The leading presidential candidates from both major parties are running against big business. Or, often, more precisely, "Big" business, with the capitalized "B" being a sign of something particularly sinister.
President Biden's January 11 statement on the December Consumer Price Index number bashed "big" four times in three sentences. The Democrat accused Republicans of planning "massive giveaways to the super wealthy and big corporations." He said Republicans have "locked arms with Big Pharma and Big Oil to try to stop us from lowering prescription drug costs and utility bills." And he said, "They're doing everything in their power to allow Big Banks to keep charging you steep hidden fees."
Meanwhile, Trump's campaign is promoting a video in which the candidate denounces "the big defense contractors," who he says are "pushing our senior military and national security officials toward conflict." In another video, from June 2023, Trump complained, "our public health establishment is too close to Big Pharma—they make a lot of money, Big Pharma—big corporations, and other special interests." In December 2022, Trump promised to crack down on "big online platforms" including "every Silicon Valley tech giant."
In voicing concerns about bigness, the candidates are tapping into a real trend in public opinion. Gallup has been polling Americans about their confidence levels in big business for 50 years. The June 2023 numbers showed a record low—only 14 percent of Americans surveyed had a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in big business, while 43 percent had "very little" or "none."
Some of that is part of a broader deterioration of confidence in American institutions. Some of it, though, is specific, and an understandable response to the underlying reality of steady consolidation in the American economy. Data from 2021, released by the Census Bureau in December 2023, found establishments with 500 or more employees were 54 percent of the jobs in America and 61 percent of the payroll. By contrast, in 1988, the earliest year for that data series, establishments with 500 or more employees were 45 percent of the jobs and 51 percent of the payroll. The local office-supply store has been mostly replaced by Staples. Local hardware and appliance stores have lost ground to Home Depot, Lowe's, and Walmart. Small physician practices are being rolled up by hospitals and insurance companies.
Ideally, "big" brings benefits to customers—lower prices and better service thanks to efficiencies of scale. It doesn't always work out that way, though. Pointing that out isn't necessarily nostalgia or a self-serving complaint by a frustrated competitor. Sometimes "big" means arrogant or complacent, or size allows a business to capture regulators and exert market power in a way that benefits management in the short term at the expense of customers, suppliers, or the community.
Politically, the attack on "Big" has been tried before. Vice President Gore, accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000, managed to hit "big drug companies," along with "Big tobacco, big oil, the big polluters." Gore lost that election, but it was close.
Defenders of "Big" typically point out that companies grow large by innovating in ways that provide real value to customers. Some of the same people telling the pollsters they don't trust big business may be sending a more accurate signal of their actual beliefs when they spend their hard-earned dollars buying things from those same big businesses. Big business sometimes gets blamed for societal or government failures that aren't its fault. And big businesses based in the U.S. are often facing off globally against even bigger, sometimes government-backed, foreign competitors.
Instead of joining the big-bashing, far-sighted politicians might consider displaying some leadership by educating the public on some of these points. Isn't America better off with big banks, pharmaceutical companies, energy suppliers, defense manufacturers, and technology platforms than it would be if it had to rely on other countries for those industries? Bigness, for all its faults, is better than an alternative outcome in which American corporate giants suffer and shrink into dwarfs.
If the politicians really feel the need to beat up on bigness, there's another more inviting target that might provide a better campaign messaging opportunity. How about running against Big Government? It might resonate better with the voters, though it also risks hitting uncomfortably close to home.