Tuesday, April 20, 2004

The Real Monopoly

Economics textbooks, even many of the newer ones, still have the circa 1930s chapter about monopolies and anti-trust. Very few of them include concerns about politicizing the size-distribution of firms and/or losing the one that markets generate. Even fewer go so far as to suggest that the real source of monopoly power is the law -- and politics. In other chapters, these same texts extol regulation as a source of consumer safety.

Market critics add the occasional complaint about the lack of choice. (Too few low-mileage SUVs; too little low-income housing with an ocean view, etc.)

In Entrepreneurship Gets Slaughtered, Jonathan Turley offers an account that belongs in the textbooks:

"Creekstone Farms is a little slaughterhouse in Kansas with an idea that would have had Adam Smith's mouth watering. Faced with consumers who remain skittish over mad cow disease -- especially in Japan -- Creekstone decided that all its beef would be tested for mad cow, a radical departure from the random testing done by other companies. It was a case study in free-market meatpacking entrepreneurship. That is until the Bush Administration's Department of Agriculture blocked the enterprise at the behest of Creekstone's competitors ... Creekstone invested $500,000 to build the first mad cow testing lab in a U.S. slaughterhouse and hired chemists and biologists to staff the operation. The only thing needed was testing kits. That's where the company ran into trouble. By law, the Department of Agriculture controls sale of the kits, and refused to sell Creekstone enough to test all its cows. The USDA said that allowing even a small meatpacking company like Creekstone to test every cow it slaughtered would undermine the agency's official position that random testing was scientifically adequate to assure safety. ... The rest of the meatpacking industry was adamantly opposed to such testing, which is expensive, and had no desire to compete with Creekstone's fully certified beef."

Makes perfect sense -- in Washington DC.

Read on and it gets worse. This is not the Upton Sinclair meatpacking morality tale that has made it into American folklore.