The Chimera of Monopoly
SEPTEMBER 01, 1960 by AMBROSE WINSTON
In the great sea fight at Actium when the combined fleets of Mark Antony and Cleopatra contended for the empire with the forces of "Octavian," Antony’s ship, it is said, unaccountably slackened speed and then, in defiance of the wind in its spreading sails, in defiance of hundreds of slaves bending to their oars, stood still. A diver, examining the hull, brought up a little fish of a variety which, according to general belief at that time, by attaching itself to a hull could hold the largest ship motionless on the water. Even to this day, in fact, it is a well-known species with a remnant of its ancient fame still perpetuated in the dictionaries by the name of remora (delayer) and in the zoologies by the specific name of naucrates or conqueror of ships. This belief was not confined to the ignorant populace; it was entertained by the best intellects of that time, by Lucan in his Pharsalia and by Pliny the Elder, himself commander of a fleet as well as the most noted observer of animal life in the whole history of ancient Rome: "What is more violent than the sea and the winds? What greater work of art than a ship? Yet one little fish can hold back all their fury and can hold back all these when they all strain the same way. The winds may blow, the waves may rage, but this small creature controls their fury and stops a vessel when chains and anchors would not hold her, and that it does, not by hard labor, but merely by adhering to her."
A fable, so out of keeping with modern thought that no one would now believe it, found at that time no one to deny it, because in that age there was a universal failure to understand that physical energy is quantitative and measurable—that the great force of a large body is not to be controlled by a little thing and feeble, "merely by adhering to" it. In contemplating the physical universe we have made appreciable advance, but it is possible that after some centuries the record of our thinking on social phenomena will be treated by the historian of science in the same chapter of Pliny’s Historia Naturalis.
The Elgin Butter Board
For a series of years ending in 1917 the powers of the American government—legislative, executive, and judicial—were exerted toward destroying a reputed agency of oppression, a plunderer of the people, which had its seat in the town of Elgin, Illinois, west of Chicago, and which was said to reach out its strangling tentacles to the extremities of the nation. That town had years before been the center of trade in dairy products for the rich farming country round about; an organized market in butter had grown up there and become widely famous and its quotation of prices was recognized in all the butter markets of the nation. In time it quite lost importance as a butter market but still continued to be, even more than most markets for farm products, an object of denunciation on the ground that its Butter Board "fixed the price of butter." Congressmen, farm papers, and miscellaneous editors thundered to right and to left of it. It gave occupation to Federal Grand Juries and, in April 27, 1914, a decree of the United States District Court in Chicago condemned the officers and members of the Elgin Board of Trade on the ground that they "heretofore formed, and at the time of the filing of the petition were parties to, a combination and conspiracy to restrain interstate trade and commerce." The officers and members of the Board were accordingly forbidden to engage in the said conspiracy by fixing and publishing prices, unless these prices grew out of bona fide sales of butter.
In 1917, at the request of the Food Administration, the Elgin Board ceased operations. If we explore the depths to find out what manner of organization this is that fixes the prices of a commodity so widely bought and sold, what do we find? An Assistant United States District Attorney, who went out from Chicago and recommended that it be closed, described its operations. From January 6 to June 16, 1917, it met once a week with average attendance of four traders and average sales of 51 tubs of butter. From the first of August to the first of November all the sales, with two exceptions, were made by a man named Moles and a man named Christian. For example, August 4, Christian sold Moles 25 tubs at 381/2 cents. August 11, Christian sold Moles 50 tubs at 40 cents. August 25, Christian bid 41 cents for 100 tubs, no offers and no sales. September 1, no sales. For years Elgin had ceased to be a butter market of importance; the meetings and the publication of prices seem to have been continued because some people in the neighboring territory, and also from Baltimore south, preferred the quotations from force of habit. The committee was substantially a statistical board to furnish information as to market conditions. As a source of information it was unsatisfactory and might have been misleading, but its suppression was explained and justified on other grounds. The Board was prosecuted, not for fraud, not, for example, on a charge of using the mails to defraud, but for exercising, or at least threatening, a dominant influence over prices to the injury of the consuming public.
The Tail Wags The Dog
The New York Times—an organ not inferior in intelligence to the average citizen—announced in a telegram from a Chicago correspondent that this formidable agency "practically fixed the price of butter for the United States." That is to say, the great currents of trade in that commodity, as it moved to the central markets and out again to the consumers, urged on by the imperious necessity of the producers to sell, drawn by the desire of the consumer to buy—thousands of pounds, millions of pounds (more than 300,000,000 a year coming to the neighboring market of Chicago alone)—were set at defiance by this puny survival of an abandoned market, as the little fish baffled the struggles of Antony’s rowers and the winds of the Ionian Sea. Like our forefathers in their thinking on physits, we in our sociology fail to understand that forces in society are quantitative and measurable—that the small forces do not prevail over the great. Pliny says that when a remora stopped the ship of the Emperor Caligula and was brought upon deck, it was only a little fish, and "it had not great power." (It was only Moles selling his weekly 50 tubs to Christian.) The pathetic Elgin Board case is, of course, extreme (the antitrust agitation is directed in many instances against groups not so clearly inferior to the great movements of commercial activity which surround them), but it is instructive precisely because it is extreme. The extreme case is needed to measure the present-day credulity as to combinations and their power over prices. Deep waters require a long plummet.
It is impossible to review here the whole subject of "Trusts." What follows is meant to apply only to the cases mentioned—namely, the "Beef Trust," the Standard Oil group, and the Railways of the United States. These have been the chief objects of attack in the antitrust agitation and legislation of the last few decades [prior to 1924]. It seems logical, therefore, to meet the prevailing public opinion on this matter on the ground which public opinion has chosen.
Business Size and Monopoly
The opinion has come to prevail almost universally that the growth of large-scale industry within a half-century has marked the end of competition. Mr. and Mrs. Webb in their book on the Decay of Capitalist Civilization (dealing with the United States as well as England) have attributed the downfall of capitalism to a replacement of the competitive regime by monopoly. Mr. Eliot Jones in his Trust Problem in the United States concludes that it is impossible to "restore competition." This understanding of recent industrial history arises from a misinterpretation of one set of facts and an entire oversight of another group of processes which have given to the industrial activity of our day an intensity of competition unknown to any earlier generation.
First, it should be understood that increased size in manufacturing organization is not the same thing as monopoly. The increase in size has resulted chiefly from improvements in transportation. When, one hundred years ago, it cost $249 to send a ton of iron from Philadelphia to Erie, the market for iron from any producing center was limited to a small radius. When a ton of iron can be sent from Pittsburgh to Vancouver for $18 the marketing radius is wide. The industrial unit was necessarily small when the market was narrow; it is large in an extensive marketing area. The change in size of factories and size of marketing areas does not mean a change in the number of producers within reach of the buyer. The twentieth-century consumer buys from a large factory selling across half a continent; his nineteenth-century ancestor bought from a little shop or mill which sent its products across half a county.
A Local Situation
In the small gristmill a family had few mills to choose from and paid the same price (or toll) to everyone. The millers could readily agree on prices without interference by officers of the law. In my Illinois village we were confronted when we bought meat, not by a beef trust, but by an entire consolidation of the beef industry in one person, namely, Joe C. We bought our beef from him or went without. Later Charley D. came in—we dealt not with a Big Five and two hundred independents described in the Federal Trade Commission report, but with a Big Two. The rich man of the region in a neighboring town had his meat sent in from a distance. This doubled the cost. With that one exception and occasional purchases in the winter of frozen beef from farmers by the "quarter," not one family in that region ever found relief from the power of our Beef Trust.
Not only has the substitution of large for small producing units resulted in no weakening of competition; more than that, it is an obvious deduction, from facts known to all observers, even from the hackneyed commonplaces of recent industrial history, that, with and because of the growth of capitalism, competition has in our day become intense and swift and sure beyond all previous human experience.
What do we mean by competition? We ought to mean the ready movement of the factors of production—labor or productive instruments—toward those employments in which prices are exceptionally high and profits large. That is, competition is substantially "mobility." Two things are necessary for this mobility: (a) knowledge, among persons outside of the high-priced employment, that it is profitable; (b) the possibility of increasing the use of capital and productive energy in employments whose superior attractiveness has become known. In both respects the tendency of recent industrial evolution has been toward making competition more prompt.
An even more striking factor in the situation before us is the fluidity, the mobility of productive forces, now that the craftsman has given way to the machine as the dominant factor in production. The skilled workman, having learned his trade, was immobile; he could not invade another craft and he had little fear of an invasion of his own field by unskilled men or by men of acquired ability unlike his own. Tasks like those which formerly required muscular strength and skill gained through long apprenticeship are now performed in a large and increasing percentage of cases by men of little strength and brief training…
If labor is readily diverted from one employment to another by the allurement of profits, the other great factor in production is equally fluid. New capital—the current accumulation of surplus income—is unspecialized industrial protoplasm quickly turning in any direction, attracted by the hope of profit, creating new competing products with a promptness and certainty unknown in the age of handicraft.
The owners of investment capital and their advisers are looking incessantly for the most profitable opportunities for its employment. The earnings from oil, from steel, from the packing industry, from automobiles, from sugar, from commerce and shipping, flow into steel or automobiles or oil, or whatever gives greatest promise of high earnings. In the production of the chief staples, every sort of productive agency—labor, no longer specialized as in the past but adaptable to any use, and material of every kind—is at the disposal of any group of persons possessing the requisite number of dollars.
Kinds of Competition
The matter is comparative, and in comparison of past and present we can say only that in the more general knowledge today of the relative attractiveness of business opportunities, in the increasing readiness with which unspecialized labor and unspecialized material for plant and equipment can be turned with brief preparation, the consumer finds a tolerably secure defense against high prices due to restricted supply.
It must be understood that competitive influences or processes are many. There is competition of the obvious sort between rival companies; there is the influence of "potential competition," caution in raising prices for fear of calling new rivals into the field (thus Miss Tarbell showed how, when prices of oil increased, the production of oil from shale increased and new wells were opened so that Mr. Rockefeller and his associates found that "making oil very dear does not pay"1). There are other forms of competition, or processes having the same effect as competition, in both railway transportation and manufactures, which have generally been slighted or overlooked. One of these neglected forms of competition is what might be called the motive of the empty car. If all railway property in the United States were united under one owner, it would still be necessary for that magnate to place a limit on charges in order to attract business, and thus to employ more fully his trackage and his rolling stock, as more than half the expense of railway operation continues even when traffic and revenue are next to nothing. The same principle applies to manufactures: running at half capacity is ruinous.
Another sort of competition is competition between one commodity and another for the purchasing power of the public. The fact that unlike commodities compete has been recognized in the case of the liquor traffic; the grocer has been biased in favor of Prohibition by his own interest in destroying a rival. The same sort of competition is well known in other cases without being called competition. For example, an association of onion-raisers in the Rio Grande Valley some years ago developed a market for their products in Kansas City by inducing the grocers there to lower the price of onions at retail, causing an increased demand for onions by a process of competition with the whole range of foods known to Kansas City housekeepers.
The development of a market for any commodity by joint action of producers of that commodity (as in the case of California fruits) through distributing samples, advertising, demonstrations to teach the public its uses and advantages, is intercommodity competition. It is quite reasonable to believe that, if production of each commodity came to be consolidated in one company, the competition of the several groups for the patronage of the purchasing public would be as intense and as effective an influence toward moderate prices in every line as any imaginable competition between rival producers of the same kind of articles.
The opinion has been generally accepted by writers, legislators, and judges that the railway business is singularly noncompetitive.
With all deference, I believe that competition is in that field singularly powerful. All students of railways do indeed recognize the influence of railway competition, not merely in the simple and obvious effort of adjacent lines to take business from each other, but in the case of lines far apart. Whenever two railways, however remote, carry products from competing producers, those lines of rail are competitors. Thus the railways of British India and the railways from wheat fields of Dakota to the of New York are competitors in carrying wheat for the Liverpool market. The same process is more evident within the country; for example, the shoe manufacturers in St. Louis and the railways which serve them compete for the market of the south (Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee) with the New England shoe factories and railways.
This fact can hardly be stated with too broad an application. Practically all articles carried by American railways enter into a world-wide market where farmers, manufacturers, miners, and carriers of all regions and all nations compete. A combination to put an end to competition must therefore be world-wide; there is no such combination. The corner grocery is not more clearly competitive than the railway, even though the competition process is not identical in the two cases.
Monopolies of Many Parts
An observation of the industrial organizations which this course of development has created brings everywhere to view the universal prevalence of competition which the growing fluidity of industrial agencies and instrumentalities would lead one to anticipate. To find evidence that competition survives and increases, one need only examine the rather abundant publications, official and unofficial, which have been designed to show that competition has been "crushed." One might, for example, reasonably expect that a work like the Federal Trade Commission’s report on the Meat Industry, recommending (and in fact leading to) drastic legislation for the remedy of monopoly, would exhibit something which might possibly be called "monopoly" by a rational person within reach of a dictionary. The commission received replies to its inquiries from 225 slaughtering interests engaged in interstate trade, besides 1,132 wholesale slaughterers doing business within their respective states—in addition to the purely retail slaughterers scattered nearly everywhere over the country. That is "monopoly." Likewise, the report of the Senate subcommittee in 1923 on the "High Cost of Gasoline and Other Petroleum Products" mentions (in addition to the seventeen companies with their thirty-eight refineries of the Standard group) a further list of twenty-eight independent companies operating fifty-seven refineries, and (yet further) a number, not specified, of small refineries. That state of things can be classified as "monopoly" only by a use of the word (unhappily the prevailing use) so indefinite as to have no real significance. These publications not only show a multitude of competitors, but they fail to show (even when in general terms they allege) the high profits which the word monopoly implies.
The Meat Industry
In the meat industry during the prewar years 1910-13, Armour’s profits ranged from 3.4 per cent to 9.3 per cent; Swift’s, 7.4 to 9.6; Morris’s, 4.1 to 7; Cudahy’s 2.4 to 8; Wilson’s, so far as reported, were 6.5 per cent. The reader is invited to decide for himself whether there is evidence in these figures of monopolistic extortion which the Federal Trade Commission represents (I am not exaggerating) as a peril of the first magnitude not only to the people of the United States but to the entire human race.
In the war years profits increased, as appears in the following table showing the percentage of gain for the monopolists and for sixty-five competitors of the monopolists.
Big Five (Average)
65 "Independent" Companies (average)
3-yr. average 13.5
Why become a monopolist, when it is more profitable to be an "independent"?
In 1921 the Big Five endured a general loss; Armour’s deficit was reported at $31,000,000; Wilson‘s at $8,462,000—five or six times the total profits of the Wilson Company for the year 1920. The Wilson organization is now (August 1924) in the hands of receivers, and a suit to have the company declared bankrupt has been brought by creditors who, departing from the complaint of the Commission that the company has the consumer’s purse at its mercy, allege that it cannot extort enough of the consumer’s wealth to pay its debts.
According to the brief of the government in the suit to dissolve the Standard Oil Company, that organization in 1906 earned 24.6 per cent on its invested capital, about the same rate for the preceding ten years, and 20 per cent in the yet earlier period as far back as 1882….
If we consider the circumstances of that time, the continued growth in demand for petroleum products, especially with added impetus of the war, one need not be surprised at earnings of such a per cent on investment for one of the chief beneficiaries of that demand….
The Railway Story
Among all lines of business, railways have in most countries been selected as a subject of exceptional control as having a singular power to exact from the public excessive payments. An examination of the financial history of railways in all parts of the world seems rather to indicate that there is in the railway business a singular inability to obtain for that service earnings equal to those frequently realized by other investments. This characteristic disability has been so clearly recognized that capitalists have, in many countries, refused to invest in what, by the monopoly-and-extortion theory, should be an opportunity to make easy money; so that governments have found it necessary to attract capital to this line of business by subventions and guaranties of interest—not only in new countries as those of Latin America, but in
Belgium, Prussia, Switzerland, Italy, and France, where population is dense and traffic heavy, seemingly fit subjects for the profiteer.
In the South American supplement to the London Times of September 27, 1910, it was said that the São Paulo Railway in Brazil was the most prosperous railway in South America "if not in the world." This marvel of a railway, carrying about half the world’s coffee, was paying dividends of 14 per cent. What other industry is there in which such a return on investment would be regarded as very exceptional or even a maximum?
The Prussian state railways have been regarded as among the most successful—perhaps the most successful—of European railways. In the four years 1910-13 their yield in excess of operating revenue over operating expenses ranged from a maximum of 7.20 per cent on the investment to a minimum of 6.39 per cent. After deducting from this miscellaneous railway expenditures and interest on the railway debt there remained as a surplus for the public treasury 1.9 per cent (taking the four years together) on the capital invested. The French lines were well planned to avoid paralleling or wasteful construction, yet up to the end of 1908 the government had spent in aid of private roads $785,000,000. At the end of 1913, the purchase by the State of the Western Railway system, which according to the official promise was to cost the public nothing, "had already cost the taxpayers 944,000,000 francs," while according to the latest official figures the deficit on the state railways amounted to 345,000,000 francs (London Economist, January 3, 1914, p. 24)….
Is Profitability the Key?
As the Lilliputians bound the sleeping Gulliver to the earth, with cords from ankle to queue, so public authority multiplies statutes and ordinances to restrain the too powerful giant, while many of the same statesmen, with a double load of anxiety, imperil their budgets in providing sustenance to save the same giant from dying of malnutrition. If the railway is "affected with a public interest" because of an inherent tendency to monopoly and too great gains, one is justified in looking for more frequent instances of railways earning at least enough to make them independent of public charity.
It is ordinarily futile to consider whether a certain percentage of income on investment is normal, as no one can define a normal rate. In the instances before us profits have inno case been greater than those known to any person at all acquainted with such matters as not infrequently accruing to successful companies. I can recall corporations engaged in business, unmistakably competitive, yielding 30, 60, or even 100 per cent. It seems fairly safe to say that—using indefinite terms with proper interpretation—wherever a man or a group has rapidly gained what would be regarded as "a fortune" out of scant capital, the annual profits have been more than 25 per cent of assets. Mr. Roberts, of the National City Bank, in discussing the subject, refers to Senator Capper who began with invested savings and now owns "two daily papers, six weeklies, three semimonthlies, and two monthlies, several of them of wide circulation and large earnings, with aggregate valuation of millions." Mr. Kresge is still well under sixty and had engaged in various employments before beginning with $8,000 his business which in 1923 yielded profits of $9,493,988.
The lines of business activity whose earnings the public seeks to limit are not these or the activity of the automobile millionaires, but the beef business with its humble earnings of 3.10 or 13 per cent offset by some huge deficits, the oil business with 25 per cent as an ordinary return, and the railway business which is
so constituted as to be, in most of the world, a starveling. Of 10,000 corporations in the United States, with total earnings at an average for the three years 1911-12-13 of more than a half-billion dollars, there were 2,571, each of which averaged for the three years from 20 per cent to 100 per cent or more. It would be easy to add much statistical evidence that the Standard Oil earnings, if about 25 per cent, were not very exceptional.
The popular belief as to monopoly is open to objection for other reasons less obvious but quite as convincing as any to be found in tables of investment and earnings; it implies a false conception of economic society, of the economic interdependence of men, and even in some fashion of man’s place in the universe.
About eighty years ago there came to full recognition the idea that as matter has the measurable qualities of weight and extension, so the forces of inorganic nature—as heat, light, and motion—are measurable and indestructible; that when one form of force is converted into another, the cause is equal to the effect. The same principle seems applicable (with great caution and modification) to social forces. This at least is intelligible and obvious: that in the processes of economic life forces may in some instances be measured against each other, and those clearly small by comparison can not prevail over those clearly greater. This fact is very commonly disregarded. The Elgin Butter Board case is an example.
A "Corner" on Rice
Here is another: the Federal Trade Commission, in its report on the Meat Industry, alleges that the Big Packers are engaged in a conspiracy, not merely to plunder users of meat, but, since they deal in other foods (dairy products, poultry and eggs, groceries) and since these operations extend to other countries (I quote the Commission’s italics from Pt. I, p. 68),
"to monopolize and divide among the several interests the distribution of the food supply not only of the United States but of all countries which produce a food surplus, and as a result of this monopolistic position… to extort excessive profits from the people not only of the United States but of a large part of the world." They ring the changes on this idea of monopoly and conspiracy. Fortunately, they give a definite measure of the extent to which the five meat companies have advanced toward holding the human race in their power by threat of starvation. I quote: "Armour’s drive into the rice market in a single year is perhaps the most striking instance of the potentialities in this direction." The Commission might have added, but did not, that 16,000,000 pounds of rice is about 2/3 of one per cent of the rice crop of the United States, about 1/750 of the international rice trade. But not all the rice was held at one time; the effect on prices must have been distributed. Moreover, what was bought was also sold, and selling must tend to depress prices as much as holding raises them. In the estimation of the Commission, however, this transaction had a prodigious effect. At any rate they solemnly call attention at this point to a 65 per cent rise in the price of rice during the year in question (1917). In the seclusion of their offices the Commission had not heard that tillers of the soil by millions over almost half of the earth had been forced to abandon their fields and that most of the great nations of Europe and America were competing for the world’s diminished stores of food with all the resources of all their treasuries, driven by the frenzy of hate and terror which is war; that in the merchant fleets of all nations, on the railways, the carts of Indian highways, the backs of men over trails on Chinese mountains, the staple foods were being drawn to the camps with a suction as irresistible as that which draws the waters of the Great Lakes over the precipice of Niagara. (There were people in Paris in 1793 who did not know that the monarchy had been overthrown.) The Commission had not even heard that the prices of most other commodities had risen.
The power of competition in the livestock and meat business is evident in any ordinary report of dealings in a livestock market, notwithstanding the perpetual assertion that the "Big Five" fix prices to the destruction of the cattle raisers. When receipts of livestock increase, prices go down; when receipts decline, prices go up. Prices have in turn an effect on receipts: high prices increase, low prices decrease shipments.
Market Forces Are World-wide
I take one such report at random—the Weekly Livestock Review of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the week ending
On reflection it must clearly appear that the forces which center in any market for cattle or hogs are world-wide. The competing buyers of cattle in the United States are numbered, as the Trade Commission shows, by hundreds and thousands, while beyond our borders is the competition of yet more numerous thousands of purchasers throughout the whole list of nationalities on all continents. An attempt at lowering prices by holding off from the market would give great joy to the numerous purchasers for export who are always present, comparing the possibilities of purchase here with possibilities of sale in the countless markets beyond seas. In Argentina alone there are half as many cattle as in the United States; in Australia there are one-third as many; in Germany before the war two-thirds as many; and so in France, England, and other countries of Europe and Asia. The number of cattle offered, the prices at which they are offered, the prices which consumers here or elsewhere willpay—all these factors have a fixity which no little group in Chicago or elsewhere can disregard.
In the days before the Great War, when the peasants of Russia had a good crop they bought Chinese tea, the Chinese demand for English cotton goods increased, and the English factory worker bought more beef. Rains on the Argentine pampas would lower the price of beef; a burst of flame on the surface of the sun scorching the pastures of Australia would raise the price. The economic interests and activities of all peoples, of all individuals in all nations, are so intertwined, the production, sale, and consumption of all commodities are so interrelated, that we may regard the whole process of supplying the economic needs of all mankind within the range of the world’s trade as one great composite process, one complex of infinitely manifold efforts conditioned in part by factors directly human, but also conditioned by all the biological and physical factors which determine the economic fortunes of men. If the top price of steers on a certain day in Chicago is $9.45 per hundred, that is not a phenomenon of Chicago; it is a cosmic fact. A little fish cannot stop a man-of-war.