Good morning, Quartz readers!
The specter of monopolies and the threat of concentrated market power are getting renewed attention in the age of Amazon and once-unthinkable massive corporate mergers. Market concentration is being blamed for almost everything that is wrong today, from stagnating wages to the rise of fascism.
There are now fewer firms in the US economy since the 1980s, and they are big. The Council of Economic Advisors estimates market concentration has increased in 75% of industries since the 1990s. The dominance of a few firms conjures images of robber barons from the gilded age, squeezing everyone from consumers to workers. But this is a new gilded age, powered by a more interconnected and global economy. As markets change, so might the ideal structure of companies. With that change comes a new understanding of monopoly power, and a reappraisal of its costs, and even possible benefits.
Traditionally, the problem with monopolies is they stick it to consumers. While market concentration has increased since the 1980s, prices on many goods have not. There are fewer airlines, but the prices of flights (after we adjust for inflation) have fallen. Prices on many consumer goods, like washing machines, food, TVs, and electronics (once you control for quality), have also become more affordable, even as there are fewer manufacturers.
Big firms can also limit competition. It’s true that there are now fewer startups and less entrepreneurship, a trend that started in the 1980s and accelerated after 2000. But if the economy were less competitive, you’d expect firms would become less productive, and the opposite is true. One study estimates that the most concentrated industries are the ones where productivity increased the most. It could be the rewards of success: The firms that innovated may have become more productive and taken a large share of the market.
Market concentration may cause new problems, however. We need the right regulations to solve these new problems, but old solutions could make them worse by undermining how firms innovate and compete in the global market. If the issue is a few big companies, the solution isn’t necessarily more smaller companies. After all, it is not clear the economy, or consumers, would be any better off with five different Facebooks. —Allison Schrager
Five things on Quartz we especially liked
A new chapter in human evolution? Following news of the world’s first gene-edited babies, Quartz’s reporters explain this momentous scientific development, question the PR tactics deployed, find answers from the researcher in question, and conclude that, at this time, we don’t need mavericks.
The future of college. The ninth chapter in What Happens Next, Quartz’s complete guide to the future, is about reinventing education. A professor re-envisions the meaning of intelligence, the edX CEO explains why college degrees should be thought of like Lego bricks, and the former Malala Foundation president explains why women could be left behind by mobile education.
The emotionally charged world of breastfeeding research. Many moms know the expression “breast is best” and plan to exclusively breastfeed their babies. But for a variety of reasons, including work demands, that doesn’t always happen. Annabelle Timsit writes on reconciling the socioeconomic factors that may influence babies’ health with the proven benefits of breastfeeding—and finds the science is more complex than she ever imagined.
The surprising fragility of a powerful perk. A strong company culture is as vital as it is ethereal, as the London office of the marketing agency C Space learned when it tried to tinker with things. In The Talent Quotient, a special project from Quartz at Work, Lila MacLellan tells the story of a culture audit gone awry, and the painstaking steps taken to restore what had once been a happy workplace.
The push for made-in-Africa mobile phones. In Africa, network operator MTN, countries including Kenya and Egypt, and startup Onyx Connect have either announced plans for or launched their own homegrown phones. Abdi Latif Dahir writes on the numerous obstacles that must be overcome before such efforts can take on Samsung, Apple, and popular Chinese brands.
Five things elsewhere that made us smarter
Forget the art, what’s an artist? New York Magazine critic Jerry Saltz, a burned-out artist himself, assembles a guide to the artist’s life for anyone seeking creative inspiration or simply to understand where art comes from. His advice is useful reading for the veteran of the Chelsea gallery scene and the weekend watercolor warrior alike.
The publicizing of private moments. Life events that once passed without fanfare—job departures, pets’ birthdays, asking someone to prom—now inspire public celebrations. Meanwhile, traditional festivities around marriage and birth are stretching into multiple events, like post-wedding receptions and gender-reveal parties. For the Atlantic, Alia Wong explores the phenomenon—and social media’s role in fueling it.
The paranoia of Saudi Arabia’s royal court. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has put a spotlight on the cutthroat scheming within the House of Saud, which matches anything in Game of Thrones, David Ignatius writes for the Washington Post (paywall). The scene in Riyadh recalls Baghdad in the days of Saddam Hussein, he writes, but it’s not too late to calm the family feud.
New parents are getting gifts they don’t want because of ads on Amazon. The e-commerce giant is placing ads in baby registries, but to many gift shoppers it’s unclear they’re ads. One new mom calls the practice “very sneaky.” Amazon, for its part, is on pace to double its advertising revenue this year, as Rolfe Winkler and Laura Stevens report for the Wall Street Journal (paywall).
The rapid rise and sudden fall of 6ix9ine. Born in Brooklyn to a Mexican immigrant mother and a Puerto Rican father, Daniel Hernandez found unlikely fame as a rapper performing under the name 6ix9ine. But as Ali Watkins writes for the New York Times (paywall), the gang affiliations he cultivated for cred and shock value have now landed him in real trouble with the law.
Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, baby presents, and artistic advice to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join the next chapter of Quartz by downloading our app and becoming a member. Today’s Weekend Brief was edited by Steve Mollman and Oliver Staley.