Is there a point at which societal change moves so fast that some people not only do not see it, but emphatically deny that it’s happening?
That’s the question I was left pondering after the event last week, “An Army of Davids or the Triumph of Goliath” (co-sponsored by the Reason foundation, TCS Daily, and the Smith Family Foundation). I looked forward to the event — which I enjoyed — especially hoping to see the panelists engage in some informed controversy. I got controversy alright — some of it surprising.
First up was Glenn Harlan Reynolds of Instapundit fame, and now author of the new book whose title gave the event its name. We’ve often heard the story of how blogs and new media undermined Big Media’s former stranglehold on information, and Reynolds recapped again, but went a step further that should make us all optimistic. He wondered: Will new media eventually become old and complacent, and ultimately “sell out” to create a new information monopoly? No, because people will continue to do this for free. Give people a soapbox, and they’ll want to get on it and rant, regardless of whether they make money from doing that, because, quite simply, it’s fun.
Next up was Joe Trippi, former campaign manager for Howard Dean, who was credited with helping the campaign raise huge wads of cash through online contributions. Trippi added another insight: Having helped launch an insurgency within the Democratic Party, he experienced firsthand the power of new information technologies to shake up large institutions from within. Blogs and online world activities like fundraising, he noted, have given voice to constituencies within large institutions — like political parties — to make their voices heard if they believe that those institutions’ leaders have lost touch with them.
Good points, all well made. So far so good.
But then we come to Barry Lynn of the New America Foundation — and author of End of the Line: The Rise and Coming Fall of the Global Corporation — and the discussion got…interesting.
Monopolies and oligopolies, argued Lynn, are taking over ever greater chunks of today’s American — and global — economy. Large corporations, through use of their market power, are consolidating their already-powerful positions, enough so to render the shots from the slings of an “Army of Davids” just so many petty pinpricks — a pretty standard leftist critique of corporate power, so there was nothing new or particularly outrageous here.
Lynn admits that a lot of the business consolidation he decries has benefited consumers, but that more competition is still necessary, and that it must be “imposed” through antitrust regulation. Left alone, a few large corporations will leverage their market share to squeeze suppliers and choke off competitors. The system is skewed to favor already-dominant players. Lynn’s scenario may partially describe corporate behavior — after all, everyone tries to drive the best bargain possible — but omits one inconvenient fact: Corporations, including very large ones, fail. If large companies’ power were as awesome as Lynn implies, corporate bankruptcies would be rare.
During comments, Trippi offered an example that undermined Lynn’s corporate-gigantism-is-here-to-stay argument: the public relations disaster that hit the fast food chain Wendy’s when a woman claimed to have found a human finger in her chili at one of the chain’s restaurants. The claim was later found to be a hoax to sue Wendy’s for big bucks, but not before it went all over the Web, creating a PR nightmare for Wendy’s and severely hurting its sales. So couldn’t enough of these Davids bring down a Goliath like Wendy’s?
Yes, said Lynn, a handful of individuals put Wendy’s on the defensive, but that’s of no consequence, because that occurred in “the digital world, not the real world.”
Really? Are the digital and “real” worlds — the latter described by Lynn as the world of factories and brick-and-mortar stores — two realms that never shall meet? Then where would my purchasing a copy of Lynn’s book — hard copy, mind you — through Amazon.com, rather than at the brick-and-mortar Barnes & Noble down the street, fit into that scheme? Or airline tickets that take me from one physical destination to another purchased though an online travel site like Travelocity or Expedia?
Trippi’s entertaining example, in my view, sank Lynn’s argument. But once in that hole, Lynn couldn’t stop digging. During the Q&A session, a member of the audience asked Lynn how the increased competition to the Detroit Big Three from Japanese and European automakers that began in the 1970s squared with his view of corporate invincibility. “Because we invited them in.”
We? Invited? Foreign automakers were not “invited” by the U.S. government — if that’s who Lynn means by “we” — but were simply not kept out of the U.S. market. According to Lynn, this reinforced his argument for the need for stricter antitrust laws. Yet the only “we” that “invited” foreign auto sales were consumers, not Washington regulators.
In the end, Lynn’s apprehension about the changing economy is understandable. His remarks suggest a worldview based on power struggles between oppressors and oppressed — capital vs. labor, Wal-Mart vs. mom-and-pop stores, and such. New technologies like the Internet undermine this paradigm by diffusing power. This is great news for society at large, encouraging greater cooperation as more people are able to engage in the market in different ways. But for the society-as-power-struggle crowd, it may mean that everything they know is wrong — and who wouldn’t want to deny that?