Monopolists, then and now

Please read this piece on Amazon and its aggressive intrusion into shipping and the “disintermediation and the monetization of those capabilities”. They are allegedly trying to co-opt or eliminate competitive shippers to make Amazon the only dominant force in internet sales. Hey, creating a monopoly as best as you can is Business 101. Now, some history:

By 1870, Rockefeller and new partners were operating two oil refineries in Cleveland, then the major oil refining center of the country. The partners incorporated (under a charter issued by the state of Ohio) and called their business the Standard Oil Company.

To give Standard Oil an edge over its competitors, Rockefeller secretly arranged for discounted shipping rates from railroads. The railroads carried crude oil to Standard’s refineries in Cleveland and kerosene to the big city markets. Many argued that as “common carriers” railroads should not discriminate in their shipping charges. But small businesses and farmers were often forced to pay higher rates than big shippers like Standard Oil.

The oil industry in the late 1800s often experienced sudden booms and busts, which led to wildly fluctuating prices and price wars among the refiners. More than anything else, Rockefeller wanted to control the unpredictable oil market to make his profits more dependable.

In 1871, Rockefeller helped form a secret alliance of railroads and refiners. They planned to control freight rates and oil prices by cooperating with one another. The deal collapsed when the railroads backed out. But before this happened, Rockefeller used the threat of this deal to intimidate more than 20 Cleveland refiners to sell out to Standard Oil at bargain prices. When the so-called “Cleveland Massacre” ended in March 1872, Standard controlled 25 percent of the U.S. oil industry.

Rockefeller saw Standard Oil’s takeover of the Cleveland refiners as inevitable. He said it illustrated “the battle of the new idea of cooperation against competition.” In his mind, large industrial combinations, more commonly known as monopolies, would replace individualism and competition in business.

Rockefeller planned to buy out as many other oil refineries as he could. To do this, he often used hardball tactics. In 1874, Standard started acquiring new oil pipeline networks. This enabled the company to cut off the flow of crude oil to refineries Rockefeller wanted to buy. When a rival company attempted to build a competing pipeline across Pennsylvania, Standard Oil bought up land along the way to block it. Rockefeller also resorted to outright bribery of Pennsylvania legislators. In the end, Rockefeller made a deal with the other company, which gave Standard Oil ownership of nearly all the oil pipelines in the nation.

By 1880, Standard Oil owned or controlled 90 percent of the U.S. oil refining business, making it the first great industrial monopoly in the world. But in achieving this position, Standard violated its Ohio charter, which prohibited the company from doing business outside the state. Rockefeller and his associates decided to move Standard Oil from Cleveland to New York City and to form a new type of business organization called a “trust.”

Under the new arrangement (done in secret), nine men, including Rockefeller, held “in trust” stock in Standard Oil of Ohio and 40 other companies that it wholly or partly owned. The trustees directed the management of the entire enterprise and distributed dividends (profits) to all stockholders.

When the Standard Oil Trust was formed in 1882, it produced most of the world’s lamp kerosene, owned 4,000 miles of pipelines, and employed 100,000 workers. Rockefeller often paid above-average wages to his employees, but he strongly opposed any attempt by them to join labor unions. Rockefeller himself owned one-third of Standard Oil’s stock, worth about $20 million.

During the 1880s, Standard Oil divided the United States into 11 districts for selling kerosene and other oil products. To stimulate demand, the company sold or even gave away cheap lamps and stoves. It also created phony companies that appeared to compete with Standard Oil, their real owner. When independent companies tried to compete, Standard Oil quickly cut prices–sometimes below cost–to drive them out of business. Then Standard raised prices to recoup its losses.

Much of the trust’s effort went into killing off competition. But Standard Oil while Rockefeller was in command also usually provided good quality products at fairly reasonable prices. Rockefeller often declared that the whole purpose of Standard Oil was to supply “the poor man’s light.”

The Antitrust Movement: By 1900, the Standard Oil Trust had expanded from its original base in the East to new oil regions further west. At the same time, a wave of anti-monopoly sentiment swept the United States. Farmer organizations, labor unions, muckraking journalists, and many politicians attacked such combinations as the sugar and tobacco trusts. But they especially targeted the “mother trust,” Standard Oil.

By this time, nearly 30 states and the federal government had passed antitrust laws that attacked monopoly abuses. These laws usually rested on a set of legal and economic assumptions:

The common law, inherited from England, condemned the restraint of trade.
Monopolies tended to restrain trade by keeping prices high, suppressing product improvements, and making excessive profits. Competition among many independent firms was necessary to assure fair prices, high-quality products, and reasonable profits.

Starting with Ohio in 1887, 10 states and the Oklahoma Territory filed 33 separate lawsuits against companies affiliated with the Standard Oil Trust. In most cases, Standard lost in court. But Standard’s directors reorganized the trust shifted operations from state to state, and otherwise evaded court rulings to maintain their monopoly.

Since state lawsuits against Standard Oil were going nowhere, muckraking journalists pressed for federal action against the trust.

Starting in November 1902, Ida Tarbell wrote a series of 19 carefully researched articles in McClure’s Magazine. She detailed how John D. Rockefeller ruthlessly forced his competitors to “sell or perish.” She correctly identified railroad discounts, specifically outlawed by the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, as key to creating Rockefeller’s Standard Oil monopoly.

Called “Miss Tarbarrel” and “this poison woman” by Rockefeller, Tarbell helped push the federal government to investigate the Standard Oil Trust. While publicly attacking Standard Oil and other trusts, President Theodore Roosevelt did not favor breaking them up. He preferred only to stop their anti-competitive abuses.

On November 18, 1906, the U.S. attorney general under Roosevelt sued Standard Oil of New Jersey and its affiliated companies making up the trust. The suit was filed under the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. Under this federal law, “Every contract, or combination, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is hereby declared to be illegal.” Standard Oil v. United States:

The Standard Oil trial took place in 1908 before a Missouri federal court. More than 400 witnesses testified. The government produced evidence that the Standard Oil Trust had secured illegal railroad discounts, blocked competitors from using oil pipelines, spied on other companies, and bribed elected officials. Moreover, the government showed that from 1895-1906 Standard’s kerosene prices increased 46 percent, giving enormous profits to the monopoly.

Although Rockefeller was technically president of Standard Oil, he had retired from active management in 1895. But he remained the single largest stockholder. Rockefeller testified that Standard Oil achieved its position because its combination of cooperating companies was more efficient and produced a better product than its rivals. When cross-examined on how Standard Oil grew so dominant, the 71-year-old Rockefeller frequently stated that he could not remember.

Attorneys for Standard Oil contended that the large combination of companies making up the trust had developed naturally and actually saved the industry from destructive price wars. They also argued that since Standard Oil was a manufacturing business, it was exempt from the Sherman Act, which only addressed interstate commerce.

Both the trial judge and a unanimous federal appeals court agreed that Standard Oil was a monopoly violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. They also supported the government’s recommendation that the trust should be dissolved into independent competing companies. Standard Oil then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On May 15, 1911, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the federal appeals court and ruled that the Standard Oil Trust was a monopoly that illegally restrained trade.

So, is there a version of this tale going on today? The close relationships between the DNC, congress and senate members, the DNC “Mainstream Media”, and the elites at Google, Facebook, WaPo (Amazon), and others are obvious. They probably hate Trump just because they hate him – but there’s this: if they thought they could manipulate him into being a lackey for their side, why wouldn’t they simply do that?

Our answer, subject to revision is this: Trump’s calling fake news “fake news” is ultimately a threat not only to CNN, NBC, MSNBC, etc., and to their allies and backers at Amazon, Google, Facebook, etc., but to the whole monopoly game they are playing, rather like that of a century ago.

Final point: we like the piece above as entertainment and a view into how some parties might come together to make their “Profit Plus Perfection” vision a reality. However, without government strong-arm tactics (USSR, Cuba, Venezuela, etc.), such efforts usually end in failure. Stay tuned.

2 Responses to “Monopolists, then and now”

  1. feeblemind Says:

    “Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company Proved That We Needed Anti-Trust Laws to Fight Such Market Monopolies”

    “The prices of Standard products (chiefly kerosene in the company’s early history) steadily fell. The quality steadily improved. Total production grew from year to year. This is not supposed to be the behavior of an evil monopolist, who supposedly restricts output and raises prices.

    Accusations against Standard—predatory price cutting, buying up competitors, conspiracy to restrict output and raise prices, securing railroad rebates, etc—sound plausible on the surface but fall apart upon close inspection.”

  2. feeblemind Says:

    Day of the Long Knives.

    Right wingers have been unceremoniously banned from Facebook.

    From the article:

    Tommy (Robinson) now struggles to gain traction – albeit with a smile on his face – and a plan to drive a bus around the country with a big screen on it, to highlight the censorship he faces.

    Milo – and he will probably hate me for saying this – faces total financial ruin.

    Alex Jones has had a massive business ripped out from under him. And Laura Loomer has been relegated to staging protests on the front lawns of those who needlessly aggress her.

    If all these peoples’ ideas were not relevant, or popular, they would not need to be banned.

    The point is the political left and its establishment bedfellows know deep down the public is not on their side.

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