John Oliver’s Epic Antitrust Riff Missed 2 Key Points

September 25, 2017, 3:19 PM UTC
john oliver on hbo talking about corporate consolidation

HBO host John Oliver, known for funny, influential dives into important but boring issues like net neutrality, spent an incisive fifteen minutes last night delving into another insider issue that’s gaining increasing public scrutiny–antitrust law. He made a lot of great points—but missed two important ones.

When not busy making Jim Cramer’s buttons produce fart sounds (classic), Oliver hammered on the impact of consolidation of the economy. Politicians talk big about small businesses as engines of growth and job creation, Oliver points out, but those same politicians don’t support that rhetoric by pushing regulators to rein in huge corporations that dominate entire sectors of the economy.

As Oliver elaborated, mergers often yield efficiencies for big companies, but they can also reduce consumer choice and even raise prices. For much of the segment, Oliver focused on the airline industry, where there are now just four major U.S. players. That lack of choice lets them get away with things like baggage fees and abusing customers without serious consequence. Oliver’s take on airlines was a bit one-sided, though: deregulation, which largely triggered airline consolidation, has helped radically reduce airline ticket prices over the last three decades.

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Oliver cited a number of other highly consolidated industries, including, not coincidentally, several that are passionately loathed by consumers. Four companies dominate consumer banking; there are only five major health insurance providers; and for viewers so infuriated they’re “yearning for the sweet escape of death,” Oliver broke the bad news that the casket industry is controlled by only three players.

But surprisingly, Oliver barely mentioned the company that has been most in the news for monopolistic practices–Google. The $2.7 billion judgment levied against the search giant by the European Union this year was a bold message that came partly in response to a complaint from a small business Google trampled, the shopping site Foundem.

That EU judgment wound up highlighting Google’s massive power in another way. When the antitrust research group Open Markets celebrated the E.U. judgment, it was ejected from the New America think tank, which is substantially funded by Google. Many took that as a case of the search giant using its economic clout to silence critics, but Oliver didn’t pick up that thread. Maybe he’s saving it for his next acerbic rant.