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John Colson: Hit and Run

John Colson
Aspen Times Weekly

I’ve got an idea ” let’s make new federal rules that prevent companies from merging and buying each other up at such a frenzied pace that no one really understands which companies are where or who runs what and how much they own or owe.

And this should not just count for financial companies, which have been at the heart of the current fiscal crisis around the world, but for all corporations. We could go back to that quaint old concept of “competition” as the driving force behind capitalism, rather than “consolidation.”

Oh, wait ” we did that already, with something called “anti-trust regulation” made famous by, of all things, a Republican president, a guy named Teddy Roosevelt, whom we called the “trust buster” because his administration sued a bunch of high-handed, greedy corporations under the provisions of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890.

You remember Teddy Roosevelt, he said “bully” a lot, and although he grew up a little on the softer side of life, he turned into a “rough and ready” character who led a bunch of guys known as “rough riders” up a hill in Cuba during the Spanish American War.

Anyway, Teddy was president in the early 1900s, and he sued more than 40 corporations for violating the Sherman act, known around the world as “competition law” ” which, by the way, was written and pushed through by another Republican, Sen. John Sherman of Ohio, which only goes to show that Republicans weren’t always monopolists.

The idea behind the suits, anti-trust legislation and a general public alarm about monopolistic activities on the parts of corporations was that if a company gets too big, too powerful, it can upset the apple cart of capitalism, putting too much power in the hands of too few. And, by extension, this can get in the way of democracy as a way of governance.

Now, there are experts in these fields of thought who will spend all day, all their lives, rolling out picayune details and historical factoids to support one position or another, but I like to keep things simple.

To my mind, the reason to keep corporations from getting too big is that they may come to be perceived as “too big to fail.” Sound familiar? It should. It was the catch-phrase behind the Bush administration’s move to prop up failing banks and investment houses on Wall Street in late 2008, in the first of the ongoing, taxpayer-funded bailout schemes.

The problem is, the very idea of “too big to fail” is counter-capitalistic in the most pure sense. Capitalism is supposed to be an economic system under which private capital is used to try new things, make new products, take risks and make a profit, with the understanding that it sometimes doesn’t work out and the company involved goes belly-up.

Somewhere along the line we permitted the idea to creep into our national mindset that going belly-up was not, well, American. And this is linked to the idea that for a certain class, accumulating vast personal fortunes is, somehow, American as apple pie, regardless of the negative consequences for those of us who aren’t part of the get-rich-forever crowd.

This thinking was behind the merger madness of the past couple of decades, as corporate America moved inexorably closer to a state of being wherein a small number of corporate boards would control everything, pulling every economic string that exists and making all of us dance to their tune.

This kind of thinking also was behind the move, late in the Clinton administration that deregulated something called “derivatives,” a type of financial instrument that is one of the main culprits in the current economic meltdown.

So, if we had had laws to prevent the agglomeration of corporate America into ever larger, ever less competitive companies; if we had not deregulated these evil financial tools, if, if, if … then maybe we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in today.

So, maybe we’d better get back to the basics, keep it simple, and enact some new laws, same as the old laws, that put some restraints on these fools who somehow got the nickname, “Masters of the Universe.”

It’s for their own good, as well as ours.

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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