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May 11, 2009

Monopoly at Risk?

Christine Varney, newly minted head of antitrust enforcement at the Justice Department, announced in a speech at the Center for American Progress today that monopolies are in fact illegal. You wouldn't have known it under the Bush administration which, aside from failing to bring a SINGLE antitrust case during its two terms, published a formal report last year that made even the prospect of antitrust enforcement all but impossible. The Bush policy relied on market competition to "correct" any anti-competitive practices, which has the elegance of being both morally wrong and internally contradictory. Those Bushies sure knew how to craft policy.

Anyway, that's all history now. As the NYT reported on its front page this morning, Varney "is expected to explicitly warn judges and litigants in antitrust lawsuits not involving the government to ignore the Bush administration's policies." Translation: a new sheriff is in town.

Interestingly, Varney considers agriculture to be among those industries that should explicitly take note of the administration's new commitment to antitrust enforcement. This is a good thing, given the accelerating consolidation that has occured recently in all aspects of food production -- from meat to milk to seeds -- where a handful of companies already have near-monopoly status.

And as the NYT points out, several major antitrust cases began with small companies' complaints to the Justice Department of anti-competitive behavior. One can only imagine that the protesting dairy farmers might be the first to take up Varney's new open door policy. And probably those farmers who get sued by Monsanto when the wind blows GM seed pollen into their fields might want to give Varney a call. Or maybe the small livestock farmers who've been put out of business by Smithfield's massive hog operations will want to chime in. And then there's my pipe dream of taking down ADM and Cargill, the monopolists' monopolists, which control almost the entire market in commodity grains... Hey. A guy can dream.

Photo by mtsofan used under a CC license

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