The Refragmentation

The consolidation that began in the late 19th century continued for most of the 20th. By the end of World War II, as Michael Lind writes, “the major sectors of the economy were either organized as government-backed cartels or dominated by a few oligopolistic corporations.”

.. Plus since TVs were expensive whole families watched the same shows together, so they had to be suitable for everyone.

.. In a way mid-century TV culture was good. The view it gave of the world was like you’d find in a children’s book, and it probably had something of the effect that (parents hope) children’s books have in making people behave better. But, like children’s books, TV was also misleading. Dangerously misleading, for adults. In his autobiography, Robert MacNeil talks of seeing gruesome images that had just come in from Vietnam and thinking, we can’t show these to families while they’re having dinner.

.. Much of the de facto pay of executives never showed up on their income tax returns, because it took the form of perks. The higher the rate of income tax, the more pressure there was to pay employees upstream of it. (In the UK, where taxes were even higher than in the US, companies would even pay their kids’ private school tuitions.)

.. If the company promised to employ you till you retired and give you a pension afterward, you didn’t want to extract as much from it this year as you could. You needed to take care of the company so it could take care of you. Especially when you’d been working with the same group of people for decades. If you tried to squeeze the company for more money, you were squeezing the organization that was going to take care of them.

.. And the second reason is that if you want to solve a problem using a network of cooperating companies, you have to be able to coordinate their efforts, and you can do that much better with computers. Computers reduce the transaction costs that Coase argued are the raison d’etre of corporations. That is a fundamental change.

.. IBM’s big mistake was to accept a non-exclusive license for DOS. It must have seemed a safe move at the time. No other computer manufacturer had ever been able to outsell them. What difference did it make if other manufacturers could offer DOS too? The result of that miscalculation was an explosion of inexpensive PC clones.

.. Gradually the government realized that anti-competitive policies were doing more harm than good, and during the Carter administration it started to remove them. The word used for this process was misleadingly narrow: deregulation. What was really happening was de-oligopolization.

.. Obviously the spread of computing power was a precondition for the rise of startups. I suspect it was for most of what happened in finance too. But was it a precondition for globalization or the LBO wave? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t discount the possibility. It may be that the refragmentation was driven by computers in the way the industrial revolution was driven by steam engines. Whether or not computers were a precondition, they have certainly accelerated it.

.. in the early 1980s that the term “yuppie” was coined. That word is not much used now, because the phenomenon it describes is so taken for granted, but at the time it was a label for something novel. Yuppies were young professionals who made lots of money. To someone in their twenties today, this wouldn’t seem worth naming. Why wouldn’t young professionals make lots of money? But until the 1980s being underpaid early in your career was part of what it meant to be a professional. Young professionals were paying their dues, working their way up the ladder. The rewards would come later. What was novel about yuppies was that they wanted market price for the work they were doing now.

.. In 1960, corporate CEOs had immense prestige. They were the winners of the only economic game in town. But if they made as little now as they did then, in real dollar terms, they’d seem like small fry compared to professional athletes and whiz kids making millions from startups and hedge funds. They don’t like that idea, so now they try to get as much as they can, which is more than they had been getting.

.. Not everyone who gets rich now does it by creating wealth, certainly. But a significant number do, and the Baumol Effect means all their peers get dragged along too. [23] And as long as it’s possible to get rich by creating wealth, the default tendency will be for economic inequality to increase. Even if you eliminate all the other ways to get rich. You can mitigate this with subsidies at the bottom and taxes at the top, but unless taxes are high enough to discourage people from creating wealth, you’re always going to be fighting a losing battle against increasing variation in productivity.