Digital Monkey On My BackMost of us are familiar with the word “Monopoly,” if only from the perennial favorite Parker Brothers board game of the same name. But for anyone who has never Passed Go and Collected $200, here it is in a nutshell: a monopoly occurs when there is only one source for a particular service or product.

In the Middle Ages, bestowing business monopolies was a privilege of monarchy. The king (or queen, or whatever) could reward loyal subjects by granting them monopoly over some area of business… for instance, the production of wool. That meant no one else in the kingdom would be allowed to produce wool for profit; it would be against the law. That forced all wool producers to sell their products under the direct control of the monopoly holder, who kept a hefty slice of the profit in exchange for granting them a license to sell their own products. It was a sneaky way for the ruler of a feudal kingdom to reward his favorite cronies by keeping them rich.

Cue the Industrial Revolution. As businesses grew larger, companies realized they could combine assets to form “business trusts” and completely take over the production of all commodities in a given category— iron and steel, gas, coal, real estate, transportation. The rise of monopolies got so bad that it inspired the famous boardgame. This was the age of self-annointed “robber barons” whose scramble to control entire sectors of the American economy got so ugly the government finally stepped in to create targeted Anti-Trust legislation to break up the worst offenders. This engendered angry complaints from the monopolists of the day about “unpatriotic anti-capitalist socialism” and “the poor work ethic of the lazy underclasses” and “the evils of government interference with the free market.” Political parties were sneakily seeded with sympathetic (and heavily-bribed) shill candidates to serve as policy puppets of the big money interests and keep them on top. And yes… if any of this seems a bit familiar to you, it certainly should.

The body of antitrust legislation which followed are the same laws that broke up AT&T in the 1980’s and took on Microsoft in the 1990’s. The logic behind antitrust legislation is simply this: “it’s a bad idea to allow a small group of wealthy people to own everything, or to support a single company that completely controls a necessary product or service to the detriment of the public trust.” Duh…ya think?

These days we no longer have monarchs granting business monopolies to favored courtiers; instead we have nepotistic politicians doling out lucrative multi-billion dollar government contracts to select businesses, often without any juried counter-proposals or fair competition of any kind. And the bigger a company gets, the more money and influence it can use to manipulate the system. Can you say Halliburton?

So WHY does Walmart criminally underpay its employees and deny them affordable employee health insurance? Well… because THEY CAN. And it looks like we’ll continue to bend over and let them, so long as they give us our fix of cheap chinese sweat-shop-made plastic houseware. Walmart is the biggest company in the world, and while it may not be a monopoly, it certainly wants to be. And we might let it. I suspect that at some point in the late-1960’s the American people became so cynical that we stopped believing (sorry, Journey) in the long term rewards of hard work, and instead started buying Lottery tickets and desperately dreaming about the Big Score. Decades later, after our national economic infrastructure has been rapaciously plundered for years by the Get-Rich-Quick set, it has begun to dawn on the rest of us that there might not be any gold left at the end of the rainbow. Maybe it’s time for us to quit putting our faith in quick fixes and actually try to figure out a real way to clean up the awful mess left over after 30 years of financial partying by the likes of Bernie Madoff and Richard Scrushy.

And if your personal version of the American Dream is STILL to be The Monopoly Guy, be advised: the party is over, and the Get Out of Jail Free cards don’t really work.