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Dwight Macdonald

Who Owns America?

The Monopoly Committee Makes Its Final Report

(April 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 17, 28 April 1941, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“Private” vs. “Public” Wealth

The following figures are taken from a table showing the total assessed valuation of the 48 states of the union, on the one hand, and the total assets of the 30 biggest U.S. corporations on the other.



New York (richest state)


Wisconsin (tenth richest state)


Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. (richest corp.)


American Tel. & Tel. Co.. (No. 2 corp.)


Missouri (No. 11 state)


Prudential Iris, Co. (No. 3 corp.)


Connecticut (No. 14 state)


Pennsylvania Railroad Co. (No. 4 corp.)


Mutual Life Ins. Co. (No. 18 corp.)


Oklahoma (No. 25 state)


Bankers Trust Co. (poorest of 30 corps.)


Alabama (No. 30 state)


(Followed by 18 other states, all of them with less wealth within their borders than the assets of the smallest of the 30 corporations.)

1. The Mountain Brings Forth a Mouse

On April 29, 1938, President Roosevelt sent a message to Congress calling for “a thorough study of the concentration of economic power in American industry.” A few days later the Temporary National Economic Committee (better known as “the Monopoly Committee”) was born, It has been holding hearings and issuing reports ever since. Last week, after three years’ of activity, the Monopoly Committee closed up shop. It had spent $1,062,000, had once had a staff of 182 experts, had looked into 95 different industries and heard 552 witnesses. It leaves behind it as a permanent record 37 volumes of testimony, plus 43 exhaustive economic studies in special fields.

Out of all this you would expect something pretty formidable to come. Both Roosevelt in his 1938 speech and Chairman O’Mahoney of the Committee in his closing statement talk much of the connection between big business and fascism, and express doubts as to whether the “democratic way of life” can be preserved unless the growth of monopoly is checked. What does the committee propose to do about it? The recommendations in its final report boil down to:

  1. better enforcement of the Sherman Anti-Trust Laws;
  2. changes in present patent laws, to make it harder for patents to be used as a base for monopoly;
  3. Federal chartering of interstate corporations (instead of leaving this in the hands of the states, as today);
  4. encouraging small business by government-guaranteed loans.

All of these measures were proposed long before the Monopoly Committee began its studies; all of them are the mildest, most timid sort of reform gestures. The general press comment on the Monopoly Committee’s final report was well summed up in Time:

“With all the ammunition stored up, a terrific broadside might have been expected. Instead, the committee rolled a rusty BB gun into place, pinged at the nation’s economic problems …”

“On th’ Other Hand, Not So Fast”

In a word, although – as we shall presently see – the Monopoly Committee discovered an even greater concentration of economic power than it expected to find, its final report proposes to do precisely nothing about it. There’s nothing mysterious about the reason for this. Chairman O’Mahoney states it clearly at the beginning of his final statement for the committee:

“No member of this committee and no person in any way affiliated with it has ever made any suggestion to the chairman or to the committee the purpose of which was to do other than strengthen our traditional economic and political order ... I believe therefore that our final report should begin with a definite and unequivocal declaration of our faith in free enterprise.”

The same note was struck three years earlier in the Presidential message which called the committee into being. Referring to “unhappy events abroad,” the President warned Congress that democracy was not safe if “the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. ... Among us today a concentration of private power without equal in history is growing.” The President also made it clear, however, that his proposal “is not intended as the beginning of any ill-considered ‘trust-busting’ activity.” Quite the contrary, he insisted that his main concern was “to preserve private enterprise for profit.”

The difficulty is a simple one. The United States today is dominated, politically and economically, by a few hundred huge corporations, banks and insurance companies. These are controlled by a few hundred thousand executives and big investors. This is that “growth of private power” which Roosevelt and O’Mahoney want to destroy – and this is also that system of “private enterprise for profit” which these gentlemen want to protect. Both jobs can’t be done at once – at least not by the same political leaders. But it is not in Roosevelt’s interest to recognize this simple truth.

And so his 1938 message to Congress was a Presidential monopoly message in the classic American tradition; which goes right back to the Sherman Anti-Trust Law of 1890. To it can be applied the comment of Mr. Dooley on a similar message to Congress by Roosevelt the First some 40 years ago:

“The trusts, says, he, are beejous monsthers built up by th’ enlightened intherprise iv th’ men that have done so much to advance progress in our beloved country, he says. On wan hand I wud stamp thim under fut; on th’ other hand, not so fast.”

The Monopoly Committee has produced much data of the greatest value and interest for all students of the American economic system. There is a great deal of material in its published record which the labor movement can use effectively in its fight. But that its recommendations for ACTION, even if put through Congress tomorrow, would solve none of the problems the committee was created to study – this is agreed on by bourgeois as well as Marxist commentators. And the reason is that this is a class society and that the committee approached these problems – of unemployment, poverty, economic disorganization – from the point of view of the ruling class, that is, of those very trusts and monopolies which have created these problems in the first place. In the immortal words of Chairman O’Mahoney, early in the committee’s history:

”We of the committee might just as well be sitting on the other side of the table [that is, with the monopolists being ‘investigated’]. Our interests are really the same.”

2. The American Ruling Class Sits for Its Portrait

In its three-year study of the American economy, the Monopoly Committee built up the most complete picture we have of the tremendous concentration of economic power in a few hands that has been going on in this country in the last 40 years. Its findings may be summed up very sketchily here under three heads:

  1. the sheer size of big business in America today;
  2. the dominating position of the big corporation in the American economy;
  3. the tremendous concentration of wealth at one end of the social scale and the equally striking poverty of the great mass of the American people.

(1) The Bigness of Big Business

To bring home the huge size of the great American corporations, the Monopoly Committee adopted a dramatic device. It listed, in order of asset value, the 48 states and the 30 biggest corporations. This table is reproduced on this page. Note that only ten states have total assessed property within their borders of greater value than the assets of the two biggest corporations: the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. and the American Telephone & Telegraph Co. Also that, at the other end of the scale, there are 18 states which are “worth” less than the smallest of the 30 biggest corporations. These figures cause even Chairman O’Mahoney of the committee to raise the question: “In popular discussion, these corporations are regarded as ‘private enterprise.’ But how private is such enterprise after all?”

(2) An Economy of Private Monopoly

The committee analyzed the production of 1,807 manufactured products – a fair cross-section of the entire productive system. It found that for one-half of these products – ranging from cigarettes to steel ingots – the four biggest manufacturers in the field accounted for 75 per cent or more of the total U.S. output. A quarter of these products were found to be “extremely concentrated” – that is, the “big four” in the field produced much more than 75 per cent of the total output.

There has been a steady increase in the power of the big corporations for the past three decades, the committee found. In 1937, although “central office” establishments were only 3.8 per cent of the total number, they employed 51 per cent of all wage earners (as against only 47 per cent in 1929) and produced 61 per cent of the value of all manufactured products (only 54 per cent in 1929).

So, too, with corporate assets. There, is a “proletariat” and an “aristocracy” among corporations. In 1937, the 228,721 American corporations with assets of less than $50,000 each were 55 per cent of the total number of corporations, but between them owned less than 1½ per cent of the national corporate assets. At the other end of the scale, the 394 biggest corporations – less than 1/10 of 1 per cent of the total number of corporations – owned almost 45 per cent of all corporate assets.

And so, too, finally, with income. In 1929, the 3/10 of 1 per cent pf the nation’s corporations which had assets of over $1,000,000 swallowed no less than 80 per cent of the total corporation income. And in 1937, the “little fellows’’ (those with an annual income of less than $5,000), constituting. 65 per cent of all corporations, received considerably less than 2 per cent of the total corporate income, while the “big fellows” (those with annual Incomes of $5,000,000 or more) received 40 per cent of the total income. When Roosevelt speaks of “private enterprise,” he means, economically, big business. The little business man has long ceased to have much economic significance – or power.

3. Plutocracy and Poverty

The real political dynamite in the committee’s findings lies in the terrible contrast its statistics reveal between the wealth of a few hundred thousand citizens of this great “democracy” and the poverty of the vast majority of the inhabitants of the richest country in the world.

First of all, the committee shows clearly that the gigantic corporations which control the American economy (and government) are in their turn held tight in the fists of a few big stockholders.

The next time you read about the wide distribution of stock holdings in the big corporations – the 640,000 widows and orphans who “own” AT&T, for instance – remember these two facts:

  1. in recent years, less than 1 per cent of the nations families have received over half the total dividends, and 1/10 of 1 per cent have received 35 per cent of all dividends;
  2. even within the group of families receiving dividends, the same concentration occurs, so that 11 per cent of the dividend-receiving families got two-thirds of the total dividend distribution.

And the next time you read of how the policies of these huge corporations are democratically decided by majority vote of their millions of stockholders, remember these two facts:

  1. the 20 biggest stockholders in the 200 biggest corporations between them held, on the average, one-third of the total voting stock (enough, ordinarily, to insure actual control of the corporations);
  2. in 40 per cent of these 200 biggest Corporations, control was held either “in one family or in a small group of families.”


“Fifteen of the 200 great corporations were controlled by three families (the duPonts, Rockefellers and Mellons) and their holdings in these corporations were valued at $1,400,000,000.”

So much for who RUNS the economy. The evidence is even more striking as to who BENEFITS from the American economy. Who gets the gravy, to put it crudely.

“In 1936,” reports the committee, “the lower two thirds of the nation’s income groups had only negative savings.” The term “negative savings” is a polite way of saying that two out of three American families that year had to spend more than their income in order to keep alive.

“The bottom third went into the red to the extent of $1,207,000,000 and the middle third to $252,000,000. The top third, on the other hand, saved $7,437,000,000. To put this in another way: if the whole population were divided into equal numerical groups of 2,750,000 families each, the top 10 per cent, with incomes over $4,600, saved 86 per cent of the total savings made in 1929, while the second 10 per cent, with incomes ranging from $3,100 to $4,600, saved 12 per cent, and the other 2 per cent of savings were accounted for by the remaining 80 per cent of the population.”

Another fact, which the committee does not dwell on but which is indirectly stated in the quotation just given, is that the vast majority of the FAMILIES of this country – eight out of every ten – live on a FAMILY income of less than $3,100 a year.

“A Very Difficult Matter”

The main line of the committee’s reasoning on this crucial question of the wealth of the few and the poverty of the many, can be summed up as follows:

  1. “Fully one-half of all corporate stock dividends are received by less than 75,000 persons of the 130,000,000 who inhabit the United States.”
  2. “These evidences of ownership, however; are only part of the story. The control of the resources of the country rests in even fewer hands.”
  3. “The contrast between the $7,000,000,000 of savings in the upper third of the population and the $2,000,000,000 of dis-savings in the lower third suggests that some levelling off of the income pyramid would result in the immediate betterment of the position of the lower third, without depriving the country of any needed funds for investment ... How to implement such reasoning is a very difficult matter, however ...”

A very difficult matter, indeed! Especially if you start off with the aim so frankly announced by Chairman O’Mahoney in his final statement: “to strengthen our traditional economic and political order.”

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