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Bigger is NOT Better

Posted by Rick · February 2nd, 2004 · No Comments

Some people think bigger is better. Walmart and Bank of America and, recently, some physician clinics come quickly to my mind.

But bigger is usually not better.

First, there’s the obvious problem. When some one company becomes large enough, it is able to control not just it’s own marketability; it’s not just able to squeeze out any competition that might be beneficial. It’s also able to control reality in a way that is — or ought to be — quite alarming. Take, for example, Rupert Murdoch, of whom Business Week recently weighed Murdoch against other titans, such as Time-Warner,

[T]he wily Murdoch…is set to become the more fearsome gatekeeper, with increased say about what gets into people’s living rooms and on what terms….

Not since newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in the first half of the 20th Century has one man had such means to shape news media….

Murdoch [is] not shy about using his media outlets to pursue agendas, whether they’re politically-conservative causes or his own business interests. — Business Week (print edition), January 19, 2004, p. 55 (emphasis mine).

Is it an accident that America is becoming more conservative? I don’t think so. It’s got more to do with the constant barrage of Murdoch’s brand of “news”, which includes Fox “News”, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.

Sidebar Rant: Foils

And when/how did this “news” style — the use of foils — become the only way to do “news”? Is it because it lends some kind of respectability to the picture? I mean, why do “news” people not just report the news anymore? Why do they always have one reporter asking another reporter such basic questions? How ridiculous is it to show a reporter with obvious tank and mortar fire going off in the background — some visible, some just heard — and then have the stateside reporter say, “So, Joe…is there any weapons fire there?” I keep wanting to hear the field reporter say, “Well, Doofus, as you can see, there are rockets and mortars going off just a little behind me. If you were listening to the audio on this sequence, you’d hear multiple explosions.” Maybe it helps make the program last longer. But I don’t see why this matters, either, since usually the same 10 or 12 stories are repeated every half hour.

In the case of Fox, you get to see what they want you to see. The same Business Week article quoted above noted that Fox virtually became a cheerleader, encouraging Americans that we needed to attack Iraq. Is it possible that without this, Bush’s false claims about weapons of mass destruction would have been more critically considered?

Billy is famous for bringing guests on his show and then refusing to let them speak; they’re used as foils for him to push his own sometimes-bizarre views. At times, Billy makes even the John Birch Society look liberal. Hannity pretty much does the same. Why have these people on if you aren’t going to actually have a discussion with them? Why have them there just to constantly interrupt them? (Some of the guests aren’t much better in that regard, but, on the other hand, they aren’t the hosts.)

The “entertainment,” of course, isn’t much better. There are only so many shows with 13-year-old grossly-obese rednecks who didn’t now that their grandfathers, who also sired the 13-year-old grossly-obese rednecks’ children where actually gay Ku Klux Klan leaders now abusing the 13-year-old grossly-obese rednecks’ children. There are only so many interesting run-ins between Cops and drunken low-lifes. It’s gotten so bad that it’s no longer a surreal life.

Try to find something else, though, in this big world of Murdoch-controlled or -driven media. And it’s not just the television. Murdoch’s magazines in the UK are known for their love of bare-breasted women — and we’re not talking about pornographic magazines. But at least with magazines, the spectrum isn’t limited; you can find alternatives. Television doesn’t seem to afford that, even with cable or satellite.

Well, at least we’re safe in the real world…or are we?

For five years, we had kept a grand ledger book in our minds to try to reckon the Boswell empire — and by extension Big Ag — in a way that broke free of the dogmatic screeds of the 1930s and 1940s. What were the pluses? What were the minuses? We had studied the works of Carey McWilliams and Paul Taylor and read one of the masters of historical scholarship, the Frenchman Fernand Braudel, who had looked at the development of the Mediterranean world and concluded that valleys almost always led to a plantation-like system that produced slaves and oligarchies. To conquer the plains had been a dream of man since the dawn of history, but the dream required more than man himself. The reclamation of the flatlands, draining swamps and controlling rivers, relied on large-scale government investment. And that investment rarely, if ever, worked its way down to the working class. Land that was flat and endless became the easy domain of the machine. In such a place, the rich became very rich and the poor became very poor.

The same conclusion, more or less, had been reached in a seminal 1946 study of two towns in the San Joaquin Valley: the company town of Arvin, dominated by the 12,000-acre grape operation of the DiGiorgo family, and the town of Dinuba, surrounded by seventy-five-acre vineyards and fruit orchards owned by different family farmers. The two cities were the same size, and the farms that skirted them brought in the same aggregate income, and yet the way they developed couldn’t have been more different. Social scientist Walter Goldschmidt found Dinuba to be a pleasant town with four grammar schools and a modern high school. College-educated residents lived in tree-lined neighborhoods, belonged to community clubs and patronized a thriving downtown. Arvin, by contrast, was squalid and dilapidated with a single school, unpaved streets, no sidewalks and residents who went to church in tents and socialized in a knot of bars that lined the main street. DiGiorgo and the other big farmers lived elsewhere and cared little about the community. One visiting minister called it “the worst town I ever saw,” and business owners freely admitted that they lived there to make a “killing” and were going to flee the first chance. — Arax and Wartzman, The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire, Public Affairs: New York, 2003, p. 423.

The “government investment” Arax and Wartzman speak about included the building of dams at the behest of Boswell, Salyer and other large farmers who snapped up billions — yes, billions — of dollars in water rights and then convinced the government that they, the farmers, could not afford to, and should not have to, pay for the dams. So millions of dollars of taxpayer money was spent on such projects as Pine Flat to store water that didn’t even belong to (and could not be used by) the citizens whose taxes were used to do the building. During this same time period, J.G. Boswell collected more millions in government subsidies — sometimes for agreeing not to plant crops on land that was underwater — more millions than it took to build Pine Flat!

Bigger is clearly not better in this case.

You often hear, by the way, that Walmart and J.G. Boswell-type enterprises create more jobs. This just isn’t true. Walmart, for example, displaces — that is eliminates anywhere from two to five existing jobs for every job it creates. And J.G. Boswell was famous for eliminating jobs, turning more and more of it over to machines.

Well, at least life is more efficient this way. Your choices are limited, so you don’t have to waste a lot of time figuring out what you want. (If you do still have trouble, Murdoch’s empire helps with that, too, by telling you what you want — and what you believe.) Not as many people can find work to enjoy things. But, heck, for those of us who do work, the prices are so low we can afford to live almost as well off by having both parents in a household work as our parents did by having one parent work while the other raised children. (I’m not endorsing sexism here; I’m talking about the irony of the numbers.)

Meanwhile, thanks to reducing social welfare programs (which I’m in favor of doing, by the way), we can afford corporate welfare programs like those that benefited J.G. Boswell and allowed him to drain one of the largest lakes in the West to grow surplus cotton. This, plus increased mechanization (and computers) which allow employers to get by with fewer employees, thus reducing their labor costs. And, where possible, what little labor is utilized can increasingly be obtained overseas. This way, a pair of jeans that costs a company $7 to have made can be sold to you for $22 (on-sale price).

But what if that same pair of jeans were made by a small clothier in the United States? Well, in 1902, “men’s extra fine business suits” cost about $3.50 in Morris County, New Jersey. And clothier’s made a good living. Convert that price using the Columbia Journalism Review’s Dollar Conversion Calculator and you find that would be $70 by today’s standards. But I can’t buy an entire suit for that price! On average, I’m spending $50 to $60 for a single pair of dress pants! Don’t forget that these low prices were before we had much in the way of mechanization; labor was a bigger chunk in each step of the process than it is today. But all those people still managed to feed families — often families which were larger than those of today.

I’m tellin’ ya, bigger is definitely not better.

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