On the hard left, it’s axiomatic that corporate America has created an “illusion of choice” that isn’t really much of a choice at all. Probably the easiest way to understand this axiom is by looking at this chart:
Yes, this concentration of power amongst these few companies is somewhat disturbing. These represent oligopolies, or what President Theodore Roosevelt would have called “trusts” while he was legislating to break them up.
However, I’m here to tell you that in relative terms, the “illusion of choice” is something of an illusion. Take a very good look at the names of the businesses in the chart. Now that you’ve done that, is it really true that you have no alternative to these corporations? Think of Costco-branded products that say “Kirkland.” Think of Safeway-brand products. Think of your local organic-oriented market, think of farmer’s markets, think of all the local cheeses you buy instead of Kraft, all the chips you buy outside of Lay’s, all the many little things you get from small businesses that have nothing to do with this chart.
The truth that the hard left rarely acknowledges is that the market share over food and dry goods held by these ten companies – Coca-Cola, General Mills, Johnson & Johnson, Kellogg’s, Kraft, Mars, Nestle, Pepsico, Proctor and Gamble, Unilever – has been steadily diminishing throughout this century, and was accelerated with the recession, which drove consumers to seek generic brands and other alternatives.
The last big contest between two enormous, share-controlling companies was between two of the ten guys mentioned in the chart, Coke and Pepsi. In the 1980s, they flooded the airwaves with commercials trashing each other. They don’t do that anymore, partly because they realized that the contest was turning off customers and driving them toward third-party alternatives. (Of course, they did manage to eventually purchase many of these alternatives, but there are plenty of scrappy independent drink companies.) Think of all the major companies for electronics, social media, cars, insurance, banks, hotels, motels, publishers…none of them advertise by striking at a rival. When you see an advertisement decrying “the other guys,” it’s from that scrappy startup side that’s trying to break in, not from the supposed oligopolies.
Capitalism is working in America – to a point. (The benefits need to be more evenly distributed, but that’s a topic for another day.) The Republicans’ 2012 convention was a fiasco in many ways (Clint Eastwood and a chair, anyone?) but the impulse to celebrate small business wasn’t misguided. Small businesses are maintaining our choices, and are a big part of the reason our recovery from the recession has been faster than that of other developed nations. It’s not just supermarkets, either. If you don’t like Internet Explorer or Chrome or Safari, you can go to Firefox or something else. If you don’t like what the Big Six Media Conglomerates (Paramount, Warners, Disney, Sony, Fox, NBC/Universal) are putting on TV, you have lots of other networks (like PBS, the BBC, the Sundance Channel) that they don’t control. If you don’t like the major clothing retailers, there’s plenty of minor ones. Don’t like the big airlines? New, more JetBlue-like ones are sprouting like weeds.
The key element with these alternatives is that after you get your product, you generally don’t feel dissatisfaction. You skip the Cheerios and get some other kind of O’s, and it’s not bad. You do a pass on Nestle ice cream, you get one from a more local creamery, and you’re not hating it. This is really as good as we can expect a capitalist democracy to work. Of course successful businesses will use their freedom to consolidate, but the difference between other countries and ours is that in our nimble, fluid, start-up-loving economy, we can (usually) provide alternatives to the satisfaction of most people. Yes, a given company may get too much power, but we know capitalism and democracy are on what economists call a positive feedback loop when we’ve still got plenty of user-loved alternatives.
And that brings us to the one place where the “illusion of choice” is all too real, and that’s politics. Nowhere else are we sold such a restrictive bill of goods. Can you vote outside the Democratic and Republican parties? Yes, but are you then happy with what you’ve acquired? In what other area would your third choice be so dissatisfying?
The Democrats and the Republicans do marketing absolutely unlike any current company – they do it exactly like Coke and Pepsi. It’s not how good they are, it’s how bad the other guy is. And just like Coke and Pepsi back then, they’re turning consumers firmly against them. Capitalism and democracy can and should be a positive feedback loop…instead, in the realm of politics, plutocracy and autocracy have created the worst kind of negative feedback loop.
Someday, we have to get out of it. Either the Democrats and the Republicans will take a page from Coke and Pepsi and start focusing on what’s good about themselves, or third and fourth and fifth parties will have to emerge – as they have in countries like Germany and India – to better serve the people.
Eventually, these parties will stop tarnishing the American brand.