Barnum Presidents and Benevolent Monopolists: Mark Twain, Amazon, and the Futility of Antitrust




THE AMERICAN PUBLIC spent the last century largely untroubled by the expansion of monopoly power. In his 2010 book Cornered, Barry C. Lynn marveled at how little time has been spent studying corporate consolidation and its effects, with even less publicizing the results of such study. This was not always the case. In the first decade of the 20th century, the final decade of Mark Twain’s life, antitrust legislation and enforcement was a centerpiece of US electoral politics. Lynn claims that “antimonopoly laws […] played a bigger role than any other set of laws in shaping business — and politics — in this country.”

Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods seems to have renewed the public’s taste for antitrust agitation. Following the merger’s announcement, Lynn, now directing the Open Markets Program for the tech-focused think tank New America, stated bluntly, “It is way past time for the American people to use our government to address the overwhelming concentration of power in the hands of Amazon.” New America has just severed ties with Open Markets, possibly at Google’s behest, due to Lynn’s criticism of its monopoly. Another Open Markets fellow, Lina Khan, argued in a New York Times op-ed that Amazon “has marched toward monopoly by exploiting the defects of contemporary antitrust law.”

As they turn their attention to Amazon, antitrust activists are being met with curiously bipartisan interest. Via a series of tweets, President Trump has fanned his feud with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whom he accuses of using the Washington Post “for political purposes to save Amazon in terms of taxes and in terms of antitrust.” Thomas Frank, Douglas Rushkoff, and Franklin Foer, among others, support federal intervention, even to the point of calling for the breakup of the company. They have all pitched Amazon as the primary bogeyman of the next campaign cycle. If Frank is to be believed, factions spanning the partisan spectrum are jockeying to position themselves out front of a new antitrust movement. In the face of such consensus, Mark Twain would urge us to be very, very skeptical. The only thing that inspires uniform agreement among politicians in The Gilded Age is the lining of their own pockets. In the New Gilded Age, we may presume any show of bipartisan solidarity is tantamount to the same thing.

Earlier this month, Bezos was briefly dubbed the richest man in the world. He took this dubious distinction from Bill Gates, who took it back in a matter of hours. But paired with the Whole Foods acquisition, it superficially justified the inevitable comparisons between Bezos and the most infamous monopolist in US history, John D. Rockefeller. In 1892, there was no crude estimate from Forbes to stoke the jealousy of would-be rivals, but Rockefeller was nevertheless widely regarded as the richest man on earth, and quite possibly the wealthiest private citizen in history. At 53, he was ready to distance himself from the day-to-day operations of Standard Oil. His philanthropic turn was less public than Bezos’s, but it was analogously “crowd-sourced.” The retention of professional advisors, now common practice, was a Rockefeller innovation. In due time, he would form the Rockefeller Foundation and pursue an unprecedented program of charitable giving. For the next two decades, however, he would also be continuously distracted by campaigns to dissolve the Standard Oil Trust. Those campaigns somehow aligned muckraking journalists, many of them avowed socialists, with a bipartisan coalition representing every branch of government and transparently beholden to other corporate interests.

At the turn of the century, this uneasy alliance coalesced behind a self-styled populist who many, even among his supporters, believed was too capricious, too arrogant, and too imperialistic to be electable. Mark Twain called Theodore Roosevelt’s unlikely presidency “the most formidable disaster that has befallen the country since the Civil War” and he claimed “the list of unpresidential things, things hitherto deemed impossible, wholly impossible, measurelessly impossible for a president of the United States to do — is much too long for invoicing.” He believed that Roosevelt’s sole talent was for “advertising himself.” “Mr. Roosevelt is the Tom Sawyer of the political world,” Twain wrote, “in his frenzied imagination the Great Republic is a vast Barnum circus with him for a clown and the whole world for an audience; he would go to Halifax for half a chance to show off, and he would go to hell for a whole one.”

Twain believed the antitrust suit Roosevelt’s administration brought against Rockefeller’s Standard Oil in 1905 was “a sham and a pretense,” cynically appropriating the appeal of antitrust activism in order to handicap the company most feared by the other “rich corporations” which had “bought his election” and “furnished vast sums of money to keep the Republican party in power.”

These other, less notorious robber barons, were at least as responsible for the corporate corruption and economic inequality of late 19th-century United States as Standard Oil was. While there are obviously limits when applying it anachronistically to Amazon, Twain’s defense of Standard Oil may help build a healthy skepticism as we enter a new era of antitrust agitation.

It has been evident for some time that Bezos is adapting a playbook written by Rockefeller, whose empire was built according to an ambitious program of vertical (and horizontal) integration. Standard Oil’s rise began with the control of distribution networks. Rockefeller captured superior drillers and refineries by cornering the market on tanker cars. Control of the tankers (and later pipelines) meant Rockefeller could determine the transport costs for his competitors and, when he chose, extort them until they agreed to amalgamate. Eventually railroads became so dependent on Standard freight, Rockefeller absorbed them too. Thus Standard grew, over decades, like an octopus with its arms extending into every sector of US industry: shipbuilders and ocean liners, steel and copper foundries, lampmakers and cable car companies, banks and brokerages.

It is easy to see why Amazon’s intention to, as Ben Thompson puts it, “take a cut of all economic activity” invites comparisons with the corporation that became synonymous with over-reaching monopoly. In addition to ostentatious wealth, Bezos shares with Rockefeller a reputation for being aloof and inaccessible, yet oversees marketing and messaging that is brazenly direct about Amazon’s audacious mission. Rockefeller’s express wish to “have every man a capitalist, every man, woman, and child” worried many of his contemporaries. Bezos’s demonstrable influence over the hive mind of American commerce likewise makes him the object of both paranoia and idolization.

But Amazon’s development has thus far had many positive externalities, perhaps even, by putting tremendous downward pressure on retail prices, helping to sustain the buying power of an increasingly insecure middle class. Amazon offers competitive prices on an unprecedented selection of products, which is enough to persuade many Prime customers that Amazon is a buoy to their living standards. Whether or not they are correct, their perception provokes brand loyalty that makes potential competitors, and perhaps unpopular presidents, justifiably jealous.

By the time Roosevelt mounted his suit against Standard Oil, Twain was among the few prominent commentators who could remember the chaos of the antebellum economy Rockefeller conquered. Twain had seen firsthand in western mining communities and Mississippi River ports how aspiring capitalists habitually defrauded counterparties, counterfeited products, exploited workers, overleveraged themselves, and engaged in mutually destructive price wars. Many of the operations Standard absorbed were managed by racketeers posing as business savants who arrogantly blundered into traps Rockefeller laid for them. Whatever sins Standard committed (and they were manifold), it was also a stabilizing force in this notoriously volatile marketplace.

As Amazon enters its third decade of operations, memories of the markets it has disrupted are also, at times, dimmed and distorted. Those who criticize Amazon for discouraging small business entrepreneurship forget that local retailers were bankrupted in droves by chains like Barnes & Noble, Blockbuster Video, JCPenney, and Best Buy, companies who used scale to undermine smaller competitors then viciously hiked up prices and limited selections once they secured a local monopoly. These franchises carved up suburban and small-town markets like medieval land barons and sentenced a substantial swath of US consumers to decades of overpriced brand homogeny. They set up shop in tax-subsidized malls and plazas, visible from the interstate and distant from urban centers, and indentured local labor forces to minimum wage drudgery. These are the slothful, cynical companies that hollowed out American Main Streets in the name of shareholders. Then Amazon ate their lunch. Creative destruction has rarely been more poetically just.

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In 1908, Twain appeared alongside Rockefeller at a luncheon for magazine publishers in New York City. Bad press, long accepted as part of Standard business, had reached a fever pitch. “For some years now,” Twain said,

that Company has been freely and volubly charged with every crime and every villainy known to commercial oppression and misconduct, and anybody who could think of any vindictive thing to say about that corporation could promptly get a hearing in the newspapers and the magazines; and so the American world was brought to believe that the Standard Oil people were conscienceless criminals, one and all.

Standard Oil’s sin, Twain argued, was exploiting the corrupt political landscape of the Gilded Age so brazenly it became transparent to the general public what shameless stooges their elected representatives had become. Roosevelt’s goal was not a more equitable economy, but merely less visible evidence of its inequity. As Twain put it, the president “persisted in attacking the symptoms and letting the disease carefully alone.”

This proved prophetic. After Standard was broken up, its largest divisions became Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, Amoco, Conoco, and Sohio (later absorbed by BP). The supposedly independent oil companies continued to work together as before, sometimes even headquartered in the same building. As Rockefeller retreated into retirement (having doubled his personal wealth in the frenetic trading following the dissolution) the industry “competition” Roosevelt created rewarded the public with a century of cartel pricing, regulatory capture, mercenary armies, safety scandals, and environmental disasters.

Roosevelt persuaded the public that Standard could only grow so large via “immoral business practices,” and that the government’s primary role in the economy was restoring healthy competition by removing exceptionally large conglomerations. A company branded with what Louis Brandeis would name “the curse of bigness” was no longer entitled a free market, but invited government intervention, “because its size renders it potent for mischief.” Among the paradoxes of Roosevelt’s economic policy was that it celebrated competition, but promised increasing regulatory oversight for the companies that competed most successfully, thus incentivizing inefficiency and discouraging transparency. Roosevelt’s highly selective and inconsistent definition of monopoly complicates antitrust jurisprudence to this day, and contributes to highly selective and inconsistent enforcement.

As Twain, a fastidious reader of political economy, knew, Roosevelt’s assumption that inefficiency and exploitation were incumbent to monopoly was no longer taken for granted by economists. In what would become the first widely used Economics textbook, Alfred Marshall (who sought Twain out during his famous tour of the United States in 1875) observed that while classical economic theory assumed that under monopoly conditions prices would rise and production would fall, late 19th-century economists could find many examples where this had not been the case. In fact, so-called monopolies, included Standard Oil, were often more aggressive in implementing price-cutting and profit-sharing practices that benefited consumers and rank-and-file employees than companies with smaller market shares.

Marshall did not speculate further, but Twain argued that it was because when monopolies grew large enough to be recognized as such they became increasingly sensitive to public perception. Therefore, the most effective guard against corporate abuse was not state-supervised dismantling, but using public pressure to persuade them it was profitable to align themselves with the common good. Several decades later Joseph Schumpeter would show that many of the largest companies of the early 20th century continued to increase efficiency and lower prices rather than maximize profits because executives viewed violations of public confidence, not market competition, as the greatest threat to their sustained growth. By 1973, John Kenneth Galbraith, reputed to be one of the most progressive economists of his era, would argue that the antitrust movement had done more harm than good. The Sherman Antitrust Act was, for its architects, a “useful futility” which provides “a cul-de-sac in which reform can safely be contained.” Markets are rarely made more equitable by antitrust prosecution, but their inequities are often distributed throughout an oligopoly and thus better disguised.

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Twain’s perspective was undoubtedly colored by his relationship with a Standard VP the press nicknamed “Hell Hound.” President Roosevelt singled out Henry H. Rogers as a “malefactor of great wealth” at a time when he was Twain’s closest confidant and pro bono financial manager. Twain told his wife as early as 1893, “The only man I care for in the world; the only man I would give a damn for; the only man who is lavishing his sweat and blood to save me & mine from starvation & shame, is a Standard Oil fiend.” Rogers ensured that, during the bankruptcy of Twain’s publishing house, the author’s family retained the copyrights to his works, and afterward orchestrated their slow climb back to affluence. As the antitrust animosity escalated during Roosevelt’s second term, Twain saw an opportunity to both repay Rogers and resist the president he detested by acting as a de facto public relations consultant for Standard Oil.

Twain believed Rockefeller needed to meet Roosevelt head-on in the press. He helped organize the 1908 luncheon so that publishers would be forced, as he had been, to “look at a Standard Oil magnate and see what kind of a devil he might seem to be.” He was confident, upon meeting Rogers, they would “realize that if he was a villain there wasn’t anybody left in the country that wasn’t.” Perhaps the luncheon had some of the intended effect, as press coverage of antitrust hearings later that year was considerably more evenhanded, but Standard adopted Twain’s policy too late. Their most charismatic spokesmen — Rogers and Twain — would both be dead before the case reached the Supreme Court. Bezos, however, appears prepared to adopt Twain’s policy of benevolent monopoly from the outset, openly justifying each move Amazon makes based on how it benefits customers. With a widely publicized hiring binge announced shortly after the Whole Foods acquisition, Bezos attempts to reproduce Rockefeller’s reputation as, at least, a better-than-average corporate employer. And, as soon as the FTC approved the Whole Foods merger, Amazon announced their intention to dramatically reduce prices at the supermarket. If Amazon keeps these promises, it will be very difficult to foster public outrage against them.

Twain opens his longest and most vehement defense of Standard Oil with an anecdote about the smartest and kindest (and largest) student at the school he attended until he was 11. “I never knew him to lose his sweet serenity except once,” Twain says, ominously. He recalls how his peers routinely ridiculed a handicapped slave girl, and how “Buck” Brown wholly ignored them until “one day a grown man joined the young ruffians in their persecutions.” Upon seeing such cruelty manifest in an adult, the heretofore pacifistic young Buck “burst into a fury of passion that was amazing for its fierce intensity” and “beat and banged the man until there was little left of him but pulp.”

By juxtaposing this episode with his defense of Rockefeller, Twain suggests that powerful corporations can act, like Buck Brown, as antidotes to bullying. He intuited what would become a cliché of 20th-century economics: “Bigness is not necessarily badness.” Standard’s size, stability, and versatility sometimes acted as a disincentive to greed-mongering. Companies that pushed their profit margins too hard risked having Rockefeller crash the party. Contemporary muckrakers underestimate the extent to which Amazon’s looming omnivorousness is an incentive to consumer-friendly practices, even in markets it hasn’t yet entered.

Twain asked a deceptively simple and important question: who really benefits from the dissolution of a monopoly? Those criticizing Amazon’s recent acquisition of Whole Foods must consider, analogously, whom they are defending. Will antitrust attacks on Amazon do anything to slow the automation of the US workforce or the death of retail stores? Will small businesses, many of which benefit from Amazon services, be better off? Aren’t the most direct beneficiaries of any ruling against Amazon likely to be companies like Walmart and Comcast? Do they need protecting?

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Matt Seybold is assistant professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College, editor of MarkTwainStudies.org, and co-editor of the forthcoming Routledge Companion to Literature & Economics.


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