Opting Out of Cartels   (September 19, 2009)

Correspondent Brad Lemley sees plenty of ways to "opt out" of enriching the cartels which dominate consumerist America.

In How Much of Your Money Goes to Monopolies and Cartels? I suggested that the majority of household income flows to corporate cartels. Correspondent Brad Lemley points out that with some modest healthy effort, we can "opt out" of enriching cartels.

He writes: "Charles, I think you are a little too pessimistic in this piece - there are more options out there than you let on. So allow me to weigh in."

Brad responded to each of my ten points; I have italicized the original entry and placed Brad's responses in plain text.

How Much of Your Money Goes to Monopolies and Cartels?

In a supposedly competitive free market economy, why does most of our money flow through or to a handful of firms?

Since I've been writing about concentrations of capital and cartels in Survival+, I asked myself: how much of our household spending flows through and to essentially non-competitive cartels or monopolies? The answer: most of it. 1. Mortgage. Most mortgages are processed and serviced by a mere handful of big players, so regardless of who owns your mortgage now, the mortgage/banking cartel is more than likely collecting a nice piece of it, and a chunk of the origination fees as well.

I had no bank mortgage for my first home, which I built myself. No, I did not have the cash in hand. But my parents at the time had about $120,000 in investments (not an outrageous amount by any means). We had a nice, friendly, adult-to-adult talk, and came up with a mortgage deal in which they lent my wife and me $60,000 in a 15-year, 8 percent mortgage. The rate was smack between the then-CD rate of 6 percent, and the then-mortgage rate of 10 percent. We paid it off in seven years. My father loved it; he always said it was his best-performing investment and he got satisfaction from helping us. I loved it, because it was cheaper than a bank, and I got the satisfaction of helping my folks (and freezing out the banks).

There are trillions in personal bank accounts collecting zilch (or in mutual funds, losing money daily). Many of the people who own those trillions have trustworthy, responsible family and friends who are borrowing from banks at usurious rates. This is insane. We have all been hypnotized to believe that lending between private citizens who know and trust each other is a bad idea. It is a great idea.

2. Utilities. How much choice do you have in providers of electricity and natural gas? Zilch. So your money goes to a monopoly.
Lots of folks where I used to live in Maine, myself included, heated with wood from their own lot, some cooked with it as well. Others went off the grid via photovoltaic and solar hot-water panels.
3. Telecom/phones/Internet. Your landline (if any), Internet and mobile services are divvied up amongst a handful of major providers. In the case of cable Internet service like ours, we pay a virtual monopoly: Comcast. Given the minor differences in service and costs (despite all the sham "deals" hyped constantly), the service from tweedledum and tweedledee is essentially indistinguishable.

Mein Gott in Himmel, cancel cable! Cancel the land line! All anybody needs is an internet connection and maybe a cell phone. Why anybody would talk long distance on a landline for x cents per minute, when you can have a superduper, Jetsons-like videophone experience for no extra cost via Skype is beyond me.

4. Grocery shopping. A handful of corporations dominate the supermarket business, a handful of businesses dominate food distribution, a handful dominate the market for bulk grain and commodities like sugar, and a handful of global food giants manufacture most of the packaged food in the supermarkets.

Unless you shop at small ethnic markets, then virtually all your grocery money goes to a few cartels. And even the small ethnic markets buy from distributors--and the grains are still controlled from seed to flour by a cartel.

Grow your own. Buy from farmer's markets (there are twice as many now as there were 10 years ago). We get at least 75 percent of what we eat from these two sources. It is not difficult, unless you want to eat the crap they sell at supermarkets and die young.

5. Restaurants/fast-food. Yes, you might take out from the local eatery or frequent the local bistro, but a huge pecentage of meals-away-from-home are served by a handful of firms. Colonel, meet Ronald.

Never eat at chains. Not difficult. The food is disgusting.

6. Media/Entertainment. Have you ever read the credits on all those wonderful art films from Europe? Gee, why is Canal+, the French media giant, listed on virtually every one? That "hometown newspaper"? It's owned by a media chain. The media and entertainment industries are dominated by a handful of global corporations, so whatever money you spend on media and entertainment flows to a cartel.

Between library books and the internet, this base is covered. Further, how about "entertaining" yourself by growing a garden, fixing up your house, biking around town, sewing, building furniture, fishing, hunting, playing cards, learning and playing a musical instrument, and essentially emulating the way happy, healthy, productive, normal people lived on this earth for thousands of years before 24/7 passive entertainment began turning everyone into a fat, stupid consumer?

7. Auto and auto loans. I've never bought a new car or had an auto/truck loan, but most buyers go through the dealers for financing, and so a handful of global auto manufacturers also handle the majority of auto financing.

So buy used with saved cash! Or bike! An interesting, recent technological development is "electric assist" hybrid bikes, such as the Giant Twist Freedom. Not cheap, but these are so effortless that they "Europeanize" sprawling American cities, making an 8-mile bike ride as easy as a 2-miler used to be. Cost for the electricity to operate them is about a half cent per mile.

8. Retail/consumer durables and discretionary. Who collects most of your discretionary and "durables" consumer spending? Wal-Mart, Target, Lowes, Home Cheepo, Walgreens, CVS--a handful of firms dominate the retail sector. (OK, the "dollar stores" are picking up steam, so some modest competition still exists in the "under $2" sector.)

I try not to buy much of this crap. There are handcrafted version of most of it - make it yourself, buy it at a craft fair, or by a "vintage" version from a flea market.

9. "Healthcare" a.k.a. sickcare spending. Of course none of your money goes directly to providers, except perhaps dental work and eyecare. The big bucks flow through a handful of HMOs or insurers to a handful of hospital chains, and the vast majority of all those funny little pills you get by the boatload every month are manufactured and marketed by a handful of global pharmaceutical giants.

I am 54 years old. I took an antibiotic for two weeks when I was 28 years old to cure a raging infection in my hand that was getting worse by the day. Aside from that, I have not taken a single pharm as an adult (and not many that I can recall as a kid). I eat right, exercise hard every day and get sun on my skin for vitamin D. No pill has the versatility of a healthy immune system, the end product of two million years of evolution that permit it to survive and thrive with basic care.

I concede that I was lucky genetically, and that illness does befall some people despite their best efforts at maximizing health. But whether ou have good or bad genes, you can improve your odds by working at being healthy every day.

10. Local municipal education and other services. Property taxes (at over $10,000 a year, these constitute a huge chunk of our household expenses) flow to a monopoly called "local government," and do you get a choice about the schools we're paying for? Does your district offer charter schools and real choice in education? Is the municipal trash service in competition with private providers? (If so, then Waste Management dominates the private trash-service market, so you still up paying a monopoly or cartel).

We had a good, local public school that I never begrudged - served our son well, more than worth the property taxes. We have the option of no trash service, and haul our meager garbage and copious recyclables to the dump.

Thank you, Brad. I heartily concur that there are relatively straightforward ways to opt out of feeding the cartels our money.

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