Small business is the backbone of the American economy, a maxim politicians utter so frequently that Last Week Tonight can build a 16-panel grid of congresspeople uttering it in perfect unision. But for all that we love to venerate the idea of disruptive entrepreneurs and mom-and-pop stores, the truth is that small business is getting smaller as lax enforcement of antitrust laws allows fewer and fewer companies to be more and more dominant. As John Oliver points out in the main segment on this week’s show, the rate of small-business creation has actually been “steadily falling since the 1970s.” Where there were 10 major airlines in the U.S. just 17 years ago, now over 80 percent of airplane travel is controlled by just four companies. The perennial argument in favor of corporate mergers is that they will allow increased efficiencies and lower prices for consumers, but the lack of competition among airlines has allowed add-on fees like the ones for checking a bag to skyrocket—airlines now take in $4.2 billion a year in ancillary revenues, up tenfold from a decade ago—and minimizes the effect of seemingly catastrophic events like the one where a United passenger had his teeth knocked out while being dragged off an overbooked flight. It’s hard to #boycottUnited when no one else flies to the place you need to go. Perhaps, as Oliver suggests, they should just change their slogan to “You want to fuckin’ rollerblade to Houston? Shut up and get in.”
It’s not just airlines, of course. Oliver runs down the depressing number of examples of industries where you have little to no choice, from eyeware to healthcare. Even when you think you’re buying a small-business product, you may effectively be doing business with a corporate front: Burt’s Bees is owned by Clorox, and the Potemkin microbrew Goose Island is owned by Anheuser-Busch.
One of the worst offenders, Oliver points out, is the telecom industry—such as, to pick an example, HBO’s parent company, Time Warner, which is currently seeking to merge with AT&T. That, Oliver nervously admits, might make this story “a little dangerous for us to do—although that’s presuming AT&T executives can get their shitty service working long enough to see it.”
To further illustrate his point, Oliver takes aim at a tangible, highly odious example of the consolidation of cable-industry consolidation: the cable box through which you’re probably watching his show (unless, of course, you have the good taste to get all your late-night clips from Slate). It is, in all likelihood, a piece of crap, a power-sucking space hog loaded with outdated, bug-ridden software that could allow your home network to be hijacked by hackers without you ever knowing about it. But what are you going to do? Even if you’re lucky enough to have a (small) choice of local cable providers, they’re all using minor modifications on the same device, charging outrageous monthly rental fees with no option for you to outright buy a superior box of your own.
Oliver, recently awarded Emmy or no, can’t fix the problem of lousy cable boxes. But he can provide his viewers with the highly cathartic image of one being blown up, and replay the footage just so we can savor it once more. Let’s all follow suit, and then switch to HBO Now.