Stacy Mitchell is co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a national research and advocacy organization that fights corporate control and works to build thriving, equitable communities. She directs its initiative to decentralize economic power and level the playing field for independent businesses. She has produced many influential reports and articles, designed local and federal policies, and collaborated to build effective coalitions and campaigns.
She addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:
- The need for a return to our identity as citizens, not just passive consumers
- The problems of monopoly power by big corporations
- The positives in the current shifts to reign in of corporate power
- The reimagining of what the economy could be and how it could serve us
- The ways to find motivation for activism and change
- Book: Big-Box Swindle by Stacy Mitchell
Connect with Stacy Mitchell
Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right?, a project of the Post Carbon Institute. We say that our guests are cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good, and they’re social artists, people who feel deeply and act with courage in the face of uncertainty. As we all work to protect what we love and change what we can and learn as we go, our awakened hearts are absolutely necessary partners to our critical thinking minds.
Stacy Mitchell is our guest today. She is the co-director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, a national research and advocacy organization that fights corporate control and works to build thriving equitable communities. In 2020, Stacy was profiled in the New York Times for her analysis of Amazon’s power and her leadership in building a broad coalition to challenge it. She’s written several influential reports and articles about the corporation, including a 2018 cover feature for The Nation, “Amazon doesn’t just want to dominate the market – It wants to become the market”.
Mitchell has also written for The Atlantic, Bloomberg, Washington Monthly, and Wall Street Journal, and she’s the author of the book, Big-Box Swindle. In addition to her work at Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Mitchell serves on the board of the Maine Centre for Economic Policy. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in History from Macalester College and lives in Portland, Maine. Now here’s Stacy.
Okay, Stacy Mitchell, welcome to What Could Possibly Go Right? In the last two years, 75 passionate activists and thinkers have given us their perspectives on this very question. Not what went wrong, not what should be, not even hope; but seeing what’s possible inside of what is. We call them cultural scouts. It is a time of such great change, like roiling change. The people long to see something clearly, so they can invest their energy in either resistance or regeneration, according to their temperament.
So you are co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I will say that I met the founder David Morris at an early meeting of the International Forum on Globalization. I have been on the trail of localization ever since, and I’ve referred to your website many, many times. So I am especially thrilled to have you with me today. You speak for what I believe in and what I work towards.
Usually I asked my guests only the one question: What could possibly go right? To help us see through your eyes what we can risk being optimistic about. However, I miss in public discourse, the sharing of what stirs our souls, what experiences have kindled our passion enough to hack away at the dominant paradigm. I miss stories, not of what my guests have done, but of their inner fire.
After 75 interviews, one of my big takeaways is we cannot heal the world if we don’t feel the world. So, I have two questions. Sequence as you will; ignore as you will. The first one is: What’s so moves, inspires and motivates you, that you stayed with your work through thick and thin? And: In this moment of great turmoil, what promise do you see on the horizon? In other words, what could possibly go right?
Well, thank you, Vicki, so much for that wonderful introduction, and lovely to hear about your ties to the Institute, and that past connections and ongoing connections are wonderful to hear about. I’m going to take the second question first. Then I’d love to come back, maybe after people have a sense of what I’m working on. I can talk more about who I am and what I come to this work with.
What could possibly go right in this moment, is that we are in the midst of an extraordinary shift in how people think about the problem of monopoly power. For much of our history, the United States has had a strong focus on anti-monopoly policy. This has been baked into our way that we have approached the very idea of democracy. At various times in our history, corporate power has reared its head and we have stood up and taken advantage of that moment to reinstate and reinvigorate our anti monopoly policies.
We can go back and talk about some of those points in history if you like. But just to say where we are right now, we have been in a truly devastating 40 year period, starting about 40 years ago in the 70s and 80s. Policymakers influenced by this particular school of thinking, the Chicago School of Economics and Law, decimated our anti-monopoly policies, turned antitrust policy on its head and essentially created an embedded preference for consolidation of corporate power, for bigness, for loss of control at the local level, for the decimation of local economies.
That’s been policy, and it’s been policy that’s been embraced by both Democrats and Republicans for more than 40 years now, under the theory that we would all be better off, and that questions of power and market structure should not concern us, right? We’re now at a moment where that is changing; that set of ideas has been thoroughly discredited.
There is an ascendant group of scholars, thinkers, advocates, and now powerful enforcement people in office, who are changing that policy in a fundamental way. It could make, in my view… it is the key thing that we need to do to resurrect democracy and to really safeguard our democratic system, from concentrated economic power and thereby be able to do all the things that we need our democracy to do.
It’s interesting, because it’s the primacy of the consumer. We are not citizens in a democracy. We’re consumers in a marketplace, and we’ve been convinced that consumer preferences, cheap, available, are really what make America great. It’s like a redo of the narrative of this country, because consumers have been convinced that their self-interest is that Amazon functions perfectly.
Apparently, we’re losing ground, we’re losing local businesses. And people, even though theoretically, we have a preference for a level playing field, fairness, community, whether it’s potlucks or whatever it is; we have almost a romanticized memory of what America was, but at the level of daily life, our activities are very much consumers in a marketplace. And it’s very much the agenda of one party, to basically atomize the society, so there isn’t a society; there are only consumers in a marketplace.
So it’s interesting that you think that this is shifting because on the surface, it seems that the consolidation of power is increasing. So tell us what you see that shows the green shoots coming up through the cracks in the sidewalk?
Yeah, let me let me start out by responding a little bit to the consumer piece, because I think that’s an absolutely critical, absolutely right insight about what has been happening. I think people have have realized that our well-being, even just purely in economic terms, is not just a function of who we are as consumers, but it’s also our ability to earn a good wage, to have the opportunity to start and run a business, to participate in healthy communities that have a diversity of opportunities and a local government and a national government that actually works for people’s well-being.
So in all of those ways, concentrated corporate power has robbed us. We know that wages have been pushed down in industries as consolidation happens and there are fewer corporations, they compete less for labor, and wages have come down. Economists have found, for example, that a significant share of the rise in income inequality is owed directly to consolidation and corporate debt concentration.
Similarly, we’ve seen a collapse in small business; this pathway to the middle class that long existed for Americans has really been cut off. And our government has been totally taken over in many respects, by corporate power. So in all of these ways, we are being harmed even in our pure economic self interest.
Then you start to layer on to that, what has happened to our communities, our day to day lives, our level of interaction with one another, our sense of joy in the world. Then our democracy and the ways in which so many people have a sense of despair and anxiety, because we live in communities that are largely controlled by distant corporate forces in which our sense of being able to direct our own future collectively as a community has been utterly wiped out by this consolidation of power.
So there is this realization that is happening for many people that this consumer identity is blinding, and that it’s been a total mistake. It was not part of the history of how policymakers interacted. Consumer identity really came about 40-50 years ago and became this sort of ascendant idea and conceptualization. Even our elected officials refer to us as consumers, when we are, in fact, citizens of the country that they serve.
And antitrust law, just to talk a little bit about this transformation, which, this transformation that happened in the 70s and 80s, should be understood as a coup. When Congress passed our antitrust laws, those laws are still on the books, they are incredibly strong, they are designed to protect us as consumers, as people who produce value as citizens; they are designed to protect us in all of those different ways and to preserve democracy.
They have these broad political and social ends, and their function from the way that Congress passed them in terms of consumers is very minimal. That’s an additional issue. That’s part of the concern, but it is not at the center of it. The centre of Congress’ concern and passing those laws and in the text of the law, is really about decentralizing power and seeing that as a core check, in the same way that we have the three branches of government. You have a check and balance to prevent any one branch from becoming too powerful, or the relationship between national and local government.
Similarly, anti-monopoly was understood as a core part of the structure of a democracy because you had to have a check on private power, or that would overwhelm the system too. So this is the conception of our laws that were passed, beginning at the state level in the 19th century, and then at the federal level, the most recent of which passed in 1950, for example. But then you come along, and you had essentially a coup. Congress did not change the law, but a set of people who were put in charge of the enforcement agencies, and ultimately, it filtered through to the courts, completely up-ended the interpretation of those laws and really turned them on their head.
The lodestar for that was this notion of efficiency; that if we had bigger businesses, they would operate more efficiently, it would be more productive. Efficiency is not exactly like a warm and fuzzy appealing kind of a thing. So it was recast by these folks led by Robert Bork, recast as consumer welfare.; this will help consumers in terms of prices.
It’s important to note that that was absolutely embraced on the left as well as the right. I mean, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were as much proponents and drivers of these policies as anyone else in history, but it was a real coup from what Congress had in mind. So at this moment, we actually are in this place where people are resurrecting that history, recognizing that this was a coup, looking at the incredible evidence all around us of the fact that we have outsized corporate power, and it’s causing the very harms that Congress was worried about.
This thinking has really been ascendant, among scholars, among journalists, among advocates. We now have in the Biden administration… So President Biden has appointed the leading light in this reform effort, a woman named Lena Khan, to chair the Federal Trade Commission, which is an independent agency that has extraordinary power to deal with corporate bad behaviour and consolidation. We are expecting any day now to have these five Commissioners, to have the final Democratic Commissioner be appointed. So she will then have a three-two commission in order to propel that agenda.
Biden has also appointed someone to lead the antitrust division within the Justice Department, a guy named Jonathan Cantor, who is also a key reformer. And within the White House itself, Tim Wu, who wrote a lovely little book called Curse of Bigness a few years ago about all of this, is senior adviser to Biden on monopoly issues. Biden has been doing a bunch of things across government to address concentration, so all of that is going on.
Then the other thing that’s really exciting is that Congress is very seriously taking up these issues, at least in the context of the big tech companies, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple. Congress did a major investigation, an 18 month investigation, this was led by the House antitrust subcommittee, part of the Judiciary Committee, into the market power of those giants.
It’s an extraordinary investigation. It was the first time in more than 40 years that Congress has done an investigation of monopoly power like that, and it yielded a set of recommendations and now a set of bills. At least one of which has got real legs this session, this year, that would regulate and in the case of one bill, break up the big tech companies. This effort has been interestingly bipartisan, and has real legs in Congress. Given how little Congress has been able to do on other fronts is really quite striking.
So those are some of the green shoots. I think there are many others also at the local and state level. But it’s pretty remarkable what is happening.
That is so beautiful to hear somebody unabashedly support the Biden administration, because no matter what he does, he’s like steady course on his agenda by and large, but there’s a framing around him that is clearly political. So it’s really beautiful to have somebody speak to this, and also that it couldn’t have happened without activists like you, who are nonprofit leaders, but also scholars, but also people in the streets. It couldn’t have happened without that foundation of agreement in society.
Yeah, I think that companies that are too big to fail are too big to love. People like the services of Gmail, for example, or Google, but they don’t love it. There’s a sense of like, I’m trapped in something that is hostile to my well-being, but I can’t… it’s a love-hate relationship. So I can see that would be a bipartisan issue that would appeal to the whole base, not just not just one party or another.
I also am associating this with – I’m more work on the grassroots level – I’m associating it with this idea of the great resignation; this confusion about where did the workers go? Where did they go? I did some research among the people who’ve listened to this podcast, where we talk about the subculture that’s oriented around Your Money or Your Life and around this idea of Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE). It’s just a cute acronym. I think it’s really people who have seen through the game, and they’re trying to moderate their consumption to buy back their liberty.
When I researched very casually – it wasn’t official – but I researched in the community, what do they think about the great resignation? Why are people doing this? Why have you done this? And what I saw as the center point of all the reasons was, this system is not fair. I will no longer bring my life into a marketplace where I’m not getting a penny more and the leaders are making out like bandits. This is beneath my dignity.
There’s some sort of human pushback to what you’re talking about at the macro level. And right now, people are occupying spaces, like online sales, Etsy, etc. But it’s not just Etsy. It’s all sorts of little consulting and educating, and there’s a whole range of people who are under the radar, who are making a living outside of the dominator system. Maybe they’re serving the dominator system, but I just think that that’s another piece of it that there’s an appetite from below to break out of this that can meet that appetite from above.
So my question is, how do we heal this disconnect? That whoever is out there framing what we think, is framing the Biden administration, which is trying to resuscitate this leveler playing field. And it’s just constantly running into this poison water of weakness and ineffectuality. What I’m hearing is that we need a possibility of what could go right is lifting up the stories that you’re talking about? Do you see that happening?
Yeah, I guess I have complicated feelings about the question in the sense that it is remarkable, and certainly a surprise to many of us who’ve been working on these issues for a long time that Biden opted to… I mean, he gets this issue. We could not have asked for better people in these positions, and we’re now beginning to see the fruits of that. For example, the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice antitrust division, are in the process of rewriting the merger guidelines, which sounds very arcane, but is a pivotal piece of enforcement policy that determines how we approach corporate mergers, in ways that if they get these policies right, it will influence how courts think about antitrust policy and the future of the structure of the economy.
So it’s pretty extraordinary, and it’s pretty remarkable that Biden really did this fully; didn’t hedge at all on this issue. At the same time, I do think, in general, that both of Biden and the Democratic Party, that there has been a real problem – and continues to be a real problem – of pulling their punches, and not being bold and aggressive and unashamed to stand up to corporate power and to be really full-throated in what they’re trying to do.
Probably one of my biggest worries, and I know we’re supposed to be on, what could go right? But what could go wrong, I am just struck by the fact that the Democratic Party is increasingly made up of people who live in a relatively small number of large cities and who are relatively well off professionals. And large swaths of the country, lots of working class places, rural places and so forth, are not part of the world that many Democrats inhabit. And that, I think, is really worrisome.
So I think we should lift up what Biden is doing on this front, and particularly what these enforcers are doing, and I think we need to push Congress to go further. We need to make sure that we get this one tech bill that is viable, through and that’s going to happen or not, in the next basically two to three months, sometime end of July is about the end of the window on that. But it’s a bill that’s passed, both the House Judiciary and the Senate Judiciary by overwhelmingly bipartisan support.
The barrier right now is whether leadership, getting Chuck Schumer on the Senate side and Nancy Pelosi on the House side are going to bring those bills to the floor in each chamber. That is the kind of thing that, if you have an opportunity to call your member of Congress or to pester Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer, that would be a great thing because there’s a real chance that it could pass. But I do think that Democrats still, despite this one example of what Biden has been doing on this issue, I do think Democrats have generally taken a submissive posture towards corporate power.
There’s so much of what you have said so far, that’s really triggered thinking, responses that I’d love to love to offer. You mentioned these big companies being too big to fail. I actually think that we should start to recognize that they’re too big to succeed.
Big banks do very little in terms of actually funding the productive needs of the economy. These big tech giants, yes, we all enjoy next day delivery and ecommerce and search, and all of that is extraordinary. But the way in which those companies have a chokehold on the market, that the next Google, the next big idea can’t exist right now, because of the power of those companies. And they are really choking off the ability of lots of other businesses, who have to rely on Amazon’s platform or Google search in order to reach their customers. They’re now levying huge tolls and steep fees in order to access those platforms, they’re manipulating the market to favor their own products.
So when you look, what we really have is a system that’s quite dysfunctional; that is, in fact, not succeeding. I think that old paradigm, that I think was a false paradigm but that at least seems somewhat plausible that, Oh, we’re benefiting as consumers, even if these other harms are happening to our communities. At this stage, I think you can look around and see in so many ways that our economy is actually not all that productive or effective, and a lot of it has to do with the outsize power of a few giants.
And that has something to do with the great resignation. It’s just people put it in terms of, they’re not willing to go back to work, but I think there is this groundswell of revulsion. It’s like, how do you exit this? Where do you walk away to? There’s no away anymore. It’s sort of like, if you want to walk away, you have to walk away inside of it. How do you do that?
I think times like these, these are the times that grow men souls. Times like these are whetstones for our moral sense. When things are cushy, and they’re just going along, we can go quite asleep. But this is a time where people are like, how do we walk away? And the communities that I relate to? That’s a big question. How do we create an financial foundation for ourselves without participating in this thing that we recognize now is destroying us?
So I think there’s really big questions out there. But one of the things, going back to the Democrats, because this goes back to the emotional side of things. You say they’re pulling their punches, they’re submissive, that you want them to be unashamed. But they seem to be ashamed of their values. They’re not full throated. They’re cheap chicken. What is that?
What is it that has the Democrats or those of us who are sort of unwillingly but doing it, cooperating with systems of power? What is that inside of ourselves that keeps us from being someone like Stacy Mitchell, who’s like, No, I’m going to step up and I’m going to tell the truth. I’m going to go in the halls of power and I’m going to work on it.
What inspired your courage? What activated you? What gave you the capacity to be in it for the long haul, even in the face of disbelief and a line of senators who are just like, let’s get rid of this woman and listen to the next person who agrees with us. What gives you that ability to stand up and not be submissive?
Yeah, it’s interesting to think about that question. I guess, when I think about why is it that people in power are not. Oh, our elected officials are not standing up. I think you’ll often see it’s attributed to things like campaign donations and the like, more often than not. I really think it’s ideology. I think it’s the framework in which they see the world, and a belief in the case of this issue, really in the notions that consolidated power and scale are all necessary and good, sort of affinity for power themselves.
I think it tends to actually come down more to that, to ideas and frameworks and ideology, even more so than campaign contributions. Not that the latter isn’t important, but I think we don’t analyze the former nearly as much as we as we should. I think what’s exciting about this moment, and what is happening is that that ideology is losing its hold. I don’t think it actually has much currency as a coherent way of looking at the world. It’s still operative in terms of what is actually generally happening in terms of policy. But I think it’s really bankrupt at a more fundamental level.
So the opportunity or the challenge to all of us at this moment is to replace it, to have a better framework for how we operate the economy, how we structure the economy, and what the economy is designed and set up to do. A lot of the work at this moment is like, what does that framework actually look like? How is it implemented? How do we build like that support for that vision broadly and bring it about?
In terms of what motivates me or what, in some ways, I don’t actually have an answer to that, in the sense that I feel like I came into this world with a sort of reformer sense that things didn’t work right. I wanted to understand why, and then try to change them. I studied history in college, mainly studied American history, a lot of labor and environmental movement history and so on, economic history if you will, because I wanted to understand how does change happen? How do things go from working one way to working another? How did the anti slavery movement succeed? How did the Civil Rights Movement succeed?
So I’m interested in that process of change. I’m mindful of the fact that we have a lot of points in our history, where things do change very radically, sometimes for the worse, but often for the better. So I am hoping to steer this moment in the direction of, of that kind of radical change but but for the for the better.
I grew up in Portland, Maine, and at the time, and I live here now, Portland is kind of a gentrifying little city. We’ve got a lot of those kinds of problems at this moment. But growing up here, it was a place that had been really left behind. When I was a teenager, half of the storefronts or more were empty. It was hard to get a decent job, it was a struggling kind of place, and the degree to which Portland and Maine’s economy in general was sort of subject to these outside forces.
I remember being very struck by that as a teenager and as sort of a punk rock kid who hung out in these abandoned downtown places and really felt like, we had a system that had caused their demise and had ruined public spaces and community life, all in service of these external Wall Street, big chain stores, all of that. So it became something that later I was able to study.
One of the things that’s true of me and is true of many of the people that are leading reformers in antitrust now, including Lena Khan who as I mentioned, is the chair of the FTC; we all came to this work, not by having gone to school and gotten an economics degree or a law degree. Lena has subsequently gotten a law degree, but she started out as a journalist who was studying, just going out and talking to businesses, talking to people in communities, market participants trying to understand what was going on. And there’s a kind of clarity that comes from just doing that.
And I’ve been able to do that with my research. I think people who’ve been in, as I said, I feel like a lot of the things that hold us up or ideology and people have been indoctrinated into, the world of economics theory, which very much disagrees with all of these reform efforts and you’ll have a hard time seeing past it. It’s interesting that a lot of the key reformers really come from like a journalism background, or different kinds of background where they were studying these things and how they were actually working in the world corporate power in the context of markets or industries or what have you; and then looking to the law to understand how is this legal.
When you at it from that you realized, hey, antitrust law is not at all working the way it was intended to work. This, in fact, is illegal, and we are not enforcing those laws the right way, as opposed to people who are kind of trained in the ideological framework that Robert Bork and others left us, which is so inverted from reality and lives in the land of theory that has little to do with what we actually see in the real world.
Yeah, so we should probably head home on this interview. One of the things I’m hearing, because the last question I want to ask you, is something about, everybody has answers. But a good question is, how is the whetstone for learning? And it sounds like what you’re talking about is that people have had a question, they’ve investigated something, there’s something amiss here, and I’m going to find out.
There’s something that’s possible, and I don’t see it being able to get through the screens of society. I mean, that’s a thing I hear, is that what could go right through me or through other people is to basically cultivate a questioning mind. Not an angry mind. Not a hands on the hip, goddamnit why are they doing it that way? But a questioning mind. Like, I wonder why they’re doing it that way? How do they get away with something that’s clearly not good for the people?
Because we get angry, but we don’t think about it. Our activism can come from this sort of explosive sense of injustice, but it’s like putting in that piece of inquiry into the mechanisms. I think I’ve done the same thing. I’m not educated, I got a degree in Spanish, but my mind has been like a drill, trying to understand these things. So anyway, let’s give people a good question to chew on, that they can take away as part of their commitment to being part of what’s going right.
I think the question people should contemplate is, what do you know in your own experience, about how economic power is exercised in ways that are fundamentally undemocratic? Whether that’s the limited choices one has when you go to buy an airline ticket, for example; that’s a fairly direct one. But also in the work that you do.
A lot of the experiences that we have in the economy are mediated and controlled by actors that have pretty extraordinary power. So for example, when you when you sign up for almost anything now, and you agree to the Terms of Service, lurking in all that fine print is a clause that says, if you have any sort of issue, you have to have this arbitrate it on our terms as a company. So that heavily favours the credit card company or whoever it is, and knows that arbitration provisions also often apply to people who are selling their services, if you’re an Uber driver, for example, or what have you, you’re also subjected to those kinds of rules.
Another way to say it is that we are often regulated, and controlled and governed in various ways by corporate actors that are totally unaccountable. I think part of the potential sort of revolution here is recognizing that we’re all experts in this because we all experience it, and thinking about the ways in which our own personal expertise ought to be brought to bear in this moment.
Then the other thing I will say about this is that it’s so crucial, and this goes back to that consumer identity. Because of that, internalizing that, we have been trained, if you will, even when we’re in a reform mode, even when we’re trying to solve a problem – to respond to that problem as a consumer. So I’m gonna choose to shop here and not there. I’m gonna buy this and not that. I’m going to drop out of doing this type of work or what have you.
We’ve been trained to respond as just sort of individuals in an economy with nothing more than our individual power. That works incredibly to the advantage of corporations. because our power as individuals as consumers is incredibly limited, it’s very difficult to get enough people together to organise a boycott or anything like that. It just doesn’t work. But our muscle is citizens is very powerful, and we’ve allowed it to atrophy.
So that’s the other thing; what is your expertise? What do you know about this problem, and then go flex your your citizen muscle. It could be making a call to Congress, it could be writing a letter to the editor, or it could be talking to your neighbors. There are lots of opportunities, you can go the Federal Trade Commission, now they do monthly meetings, and those meetings are have an open public comment at the beginning. And it’s a great way to show support for what they’re doing and to like, weigh in with your own experience.
So however listeners think about this problem of outsized corporate power and the opportunities really to have a robust anti-monopoly movement and policy in this country; again, think about how you respond to it in terms of flexing that citizen muscle as opposed to the consumer muscle.
That is perfect, and to do so without pulling your punches, and unashamed. Exactly. So thank you so much, Stacy. This has been really a wonderful conversation very inspiring for me, looking for my own points of power in the society, where I do have influence and, and where the presumption of influence has been, you know, a mistake. So thank you so much personally, and on behalf of all the people who will listen to this. Thank you.
Thanks, Vicki. I really enjoyed the podcast. It’s an honor to be asked to join us. So appreciate it. Thanks for all you do.