years and $100,000 trying to force you out of your house.

But hey, when life gets rough, lose yourself in some entertainment. Sploid has provided this chart to guide you:

Scorecard so far:

10 companies control about 90% of all food and beverages.
6  companies control 90% of entertainment.
4 companies control 54% of money.

I'm not a drinker, but I do see liquor and beer ads all the time, trying to get you to buy a particular brand of alcohol. Turns out it doesn't matter much:

That doesn't count the 83 zillion 'brewpubs' and 'microbreweries' that have been started by optimistic enterpreneurs in the last few years, of course. Sadly, most of those will fail. Those that don't will simply be absorbed by megalithic corporations. (I chose that word deliberately.) Last year, for Xmas, ABInDev (still called Bud even by business writers) bought itself three craft breweries as a nice little gift.

Here's an interesting factoid: Stella Artois, which you may have heard about in commercials recently, was for a long time a snobbish beer. Then it became beloved by soccer hooligans and people the brewer thought of as low-class. So they rebranded it with those ads showing how carefully its glasses are made, and featuring Adrian Brody. Stella Artois didn't want to be associated with blue-collar drinking.

Or so you thought, because ABInBev owns both Stella Artois and Natural Light. "Natty Light" is primarily drunk by younger people because it's cheap. 

Are you a Stella Artois man in a Natty Light world? You are:

You'll probably have to embiggen that to understand it, but let me trace just one line for you. AOLTimeWarner has a 'strategic partnership' which is used to promote Unilever brands through AOLTimeWarner media properties. 

Unilever "joined forces" (it's weird, the way these stories keep sounding like the status of nation-states prior to WWI) with PepsiCo about 15 years ago to help spread the consumption of tea.

PepsiCo, meanwhile, connects to The Coca-Cola Company through some hotel chains and Virgin airlines by way of McDonald's. You can follow the links yourself, too, to find out what companies you hate but are secretly doing business with. But making a purchase from, like the butterfly's fabled wings, impacts my ownership of a Smart car.

This all matters beyond simply making it hard to tell which company you should be feuding with, or how you can avoid doing business with companies whose practices you don't approve of (you can't, short answer).

The Sherman AntiTrust Act, a/k/a "the part of history class you slept through" was passed in 1890, just eleven years after a lawyer (of course!) helped devise a new method of corporate ownership on behalf of an oil company (of course!).  24 years later the Act was updated, so that by 1914 it limited price-fixing, 'tie in' and exclusive deals, and "mergers and acquisitions that substantially reduce market competition."

Look again at those charts. Would combining 53 companies into 6 "substantially reduce market competition?" If you said no, then congratulations, you are a federal regulator; and also you haven't noticed that much of entertainment looks a lot like the rest of entertainment.

Enforcement of the Act has been harder in recent years, due in part to a US Supreme Court case that you haven't heard of (because it hasn't been hyped by major political parties, who use social issues to get you to ignore real issues) called Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly. This case announced a new rule that made it easier for defendants to dismiss federal claims against them without first going through the litigation (in litigation, a complaint -- the piece of paper filed to start a lawsuit -- can dismissed if there is no chance the plaintiff could succeed on his case. Dismissal at this stage used to be rare, as litigants were allowed to use legal process to build a case. Now it is common that cases are dismissed without a hearing, without evidence being produced by a defendant, and without much attention at all.)

Twombly was an attempt at a class action lawsuit alleging that major telecommunication companies were raising prices by (among other allegations) simply not entering markets where another company was dominant, so as to avoid a price war. This was alleged to have disadvantaged small businesses -- you know, the type of business that we as Americans lionize.  The complaint was dismissed without any hearings, and now we don't know whether the price you pay for your phone is fair.

(Twombly had the effect of getting huge swaths of litigation dismissed, and also complicating [and hence raising the price of] litigation, but efforts to legislatively overrule it never even got to a vote in Congress.)

Sometimes price-fixing occurs overtly, like when Apple conspired with the "Big Six" publishers to make ebooks more expensive (driven primarily by Steve Jobs' personal dislike of Amazon's Jeff Bezos; like in ancient times, gods living high above mortals may quarrel, and the mortals suffer the excess effects of their wrath.)  Apple, the only company which didn't settle, had to pay $450,000,000 as a result. That fine became final in March, 2016. In April, 2016, Apple reported it made $10,500,000,000 in profits in the second quarter of 2016 alone.  That's profits. Gross receipts that quarter -- over three months -- were $50,600,000,000.

For the first 100 years of antitrust law, the US had the most vigorous antitrust efforts in the world. But antitrust litigation has steadily fallen off since 1971.  Here, the problem is not Republican control of Congress; it is Republican control of the courts.  The Twombly decision was engineered by judges put on the Court by Republicans.

George W. Bush, the worst president ever, appointed 327 judges to the federal bench -- or about 40 a year. (Barack Obama has been able to get 329 confirmed, so the general grousing about not moving his nominees through seems a bit overrated.)

The current US Supreme Court makeup has 4 justices appointed by Republicans, 4 by Democrats. This is the highest ratio of Democrat appointments-to-Republican appointments since 1968 -- about when antitrust litigation began to slow down. Since 1968, Republicans have controlled the presidency for 28 of the 48 years. Presidents do not just appoint judges; they dictate priorities for the Department of Justice, which brings antitrust suits.

Relatively few cases make it to the US Supreme Court. Currently, 94 federal intermediate appellate court judges were appointed by Democrats, with 79 coming from Republicans. That is the highest such ratio since 2000, and only 3 times since 1980 have the majority of federal, intermediate-level, appellate judges been appointed by Democrats.

At the district court, or lowest level -- the place most rulings are made -- the current makeup is 53% appointed by Democrats, 47% appointed by Republicans. That is only the second time since 1980 that the majority of sitting federal judges were appointed by Democrats.

Federal judges are not elected. They serve for a lifetime unless impeached. Federal judges wield enormous power, and the combination of lax enforcement by an executive and restrictive litigation rules by the judiciary might be the reason that when you buy a Coke, Pepsi makes money.


Andrew Leon said...

I want to have things to say about all of this. I definitely have thoughts about it.
However, short of an actual revolution, I'm not sure what can be done about the wealth inequality in America and in the world. Occupy Wall Street is the closest, I think, we've gotten to anything that make a change, and you can see where that went.

Liz A. said...

And the pendulum swings back again. We were at this point 100 or so years ago. Then the antitrust legislation. And it worked for a time, until those who knew how bad it could get had died off. Then they creeped it back to where it was.

Cycles. When those alive forget all the work that went into making it how it was, it goes back to the bad old days.

Briane Pagel said...


You're right. It does go in cycles, and I tell myself that when I want to be cheerier. I don't know if people now are more, or less, involved, more, or less, smart, than the people in 1890. I suspect they are the same in general as people were then. So eventually the excesses of the age will be too much and will start to swing back.

Except: that now, it seems like people have gotten smarter about how to manipulate the system. As little as 20 years ago, Clinton had to 'take the middle' to get the majority of votes; it's why the death penalty was streamlined and welfare rolls cut: because Clinton had to appeal to moderate voters and liberalish Republicans.

I don't think those people exist anymore; or if they do they are drowned out by the hardcore partisan voters who drive elections. And the Republicans are better at political maneuvering than the Democrats, as I noted.

And except: that people nowadays seem to do so much LESS. Occupy Wall Street seemed like a big thing, Andrew's right, but in the end it was NOTHING. Popular protests helped end the Vietnam war and desegregate the world. But the media nowadays embeds itself with the army, and people are too busy tweeting #thoughtsandprayers to go out and protest, or even vote. We've replaced an informed electorate with an uninformed internet.

And except: that so much money and power are tied up into so few hands. Things haven't been this bad since about 1920, and it took a Depression and a war to get us out of that problem. We've had the depression, and we still have the wars -- and it hasn't changed anything.

Andrew Leon said...

Technology is part of the problem, but I'm not really sure in what way it's a part of the problem.
And "we've" bred a culture of opinions, where opinion is as strong as fact and data even when it's opposed to the actual fact and data. It's why we have Trump as a major force, right now, and why none of the lies he spews matter at all.
It's why Hilary Clinton can objectively be the most honest politician "on the table" and, yet, be known as "Crooked Hilary" to half of the country. And that coming from the mouth of objectively the most dishonest politician on the table.

But my opinion beats your facts.