LESSONS LEARNED #63: “There is no such thing as a monopoly in free market capitalism.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 28th, 2011

Even the mighty Coke-Pepsi Duopoly can’t stop People from Drinking Tap Water

Coke and Pepsi have a near monopoly in the cola market.  Or a duopoly.  They dominate.  And they’re bitter enemies.  Few brands are locked in such a bitter struggle that we call it war.  The Cola Wars.  They are archenemies.  Even though they may cooperate by alternating their discounting to limit their losses.  One month Coke may be on sale.  The following month, Pepsi.  They’re big and their powerful and when you ask for a Coke at a restaurant you’ll either get a Coke.  Or they’ll ask you if Pepsi is okay.  Or vice versa.  Because they own the market.

But do they?  There’s always another choice.  At a restaurant, we can order ice tea.  Hot tea.  Coffee.  Orange drink.  Beer.  Wine.  A cocktail.  Or even water.  Ditto at the grocery store.  Walk down an aisle and there’s more to choose than Coke or Pepsi.  RC Cola, for one.  And then there’s the un-cola (7-Up).  VernorsA&W Root BeerSquirtDr. PepperCrushSnapple.  And other name brands that aren’t owned by the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group.  Not to mention all the store brands.  And, of course, tap water.  Which I personally drink with most of my meals.  Even though there’s nothing finer than a Coke or Pepsi to wash down a greasy pizza.

Try as they might Coke and Pepsi can’t limit entry into the beverage market.  The barriers they can erect are minimal.  They can offer a special price to a store or restaurant in exchange for keeping out their hated rival, but they can’t prevent people from asking for tap water.  Or from people simply going elsewhere to get the Coke or Pepsi product they want.  Or the million other options out there.  And if they raise their prices in their ‘duopoly’, people will just seek out those other options.  Yes, they may be able to tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi in blind taste tests.  But if the price isn’t right, they’ll enjoy RC Cola just fine.  Or even the store brand cola.

Go ahead and Tax our Tea.  We’ll just drink Coffee Instead.

You see, to keep out the competition, you need the power of government.  Just ask the sugar importers.  Who would love to sell to the cola companies.  But don’t.  Because government has erected a barrier to that market.  Now, we don’t know what their highly guarded secret recipes are, but we do know that they each use the same sweetener.  High fructose corn syrup (HFCS).  They don’t use sugar.  Why?  Because Big Ag lobbied Congress to slap high tariffs on imported sugar.  Which they have.  Now the price of sugar is so high the cola companies use HFCS instead.  Though that may be changing as of late with a new round of health concerns about HFSC.  But that’s a whole other story.

To limit consumer choice, you need government to step in.  Because only government can write laws to erect market barriers.  For example, the last straw of British oppression before America’s Declaration of Independence was about a British law that erected a market barrier.  British Americans, being of British stock, liked their tea.  But they didn’t like paying the high price of East Indian Company tea.  In the Mercantile economics of the day, everything bought and sold in the British Empire shipped on British ships through British ports.  Indian opium shipped on British ships to China (via Calcutta).  The British than used the proceeds from those sales to purchase tea.  Which they shipped on British ships back to London.  Where they paid a duty on it.  And then on to America.  Where the colonists paid a tax on it.  All these markups made their tea pretty expensive.

Famine and recession caused financial problems for the East India Company.  To help alleviate their problems, British Parliament stepped in.  Said they could ship their tea directly to British North America (without going through London).  And sell it tax-free in the colonies.  Which made all other tea more expensive.  Which did not go over well with the American tea merchants.  Or the colonists in general.  This led to the Boston Tea Party.  American Independence.  And the switch from drinking tea to drinking coffee in America.  Because even when there is only one tea that is legal to drink, there is always another choice.

Rockefeller benefited Consumers.  The ICC did not.

People love Teddy Roosevelt for his trust busting.  Attacking the big robber barons.  To help the little guy.  And one of the big guys the little guys loved to hate was John D. Rockefeller.  Of Standard Oil fame.  Rockefeller was richer than most nations.  And some people just hated that.  He made his wealth by making refined oil products affordable to the consumer.  And he was a great environmentalist.  He saved the whales by replacing whale oil with kerosene.  And his relentless research and development made every bit of refined oil into a useful product.  While his competitors dumped most of their waste back into the environment.  Not Rockefeller.  He hated waste.  He even experimented in finding the least number of welds it would take to hold an oil barrel together.  He invented vertical integration (controlling industries up and down the product pipeline from the collection of raw resources to the sale of a finished product).  He not only made refined oil products cheap.  He made them plentiful.  Which made America the world’s leading economic power.  Successful corporations follow his example today.

Sure, he put a lot of his competitors out of business.  But it wasn’t because he was a monopoly.  It was because he was just that much better.  He produced refined products better and cheaper than his competition.  By the time the trust busters busted up Standard Oil, competition was coming into being on the Standard Oil model.  Which ultimately produced more refined products at lower costs.  He forced the competition to step up to his level which benefited consumers.  While the trust busters tried to bring Rockefeller down to his competitor’s level which benefited his competitors.  Not the consumers.  No, consumers did very well by John D. Rockefeller.  He created and produced at a relentless rate.  He didn’t ask for government help.  Unlike his competitors.  Who complained to the government.  (It is never a consumer that complains about predatory pricing).  Because when you can’t compete legitimately, you petition government for special favors.  Much like some of the railroads did.

Building a railroad is costly.  And takes a lot of friends in government.  At all levels.  Because you have to lay track through federal land, state land, county land as well as through cities.  Of course, everyone wanted that track to go through their land because the railroad was the way to ship goods.  And people.  So the system was ripe for corruption.  And it often was.  Once built some shippers complained about unfair shipping rates compare to what others got.  Rockefeller, for example, was highly criticized for getting better rates by far than any of his competitors.  Of course, he shipped by far more product than any of his competitors.  Which probably had a lot to do with his rates.  But the government saw that things were unfair in the railroad business.  So they stepped in.  And created the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC).  Which was to right all the wrongs.  Which, of course, it didn’t.  It just made it easier for the big companies to fix things in their favor.  For they now had a single governing body to buy.  Which made it easier to buy political influence.

But none of this made a difference to save the railroads.  They started to die in the Fifties.  Of arrogance.  When people asked the big railroad executives what business they were in, they replied, “The railroad business.”  But they weren’t.  They were in the transportation business.  What’s the difference?  The ‘railroad’ business had only other railroads for competition.  The transportation business had cars, trucks and, eventually, planes, as competition.  So even though those who used the power of government to restrict other railroads from entering their markets, there was still competition.  The interstate highways and the automobile killed passenger rail.  And the trucking industry almost killed the freight railroads.  What saved them was realigning their operations into the transportation business.  Intermodal transportation combined container ships, railroads and trucks into a seamless and cost efficient transportation system.  Roadrailers took that concept to a higher level.  These are truck trailers that can be pulled by a locomotive without the need of a rail flatcar.  Trucks deliver these trailers to a rail yard.  They add a train bogey to the trailer.  Put it on the track.  Couple them together.  And attach them to a single locomotive.  Very little non-revenue weight.  Making it very efficient.  John D. Rockefeller would be impressed.

In a Free Market there is always a Choice

Wherever there is a market there is competition.  For any market where a profit can be made will attract others to that market.  Companies can try to restrict competitors.  But that’s all they can do.  Try.  Because if it’s a free market, it’s open to competition.  There are no barriers that a competitor can’t overcome.  Except one legislated by government.  And competitors can even crack that barrier.

And this is what it takes to make a monopoly.  Government.  Railroads had monopolies for awhile.  But creative business people found a way to crack their government-imposed monopoly.  Truckers came in and shipped at rates lower than the ICC said was fair.  Of course, fair is a relative term.  What’s fair to the railroad is not fair to the shipper.  Or the consumer.  But a trucker shipping at rate that he can cover his expenses and support his family is fair to everyone.  Except the railroad who depended on government instead of innovation for their business profits.

Coke and Pepsi can fight their cola wars but they can’t keep out competition.  There’s always root beer, ginger ale, orange drink, beer, wine, liquor, water, coffee or tea.  And even when government uses their full weight and power to create and maintain a tea monopoly, tea drinkers can simply become coffee drinkers.  For in a free market there is always a choice.  Always.

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #32: “America is great but it can’t make bad ideology good.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 21st, 2010

We’ve Always Done Things This Way

The Old World was set in her ways.  Change didn’t come easy.  When it came it often spanned centuries.  But not always.  As the Roman Empire incorporated new territories into the empire, she modernized those new territories.  Roads.  Fresh water.  Sanitation.  Rule of law.  Markets.  The things that made cites better.  Civilizations better.  But as a civilization grows, so does its government.  And as government grows, taxes inevitably become more onerous.

A sprawling empire required a sprawling bureaucracy to control it.  And a huge standing army to protect it from without.  And to police it from within.  When you expand and conquer new territory, the spoils of conquest can fund your empire.  When your borders are relatively static, though, you have to use alternative sources of funding.  Taxation.  As the tax burden grew, dissatisfaction grew.  Fewer citizens volunteered to serve in Rome’s legions.  So Rome relied more and more on hired armies.  This increased the cost of empire.  And it increased taxation.  The tax burden grew so great that people gave up their small farms and worked for the bigger farms.  Worked for the rich landowners.  Some tried to quit farming all together.  This caused problems in trying to feed Rome’s legions.  And her bureaucracy.  The food supply became so critical that the Romans wrote new laws forbidding people to leave their farms.  Farmers were bound to the land.  They could never leave.  If you were born on the land you would farm the land.  Forever.

During the decline of the Western Roman Empire you saw the rise of the economic system that would dominate the Middle Ages.  Feudalism.  As the Western Empire declined, the power began to shift to the rich landowners.  As did loyalties.  As the empire further disintegrated, the power of Rome could no longer protect you.  Or feed you.  And thus food and protection became the foundation of feudalism.  Land owners, the nobles (i.e., lords), would let you work their lands.  The bulk of the proceeds went to the landlord.  But you also had a portion of the manor to farm for yourself.  In exchange for the use of a lord’s land you provided military service to the lord.  When needed to protect the lord and his lands.  Property rights allowed the lord’s sons to inherit the estate upon his death.  So property ownership became hereditary.  As did the nobility.   And so it would be for centuries.

England Leads the Way

From the nobles arose one.  A dominant one.  A ruler of nobles.  A king.  A king consolidated the many nobles’ estates into a kingdom.  A country.  And the king became sovereign.  The supreme authority.  The nobles pledged their loyalty to the king.  Provided for the king.  And fought for him when necessary.  Thus the few, the many and the one.  The masses (the many) served the lords and worked on their estates.  The lords (the few) were the wealthy land owners who served the king.  The king (the one) ruled the kingdom.

Thus the European monarchy was born.  In France it was absolute.  In England, in 1215, the nobles met King John on the meadow at Runnymede.  And the king reluctantly set his seal to the Magna Carta.  In England, there would be limits to the sovereign’s power.  The king may be king, but the nobles held the wealth.  And with it a lot of power.  Sometimes they saw things differently.  And the little people, the masses, often saw things differently than did the king and lords.  These different interests were reconciled, in time, by king and Parliament, a two-house or bicameral legislature (comprised of the House of Commons and the House of Lords). 

England was the place to be.  Rule of law.  Bill of rights.  Commerce.  Banking.  Capitalism.  Liberty.  Food.  Security.  Your common everyday Englishman had a better quality of life than your common everyday [insert any other European national here].  As transoceanic trade took off, the great European powers collided with each other.  Fought for that lucrative trade.  In the Old World.  And in the New World.  These wars became very expensive.  And some lasted for years.  Like the Seven Years War.  Which the British won.  And took many French possessions throughout the world.  But at a huge cost.  She incurred a great debt.  Especially in securing one of her colonies.  British North America.

Tea Anyone?

So England taxed her British American subjects.  Only problem was, these English subjects had no representation in Parliament.  And this was very un-English.  Taxation without representation.  This caused tension.  Also, Great Britain’s mercantilist policies were also rubbing the colonists the wrong way.  America was growing.  And she wanted free trade.  But that was impossible when the home country maintained a favorable balance of trade at your expense.  And had the Royal Navy to enforce it.  As a colony, everything had to ship to/from England ports on English ships so England could accumulate bullion.  The British protected their industries.  Her colonies fed raw materials to these industries.  And that’s all they did.

Trouble brewed for a while.  When Great Britain legislated what type of tea they could drink (only British East Indian tea), the American colonists had had enough.   There was a tea party in Boston, a revolution and formal independence.  And then a new nation.  With a bicameral legislation.  An executive.  And a judiciary.  It wasn’t quite Parliament, but was very similar in function.  The president was the one.  The Senate was the few.  And the House of Representatives were the many.  But there were key differences.  There was no king.  No hereditary nobility.  And there would be no mercantilism.  Despite Alexander Hamilton’s best efforts.

Let’s Just Agree to Disagree

Getting the colonies to come together to declare their independence was not easy.  It helped that there was already a shooting war going on.  Lexington and Concord.  Bunker Hill.  The coastal towns the British burnt and left in ruins.  They were already fighting a rebellion.  The declaration was almost a moot point.  But it was important.  And, after some arm twisting, they voted for independence and posted their Declaration of Independence.  But that was then.  After the Revolutionary War, there was no such unifying force.  Everyone was back to looking out for number one.  Well, most. 

Locked in a Philadelphia hall during a sweltering summer thick with horseflies, a collection of America’s finest worked to create a new government.  George Washington, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, to name just a few, could hardly agree on anything.  The Constitution they created was not great in their eyes.  But it was probably the best that they could do.  So acknowledged, they sent it to the states for ratification.  The odds were against them.  It would take some persuading.  And persuading they did.  Hamilton and Madison (and John Jay) wrote a series of essays appearing in newspapers to make the case for ratification.  They addressed and answered all arguments against ratification.  (You can read these today in the Federalist Papers.)  And this effort was successful.  The states ratified the constitution.  There was now a nation known as the United States of America.

Our first Secretary of the Treasury was Alexander Hamilton.  A capitalist genius.  And a great admirer of the British Empire.  Being a recent transplant to the American Colonies, he had no deep-seated resentment of the former mother country.  In fact, he wanted to emulate her.  She was the greatest empire in the world.  She was obviously doing something right.  But he pushed too far.  His mercantilist plans were a bit much for some.  Especially the ‘simple’ farmers of the South.  The planter elite.  Led by Thomas Jefferson (covertly) and James Madison (overtly), they fought Hamilton tooth and nail and did everything to destroy him.  (After seeing his plans Madison switched to the opposition.)    And ultimately, did.  When Aaron Burr shot him in a duel on the field of honor at Weehawken, New Jersey, across the Hudson from New York City.  All because Hamilton tried everything within his power to keep him from becoming president of the United States and governor of New York.  Because he was on unprincipled man.  Burr took offense to that.  And, well, the scoundrel challenged him to a duel and killed him.  But I digress.

The American Ideology

The American ideology is simple.  It includes things that have been proven to work.  And excludes things that have been proven not to.  A large, diverse people make up America.  So at the heart of our ideology is that we agree to disagree. 

We don’t have kings or nobility.  We don’t have an entitled class.  No hereditary rights.  Here, it doesn’t matter who your father was.  Or what group you belong to (religious, societal, etc.).  No one person is better than another. 

We have property rights and live under the rule of law.  We honor legal contracts.  We built our nation on laissez faire capitalism.  Free markets.  With a minimum of government interference.  We do what we want and respect that others do what they want.  And we are free to do this as long as we play by the rule of law.

It was a long road getting here.  We took the best history had to offer.  And rejected the worst that history included.  Nations who did likewise went on to greatness, too (like the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, etc.).  Those who didn’t have been repositories of great suffering and human bondage (North Korea, Cuba, The People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union, etc.).  Of the latter nations, please note that life is getting much better in China and the former Soviet Union with the introduction of capitalism and free markets.  And it’s not in North Korea and Cuba where these governments stubbornly cling to failed policies to keep their governments in power.  Whatever the cost is to their people.

It’s the Ideology, Stupid

Good ideology makes good nations.  Bad ideology makes bad nations.  A good nation can NOT take bad ideology and make it good.  A good nation that implements bad ideology will only make that good nation bad.  All people have the capacity for greatness.  And that greatness will shine through if the government doesn’t suppress it.   To see this all we have to do is look to history.  It’s all there.  The good.  The bad.  And the ugly.

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUITH #17: “The raison d’être of federalism is to keep big government small.” -Old Pithy.

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 8th, 2010

BONJOUR.  A LITTLE French there.  To go with the use of the French expression ‘raison d’être’.  Which means reason for being.  Sounds better in French, n’est-ce pas?

I like Canada.  Both parts.  The French and the English parts.  I’ve met and become friends with people in Toronto, Montreal, Fredericton and Corner Brook.  And elsewhere.  I like to talk to my Francophone friends about that day on the Plains of Abraham.  And I like to speak French to my Anglophone friends.  And they both like to point out to me what they believe to be America’s lack of tolerance and compassion.

The Canadians may be a tolerant and friendly people.  Everyone says that about them.  That they’re nice.  And they are.  But they have to work at it at times.  For there ain’t a whole lot of love between the French and English.  Not now.  Or then.  When French Canada became British.

Like it or not, that animosity has been at the van of Western Civilization.  And it would compete in the New World.  Colonize it.  Fight in it.  And give birth to a new nation.  One that would break from the ways of the past.

“WHO’S THAT, THEN?” one filthy peasant asked another.

“I don’t know.  Must be a king. ”

“Why?”

“He hasn’t got shit all over him.”

(From Monty Python and the Holy Grail – 1975.)

What is a king?  Besides someone who “hasn’t got shit all over him.”  A king is where sovereignty lies.  And sovereignty?  In a word, supremacy.  Supreme authority. 

The Sun King, Louis XIV of France, was an absolute monarch and his word was the absolute law of the land.  And he could do pretty much whatever the hell he wanted.  He built his gorgeous palace at Versailles.  Because he could.  Over in England, the king was sovereign, too, but Parliament checked his power.  So the British king wasn’t an absolute monarchy.  In England, the king could do whatever he wanted as long as Parliament agreed to pay for it.  For Parliament controlled the purse strings.  There would be no Versailles in England.

Now France and England were always at war.  Their fighting even spilled over into the New World.  The 7 Years War (as the Europeans called this world war) went by a different name in North America.  The French and Indian War.  The British won.  France lost Canada and other colonial possessions.  Their loss, though, was America’s gain.  The French and Indian attacks on the American Colonists ended, leaving them with peace and prosperity.  But it was costly.  As wars are wont to be.

Over in England, Parliament had to pay that cost.  But taxes were already pretty high at the time in England.  If they raised them further, it could cause trouble.  So what to do?  Well, there were some who pointed out that the American colonists really came out the clear winner in this latest contest.  They got peace and prosperity without really paying anything to get it.  Shouldn’t they pick up part of the tab?  I mean, fair is fair, right?

And they probably would have gladly contributed as good English subjects.  However, and this is a big however, they felt they weren’t treated as good English subjects.  In fact, they felt more like Parliament’s bitch than English subjects.  And to add insult to injury, they had no vote in Parliament.

Parliament passed a series of acts that the Americans would call the Intolerable Acts.  Both sides missed opportunities for compromise and peace.  Instead, tempers festered.  Parliament would bitch-slap the colonists.  And the colonists would bitch-slap Parliament.  Eventually throwing some British East Indian tea into the water.

Now Britain’s king, King George, had a bit of a problem on his hands.  The Americans were challenging his sovereign rule.  There was a name for this.  Kings call it treason.  And they kill people for it.  King George was the supreme authority.  Anyone challenging his authority was challenging his right to rule.  That’s why acts of treason are typically punishable by death.  You don’t stand up to kings.  You grovel.  And these uppity Americans surely weren’t groveling.

And just how does a king get this authority?  Well, you don’t vote for them.  They either inherit power.  Or they kill for it.  It’s a story as old as time.  Patricide.  Matricide.  Fratricide.  And sometimes the killing was by someone outside the family.  But that’s how sovereign power changed.  A king or queen died.  Naturally.  Or with a little help.  And when a new sovereign ascended the throne, he or she usually killed all other possible contenders.

If King George didn’t put down the American rebellion, it could spread.  To Canada.  To other English colonies.  Or give someone ideas back at home that the king was weak.  And challenge him for his throne.

These are things kings think about.  Power can be precarious.  Even when it’s absolute.  As King Louis XVI would learn in France.  During the French Revolution, the people, challenging the king’s sovereignty, sent him to the guillotine.  Chopped his head off.  His wife’s, too.  Marie Antoinette.

ENGLAND GAVE BIRTH to modern, representative government.  It was a balance of power between the many (the common people in the House of Commons), the few (the aristocratic rich in the House of Lords) and the one (the sovereign king).  Each provided a check on the others.  The king was the supreme power but he needed money to wage war and build things.  Parliament collected taxes and paid for things they approved of.  And the House of Lords was to keep that spending from getting out of control as they understood money and costs (that’s what rich people are good at).  They were to protect the nation from the evils of pure democracy where the people, once they realize they can, will vote themselves the treasury.

Most of the American colonists were transplanted Englishmen.  Or came from English stock.  They were English subjects (at least in name if not in practice).  They understood representative government.  Their colonial governments were in fact very British.  The Rule of Law was the rule of the land.  The governed consented to taxation.  And the government collected the taxes they consented to. 

You can probably see where this is going.

Taxation without representation was very un-English.  The fact that it was okay in the American colonies chafed the American English subjects.  I mean, it really frosted their shorts.  It wasn’t right.  By English law.  Or by precedent.  Anger at Parliament turned into anger at the king.  Questions of sovereignty arose.  Should the king be sovereign?  Or should the people?  In 1776, the American colonists stated their opinion in a very treasonous document.  The Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….

The U.S. Constitution emphasized the sovereignty of the people in the preamble.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Kings were out.  The Rule of Law was in.  No aristocracy.  No hereditary offices.  In America, it would be different.  After the Battle of Gettysburg some 75 years later, Abraham Lincoln would reiterate this at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…

…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

THE AMERICAN COLONISTS rebelled and broke away from Great Britain because they were through with being her bitch.  In fact, they weren’t going to be anyone’s bitch.  That’s why there was a lot of opposition to the establishment of a strong, central government.  They didn’t want a national government taking up where Great Britain left off.  And they didn’t want an American president to be just another King George.  The people won their liberty.  And they intended to keep it.  So they could pursue that happiness Thomas Jefferson wrote about in the Declaration of Independence.

Federalism was the solution.  The states’ governments would retain most of their powers.  Only those things they could not do well (regulate ‘free-trade’ interstate commerce, negotiate trade agreements with other nations, wage war, etc.) would be done by the new national government.  The people would remain sovereign.  Strong state governments and a ‘weak’ central government would share power.  In effect, the new central government was to be the people’s bitch.  But you’d never know that by looking at things today.

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