The key to restore broad economic prosperity is to force big corporations to compete more. And to open their patent vaults.

But what if both camps are right about the effects they observe and wrong about the causes? What begins to make sense of this odd picture is a problem that previous generations of Americans also had to confront—a concentration of economic control that enables a few corporate bosses to manipulate technological advance entirely outside of any open and competitive marketplace. Put another way, what can explain both of these problems is that the masters of America’s biggest technological corporations increasingly enjoy the power to speed the rollout of technologies that favor capital and to slow those that disfavor their own private interests.

Back in the 1930s, America suffered from a similar set of ills, and the government took direct aim. Specifically, starting in the second half of the New Deal, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration combined stepped-up antitrust enforcement with the forced licensing of key patents held by monopolistic enterprises. Today, few people know this history, but the policy laid the groundwork for the long era of prosperity and technological progress that followed, including the birth of Silicon Valley.

Indeed, when the late industrial historian Alfred Chandler Jr. set out to research his second-to-last book, Inventing the Electronic Century, he came to a conclusion that surprised even him. What was most responsible for America’s astounding technological advance in the twentieth century? It was, Chandler wrote in 2001, the men and women of the Roosevelt administration’s antitrust division. They were the “gods,” he wrote, who “set the stage” for the information revolution. Follow where Chandler points, and we may yet recover the key to restoring broad prosperity, along with the ability to devise the technological tools we need to fix many of our most pressing problems.

Our first challenge is simply to recognize how few companies now govern our technological economy. A good starting example is the chemical and biotech giant Monsanto. Here is a corporation that wields almost complete control over the basic genetic traits of key crops, including corn and soy; that over the last decade has buttressed that power by spending upward of $12 billion to buy direct competitors such as Dekalb Genetics and Delta and Pine Land as well as at least thirty companies that breed and retail its seeds; and that has brought at least 145 lawsuits against small farmers to enforce those rights.

Or consider the business software giant Oracle. Its CEO, Larry Ellison, once said that acquiring another company was “a confession that there’s a failure to innovate.” Then in 2004 Ellison began to gobble up precisely those competitors most likely to force Oracle to innovate. This included PeopleSoft, Siebel, Sun Microsystems, and more than eighty other firms.

Estates of Mind
http://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/julyaugust-2013/estates-of-mind/