July 11, 2021
by Steve Stofka
This week President Biden issued an executive order (White House, 2021) to counter the trend toward corporate consolidation and oligarchy that has arisen during the past decades. I appreciated that the report contained links to the outside data sources they are using. After almost six months in office, Mr. Biden has signed 51 orders, almost half of them rescinding the orders of former President Trump (National Archives, 2021). In 2017, Mr. Trump signed 55 orders total but only eight of those were rescinding orders. The pace of orders slows after the first several months in office. I’ll review some highlights from this order.
For the past decade inflation has been below the Fed’s 2% target but the trend toward consolidation in some key industries gives those few companies that dominate an industry greater pricing power. Modern Farmer reported that 80% of the meatpacking industry is controlled by just four companies (Nosowitz, 2020). In 2000, the top 20 home builders controlled 15% of the market. Today it is 30%. Mr. Biden’s order notes that mark-ups, the charges over a company’s cost, have tripled in recent years. Since 2010, Federal Reserve data (2021) shows that after-tax profits have increased almost 50%, substantiating the claim of higher markups. In the past decade, low interest and rising profits have fueled a tripling of the stock market.
For the ten years following 9-11, after-tax profits also tripled, despite the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression in the 1930s. Many financial companies lined up at the corporate soup kitchen in Congress and were bailed out. Homeowners and workers went hungry while Congress paid bonuses to the same speculators that sparked the crisis (Story & Dash, 2009). Sorry, folks, we had to honor the contracts, the politicians in Washington said. It’s the law. Who helped write the laws? The corporations that got bailed out.
The order notes the growing increase of non-compete agreements for new job hires, making it more difficult to move to a more attractive job. It references data from the Economics Innovation Group (EIG, 2021) that the rate of new business formation has sunk by half in the past fifty years. The shift of manufacturing to China has also contributed to the overall decline.
The report notes the upswell in occupational licensing requirements over the past several decades. Licensing appears to be about public safety and some of it is. The states have come to depend on the revenue from the licensing fees and it avoids having to raise some taxes on voters. Trade schools that certify beauticians and other occupations like the tuition revenue they receive. Established business like licensing because it keeps out competition. The benefits are widespread and the costs are concentrated to those seeking careers in those occupations, many of them blue collar and little political power.
There are many faults in our federalist system that an executive order cannot remedy because the Constitution gives a lot of power to the states. What it can do is bring more attention to these anti-competitive practices. New Zealand and Singapore top the World Bank’s list of countries with low obstacles to doing business. The U.S. is sixth, just behind S. Korea and a few places ahead of Norway.
Americans believe in American exceptionalism but the Nordic countries keep beating us in various international categories. People say “You Americans. You should be more like the Nordic countries!” Suck on it, Norway, Finland and Sweden. We are ahead of you in ease of doing business. Next year we’re going to take on S. Korea and after that, tiny Denmark. There is nobody more capitalism loving than America and we’re going to prove it by stopping some of these anti-competitive practices!
EIG. (2020, June 29). Dynamism in retreat. Retrieved July 11, 2021, from https://eig.org/dynamism
Federal Reserve. (2021, June 24). Corporate profits after TAX (without IVA And ccadj). Retrieved July 11, 2021, from https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/CP.
National Archives. (2021). Federal Register: Executive orders. Retrieved July 11, 2021, from https://www.federalregister.gov/presidential-documents/executive-orders/joe-biden/2021
Nosowitz, D. (2020, June 09). DOJ reportedly Subpoenas ‘Big Four’ Meatpackers. Retrieved July 11, 2021, from https://modernfarmer.com/2020/06/doj-reportedly-subpoenas-big-four-meatpackers/
Story, L., & Dash, E. (2009, July 30). Bankers reaped lavish bonuses during bailouts. Retrieved July 11, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/31/business/31pay.html
Van Dam, A. (2019, October 19). Increasingly, economists find, homebuilding in fewer hands. Retrieved July 11, 2021, from https://www.providencejournal.com/news/20191019/increasingly-economists-find-homebuilding-in-fewer-hands
White House. (2021, July 09). FACT sheet: Executive order on promoting competition in the American economy. Retrieved July 11, 2021, from https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/07/09/fact-sheet-executive-order-on-promoting-competition-in-the-american-economy/