Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.67.2: SOOOOO BIG

© 2010, UrbisMedia

© 2010, UrbisMedia

On 7.31.2010 NPR ran a piece that BP was trying to ”buy up” as many possible scientific witnesses in what promises to be the biggest tort case ever to settle their damages in the Gulf of Mexico. They are offering professors and researchers research monies, but the researchers have to withhold the results if BP asks them to. In other words, when you are that big (they made some 70 billion this last quarter) you can buy up all the information. Even the Truth is for sale to a corporation as big as BP.

Here’s a little Dr. Science quiz for you. Several years ago there were two science fiction movies that were released around the same time. One was called The Incredible Shrinking Man, a story about a guy who drank something–I don’t remember what exactly–that caused him to keep shrinking, eventually right out of sight. The special effects people had a lot of fun along the way, pitting him against cats, then rodents, then insects, and probably eventually, although we never find out, with bacteria. The other picture, Tarantula, reverses the premise: through some mishap by a wacky scientist a tarantula ends up growing as tall as a ten-story building and, as is the case in this film genre, threatens civilization as we know it until it is nuked out of existence in a fiery finale.

Question: imagine these two premises as options for real-life circumstances. Which predicament would you prefer to find yourself in: a) shrinking person confronting normal-sized tarantula, or, b) normal-sized person confronting giant tarantula? What’s the difference, you’re thinking, you’ll end up as spider-lunch either way.

Not necessarily. You should choose “b,” the giant tarantula option. You see, a ten-story high tarantula would not only not be able to chase you down and gobble you up, if it could move at all it would probably crumble under its own weight. Its the same reason that an ant, which amazes us by being able to haul a leaf sixty-times heavier than itself, wouldn’t be able to carry its own weight if it were human-sized. It has to do with the structure of these creepy-crawlies, and with the laws of physics.

So what’s the point? That you should feel a little more secure? No…I mean yes, you should feel more secure, but that’s not the point of the quiz. It’s a simple one: size makes a difference. So what; you already learned this from buying a hat or an unfortunate dating experience.

Nature has some rules that defy the proposition that has come into common parlance that there are some things (institutions) that are just “too big to fail.” But the question is “how big is too big (to fail).” I’m thinking of the answer to the old question “how big is it?” that is answered, “as big as it needs to be.” Not “as big as it wants to be.” Nature (evolution/natural selection) seems always to be looking for the optimum sizes of things. Beehives get only so big before a new queen is created and sets off to found a new hive. The canopies of rain forest trees reach only a certain range in height. Dinosaurs, flowers, insects, fish all evolve to maximize their advantage relative to their environment, prey, habitation and other requirements for survival. If, for example, the size of a predator’s prey became of such a size it made it incapable of ever escaping then they would all become eaten and there would be no new generations produced—bad for both predator and prey.*

You can sort of see where I’m heading with this. Size is relative, not tautological (something can’t be intrinsically too big, or too small). King Kong was just too big to date blondes the size of his thumb, or live on the top of the Empire State building. The CEO who makes a salary six-hundred times the wage of his average worker doesn’t see the disparity in the difference because for him big is never big enough to win the “Rich CEO Pissing Contest.”

But American capitalism is afflicted with the giant gene, and the results are neither jolly, nor green. Consider that this form of giantism is oligopolistic. A few giant health care companies control much of access of health (and the Obama health care “solution” has further enabled them). The same applies to energy, few companies, growing larger and larger. And pharmaceuticals. And media. Oh, and did I mention the defense establishment. These gigantic oligopolies assist one another and the bigger they get the bigger their influence on politicians, and the cycle reinforces itself. Since the labor unions have been marginalized and the public in general is fractious and fed the ideological nonsense that corporate bigness makes us “No. 1.”

The other things that the public is fed is that the only countervailing institution capable of making rules for fairness and the public interest—government—is really the enemy; that it is not excessive drug prices, energy costs, health care, and the huge debt of senseless military, that government is too big, that those airheads with teabags dangling from their revolutionary tricorns, tells us is one giant tax-sucking, socialist tarantula.**

Gradually, and almost inevitably, big corporatism buys up “big” government, keeping it as a client, establishing its lineaments with the revolving door between Congress and the board rooms and lobbies. And so, when, de- and un-regulated, its excesses bring about the failure that dare not speak its name, the client-government can screw the people—again— on its behalf, and bail big corporatism out.

That bigness is counterintuitive to economic stability is partly illustrated by the contrasts between “agglomeration” and “conglomeration” economies. We are all familiar withagglomeration economies; they are the districts of goods and services that we find in most cities, areas where vendors of like products congregate even tough they are competitors for the same consumer. Agglomeration economies create a “gravity” that pulls in more customers than would a location with just one or two vendors. They consist of many independent businesses. Small businesses can grow and prosper under such circumstances when the competition keeps any business from getting too big to eat up all the other competition (the Microsoft effect).

Conglomeration economies (my term) are somewhat the opposite of agglomeration economies. The so-called “big box” store is the consumer products version of it. Once they sufficiently wipe out the groupings of small competitors they become the monopolistic vendor for the areas that they dominate. Bigness is their advantage. Conglomeration is not interested in fostering competition or innovation, but in amassing a “too big to fail” market share.

They are already here. And we can’t seem count on government (or this government) to countervail them. We can only hope that the next time they, like the giant tarantula, fall under their own bloated weight, that we, the people, don’t allow ourselves to be made to ail out our oppressors. A small-minded people are destined to fail.
© 2010, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 8.11.2010)
*Remember those B sci-fi movies about the Incredible Shrinking Man and The Fify-Foot Woman? Humans just don’t make it at those sizes. Even bad movies know that.
**But haven’t they been watching their sci-fi? You need the big government, with its big military and nukes and stuff, to blast away those giant tarantulas, apes, and . . . like other big bad stuff.