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“Break Em Up” Analysis & Other Musings

I read a lot. Everyday. Mostly books about economics/political economy/history/climate change. Additionally, I read at least an article a day about similar issues, but also occasionally read other things like novels, movie review articles, and literary essays. This has made me just as good at collecting books (and papers and articles) as I am at reading them–which then, in turn, leads to me having intense FOMO and the fear of not staying current, so I read everything at an increasingly breakneck pace to finish it.

There is so much information out there, and my anxiety wants me to view the next item on the list as just that, just something to get through in the hopes that it’ll magically place me ever closer to being widely-read and knowledgeable about things I care about. But lately I’ve noticed that, because I don’t spend much time reflecting on what I just read (a skill I’m admittedly deficient in), it is becoming that much harder to make meaningful connections between all of this information, feeding a growing sense that I’m not fostering new knowledge and a deep understanding about any particular thing of interest, but rather growing a larger bank of information I vaguely know what to do with. It is becoming harder for me personally to connect broader story arcs and find patterns and relationships to which I should be carefully considering, not just solely to fill hard drive storage in my brain.

Sometimes I feel just confident enough in my ability to sustain well-informed and prolonged conversation about the various topics I familiarize myself with daily because I have seen certain arguments and information in such high volume. But upon further inspection I’ve come to face the hard truth that I don’t give myself the change to wholly absorb the material. What I’ve come to find out is that, while reading a lot at first was healthy for ideological and intellectual growth, the rate at which I consume literature now hampers retention. Lately, I find myself just recycling a hardly-deeper-than-surface-level amalgamation of some stuff I happen to remember, and I think this is due to a lack of time I give myself between jumping from one reading almost immediately to the next with only a cursory investigation concerning how I feel about what I just read. The unlimited access to information in this sense has become counterproductive. So my brain needs a break to write and to refelct.

Which leads me here: This small epiphany along with a small review will be the first installment in a catalogue of forthcoming posts about the handful of books I’ve read so far while in graduate school.

I believe this will help me make more meaningful connections and force me to go back to really consider what I read so that I can force myself to jot down what I’ve actually learned and organize my thoughts into easily digestible content (it also gives me the opportunity to practice writing). This is a hard task and emotionally cumbersome right now, kind of like going back to double check my writing the next day because I am trying to avoid the feelings that I made a mistake. There will always be mistakes, and there is no way in hell that causing myself whiplash jumping immediately from one reading to the next while there is still plenty to check off my list actually conducive to learning. I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that my bookshelf will always grow and never be finished because I alone cannot force my brain to retain the whole of home knowledge just by completing readings as fast as possible so that I can finish them all. It does little to speed through in the hopes that I will achieve peek literacy by completing a time trials record for finishing everything I ever wanted to read.

Analysis – “Break ‘Em Up“:

While it is still fresh in my mind: If you’re unfamiliar with Zephyr Teachout, Fordham Law professor and prominent antitrust scholar, I can think of no better, more easily digestible way to become familiar than by reading her book. It foregrounds the political economy paradigm we live under and looks at the position of our country under the lense of antitrust and consequences of anti-monopoly. Facing a looming climate crisis, decades of inhumane neoliberal policymaking, and a violent inequality, Teachout’s lucid and persuasive prose aids a critical investigation into the dangers that growing industry consolidation (in both goods and labor markets)–abetted by raw corporate might and lax antitrust laws–poses to the climate, human liberty, democracy, and the vitality our country.

She starts by describing in clear detail the magnitutue of violence in the agriculture industry, what she calls the “chickenization” of America broadly but especially in the industry of agriculture. Big AG players like Monsanto, John Deere, Tyson, among others, have tightly concentrated the industry so much as to control every aspect of farmers’ lives. Farmers using Monsanto inputs or seeds are forced to subject their animals to poor conditions and crops to certain Monsanto specifications (or face the risk of lawsuit); they’re thrown into enormous debt; they’re pressured to maximize their productivity to the point of exhaustion, depression, and suicide; and coerced at every step of the farming process, all while only realizing a return of 14.3 cents for every dollar we spend on food. Additionally, John Deere does not permit widespread maintenance on their products or make available viable, realistic options for formers to service their own equipment, so farmers are often subject to exclusive and predatory terms for use if they use John Deere products (with no alternative). They may also have to travel long distances to the nearest licensed servicer. None of this would be possible without a handful of corporations colluding with each other, restraining trade, and abusing and limiting the employment choices of farmers (subjecting them to inhumane conditions).

There is no fair competition in this industry. But Teachout shows that this behavior of extreme concentration, control, surveillance, and punishment is indicative of nearly every other industry we interact with on a daily basis. Big Tech is one such example, which is routinely under fire for advertising and data collection schemes, and for their treatment of workers. They usually end up walking away with a modest fine for their malfeasance, just a regular cost of business nowadays.

If you only see the advantage of monopoly harms without analyzing the costs to the rest of us who live in society together, odds are you may be ambivalent at best to the private threat of the world’s largest corporations and the destruction they cause to the planet. I think this is an extremest position to take given out most immediate and ongoing climate-related disasters. Destroying the planet and undermining the democratic health of our country, along with fortifying racial capitalism, is what monopolies seek to do. They make laws, have the power to tax, and subject their employees to a form of aggressive, intrusive private governance all while remaining unaccountable to the public to which they serve. In the Moral Markets chapter, Teachout describes that this doesn’t have to be our fate. The crumbling and formerly unassailable “principles” of neoclassical economics are not conducive to a sustainable future and equitable economy. We can build an inclusive, fair economy by reigning in private forms of massive outsized power to quell undue political influence they hold over our collective voice.

We also need not to give into the attractive politics of centering ethical consumption as the primary tool for remedying this. As Teachout explains, we would be wise to more effectively advocate for change by doing the hard work of organizing and staying in the ear of elected representatives. We need not cede anymore power to Facebook by making it seem like they hold the true key to political revolution. Real change does not start in the corporate board room. Being a part of this capitalist society, much like using Facebook to stay connected to your family and friends, is not an endorsement of the system as it stands. You can advocate for change and are allowed to be dissatisfied by the economic system under which many of us suffer in the same way you’re allowed to criticize Facebook’s active promotion of right-wing extremism and misinformation and data collection practices.

Finally, Teachout’s book covers more topics like how we can use nationalization of essential infrastructure in tandem to anti-monopoly goals of breaking up behemoth corporations. She also covers how the culture of monopoly power reinforces structural racism. She also talks about several times the danger of the false binary of “consumers” vs. everyday people living as members of our broader community.

I liked this book and thought it was essential to helping me make connections between previous observations between antimonopoly and what its strict implementation means for the rest of us. I recommend picking it up, because it is a relatively quick, important read. It may also encourage you to be one driving force of change in your community. And finally, I think this book helps to show we can either save the climate or we can protect an ongoing culture of neoliberal austerity and monopolistic harm, but not both.

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