If you think that Bill Gates is rich, you are right. Bill is described as the wealthiest man alive, with his net worth being valued at $85 Billion. But Bill is far from the wealthiest man in modern history, that honor belongs to J.D. Rockefeller, whose net worth was more than four times the wealth of Bill Gates, an inflation adjusted $340 Billion dollars. After J.D., you would find Andrew Carnegie ($309 Billion), and Cornelius Vanderbilt ($185 Billion). Only fourth on the list of richest Americans of all time would you finally meet Bill Gates. But even though the three richest Americans were alive in 1916, and Bill Gates is alive in 2016, they all made their money the same way.
John Davidson Rockefeller Sr., was the controlling member of the Standard Oil company throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. During that time, people would keep their homes lit and warm using kerosene, and if you were buying kerosene in the US in the late 1800’s there was a 90% chance you were buying it from JD Rockefeller. JD not only had control of the almost the entire retail market, much more importantly, he had control of the entire vertical process.
It could be said that Standard Oil was the first modern day monopoly. They owned the oil wells, the tanker train cars, the refineries, the pipelines, the barrel makers, the trucks that delivered the kerosene to individual homes, and they owned the competition. Every time a competitor started to grow in market share, Standard Oil lowered their prices dramatically in that region until the competitor faced bankruptcy, at which point, Standard Oil would buy them out for a fraction of their previous value. In one month alone, Rockefeller bought out 22 of the 26 competing oil refineries in Ohio! There was a time when John D. Rockefeller owned one out of every sixty five dollars in the US economy!
Andrew Carnegie did the same thing with the steel industry. Throughout the late 1800s he bought up control of a huge percentage of the US steel market, and eventually made a deal with JP Morgan to create US Steel Corporation, the first billion dollar company ever. Cornelius Vanderbilt used the monopoly model to seize control of the railroad industry, ruthlessly buying up dozens of small railroad companies started before the Civil War and combining them until he had total control of the railroad industry.
Eighty years later, Bill Gates did the same thing with his company Microsoft. Microsoft’s Windows system ran over 90% of personal computers for decades, but that was not enough for Bill Gates. He used his monopoly in the operating system area to push other computer related products, such as Microsoft Word, Outlook, Powerpoint, Excel, and a host of other products often lumped together in what’s called Microsoft Office, or Microsoft 365.
Microsoft once dominated the internet web browser world with Internet Explorer, and to this day still enjoys over 50% of web browsing on personal computers despite other products being vastly better. Microsoft intentionally made it harder for competitors to run on their operating systems, and that is how they achieved such dominance in the operating system, word and spreadsheet processing, and browser markets.
The four richest men in US history made their fortunes not simply by delivering a product or service, but by taking monopolistic control of an industry. Sometimes monopolies are good for consumers, usually they are not. When there is no one else competing with you, you can charge whatever you want, lowering prices to drive out competition, and then raising them when the competition is gone. In 1890, sparked by enormous public anger directed at Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and Rockefeller, the US passed the Sherman Antitrust Act, a regulation aimed at stopping companies from unfairly driving out competition and taking over industries.
The antitrust regulations ushered in an era of vibrant competition that allowed millions of people to accumulate real wealth, as opposed to a few people making massive profits from their monopolies. However, we are not done with monopolies just yet. Have you ever tried to order phone or internet service in Detroit? Your options are limited to two massive companies, AT&T and Comcast. In the past thirty years forty-two telecommunications companies folded themselves into just four! Sixty seven percent of Americans only have two choices for internet and phone service. If you find your internet and phone bills to be a bit absurd, you can thank the lack of competition.
Have you tried to book a flight lately? It appears that there are lots of choices, but four companies dominate the domestic industry; any one of them owns more market share than all the other airlines combined! Over the last fifty years, 29 airlines folded themselves into six. That might be what accounts for the fact that planes are flying fuller, tickets are more expensive, we pay billions in fees for the right to bring luggage or carry-ons, and airlines are raking in record profits. They simply don’t have to charge less anymore, who else are you going to fly with?
Anheuser-Busch Inbev controls almost 50% of the beer market in the US and has raised prices as a result. Luxottica controls over 80% of the eyewear market, not only producing almost every name brand available, from Prada, to Chanel, Tiffany, Ray-Ban, Oakley, Armani, Oliver People, Versace, Polo, Coach, and dozens more, but they also own most of the retail establishments selling the glasses, such as Lenscrafters, Pearle Vision, Sunglass Hut, Target Optical, Sears Optical and many more. If you were curious why a simple pair of glasses can run you $300-400, you know the answer now, it is because one company utterly dominates the industry.
Hospitals are another hotbed of mergers, with some companies merging more than one hundred hospitals into a single healthcare behemoth. Currently, just four companies own and operate 504 hospitals, with a combined total of 108,212 beds. They claim that the mergers are needed to bring down costs, and create efficiencies, but if you haven’t noticed, healthcare costs have skyrocketed over the last few years. Doctors with practices owned by hospitals charge about 40% more than practices that are unaffiliated!
So what happened to the Sherman Antitrust Act? Wasn’t it supposed to protect us from massive monopolies taking control of industries and hurting the consumers in the process?
Normally, when you see government dysfunction, there are three usual suspects: law firms that create complex legal structures to circumvent the law, lobbying firms that “contribute” to legislators with the implicit expectation that they will make their money back many times over in favorable regulations, and the ineptitude of government workers who unlike private sector employees, don’t have to answer to anyone but themselves. But in the case of monopolies in the US, the people responsible for our rising costs in healthcare, air travel, appliances, telecommunications, and many other industries are not any of the usual suspects. This time, you need to look at college professors.
College professors are the ones who advise Congress about whether to block a merger between two companies or not. That is part of the government’s prescribed procedure; they are required by law to consult with economists, and professors of economics are often thought to be the leading experts in the field.
The problem is that most of the professors being consulted are all working for one company Compass Lexecon (the result of a bunch of mergers of course), and those professors are being paid well over $1,000 an hour to investigate if there will be a negative impact to society by a merger. Their astronomical bills are not being paid by the government who is using their findings, they are being paid by the companies trying to make the merger! As you can imagine, Compass Lexecon and its army of highly paid researchers consistently finds that mergers will not hurt consumers. And they have consistently been wrong.
Compass Lexecon has worked hard to protect itself from public outcry. It has managed to set up the system that almost all of their findings and research results are never seen by the public. Their agreements state that only the government personnel reviewing the cases are allowed to see their results, so the public never gets the chance to dispute their findings. And when they are wrong, it’s usually too late.
Here’s a small case in point: In 2005, Whirlpool wanted to take over Maytag. If this happened, 85% of the US washer and dryer market would be controlled by three companies, Whirlpool, GE, and Electrolux. Compass Lexecon professors argued that this merger would help keep prices lower because of efficiencies the merger would create, and because foreign companies like Samsung and LG would keep the US companies in check. What actually happened was that prices on washers and dryers rose significantly in the years after the merger, and the companies reduced their product lines, giving consumers less choices. But that ship had already sailed!
A Northeastern University economist who is not on Compass Lexecon’s payroll did a study of the effects of thousands of mergers, and found that prices on average increased by four percent following a merger.
From the ivory towers of academia, professors who claim to simply be studying economic trends and analyzing cold hard facts, are in fact taking incredible amounts of white hot cash, and feeding the government information that hurts you, me, and everyone else in the country. Last year alone saw a total of $2 Trillion in mergers; companies are getting bigger and bigger by the day, and the US laws put in place to protect the little guy are getting circumvented by college professors on the dole. Welcome to the US of A.
The Jewish people are not a people of mergers and acquisitions. We started out as a nation of twelve tribes, each with its own unique personalities, affinities, and ways of serving Ha-shem. When it came time for the Jewish people to camp in the desert, Ha-shem specified that they should camp according to their tribes, not in one big amorphous clump. Each one of the tribes was given a flag that represented their personality, and each one was given a mission. One was the merchant, traveling far to trade with other peoples. One was the Torah scholar, sitting in the tents and studying all day. One had a strong militaristic sense, and could lead the people in battle, while another would provide teachers. The tribes were not meant to merge all their purposes into one big conglomerate, they were supposed to focus on what they were best at, and benefit the entire Jewish people through their unique talents.
Today, we see an enormous diversity of Jewish life. There are Chassidim, Sephardim, Yemenites, and Lithuanian Jews. Even those break down further into different subgroups, there are Yekkies of German descent, Hungarians, Khafkazis, Syrians, Moroccans, Bucharians, Persians, and many more.
There are Jews who love to study practical halacha and Jews who love to study Chassidus, and Jews who love to study Gemara. The Talmud tells us (Avoda Zara, 19A), “One only learns from where his heart desires.” The Talmud recognized that merging fields of study until everyone is studying the same thing would create a disaster for the continuity of our people and stifle innovation in learning, which would make learning Torah more rare, and eventually only a few people would be the teachers and learners of our nation.
We don’t merge, we create more. We don’t consolidate, we diversify. We believe that every Jew has their own portion of the Torah, that can only come out into the world through that person, and no one else. We pray to Ha-shem, “Give us our portion in Your Torah,” in the hopes that we will find our unique idea or teaching in Jewish learning and be able to spread it to others. If we try to consolidate Torah study into a few elite yeshivas, if we try to consolidate worship into a few mega synagogues, the common people lose out.
The Torah Antitrust Act, enacted over 3,300 years ago by G-d Himself, ensures that there is a healthy diversity of choices for who we learn from, and what we learn. It ensures that every little guy can have a voice and make a difference. Let’s find that voice, use it for the betterment of our entire people.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In the beginning of this week’s portion we read about how Eisov (Esau) sold his rights as the firstborn to his brother for a meal of beans. (Now there’s a guy who either really likes beans, or really doesn’t care about the rights of the firstborn, which include service in the Temple!) Let us look at the verses surrounding this monumental sale, and see what we can learn from it.
Yaakov was simmering a pottage when Eisov came in from the field, exhausted. Eisov said to Yaakov, “Please give me a swallow of this red [pottage], for I am exhausted.” He was therefore named Edom [Red]. Yaakov said, “As of this day, sell your birthright to me.” Eisov said, “Here I am about to die, what [good] is this birthright to me.” Yaakov said, “Swear to me as of this day.” He swore to him, and sold his birthright to Yaakov. Yaakov then gave Eisov bread and a pottage of lentils. He [Eisov] ate and drank, got up and left. [Thus] Eisov scorned the birthright. (Gen. 25:29-34)
As we can see, Eisov had no respect for the birthright and it was Yaakov the brother who did care for it that really deserved it anyway. (Mini lesson- If you don’t appreciate the gifts you get, you don’t deserve them.) But what we need to put the magnifying glass on, is the idea that the nation that came out of Eisov acquired their name through this event, and a strange name at that.
In the Holy Tongue (Biblical Hebrew) a person’s name represents the essence of what they are. The word for name sheim is spelled exactly the same way as sham, which means there, because a person’s name tells you where they are. For example, Avraham is called Avraham because it is an acronym for Av Hamon Goyim, Father of Many Nations, which he was as he fathered the Jews, and the Arabs (through Yishmael, his other son, the one we don’t invite to our Chanukah parties), and spiritually he was a patriarch to the world.
That being the case, how do we understand that Edom, the nation that came out of Eisov got their name from him asking for red beans? If Yaakov was making a split pea soup instead of red lentils, would the nation now be called Green? And maybe they should have been called Lentils because the pottage was a lentil pottage.
The reason Eisov’s nation was called Edom, red, is because that is the way he described the pottage when he saw it as it says “Please give me a swallow of this red [pottage], for I am exhausted.” He was therefore named Edom [Red]. What does that tell us about Eisov?
It tells us that he looked at things very superficially. He comes in and glances at a pot, and simply asks for some of the red stuff. He doesn’t even take the time to ascertain what it is. The color of something is the factor that one sees first, but reveals the least info about the identity of something. If Eisov would have been less superficial, less concerned with immediate gratification, he might have asked for some of the lentils or perhaps some of the nourishing food. But Eisov is the kind of person that doesn’t care for any delay in gratification, so he blurts out a request for the most surface aspect of the dish, in his rush for gratification.
This theme continues as he sells his rights as a firstborn, which would have given his progeny the rights to serve in the Temple, so that he can satiate his hunger. Imagine, if he would have simply waited and gone into the kitchen and made himself a grilled cheese sandwich, his children would possibly have been the ones who served in the different Temples for hundreds of years instead of us, Yaakov’s children! But that is not who Eisov is, as he says “Here I am about to die, what [good] is this birthright to me.” I.e. if I can’t get some immediate pleasure out of it, I’ll just trade it in for something I can enjoy right now! (This is also possibly why Eisov was born fully formed, which is how he got the name Eisov which means “made.” This showed that his core is something that expects everything all at once. Jacob was born normal which indicated that for him development was a necessary process.)
This character of Eisov of only looking at the superficial explains the name Edom, and how it represents the essence of Eisov the forebear of that nation. This is the exact opposite of Yaakov, who is willing to give up some of the lentils now in return for greatness in the future. We are the Children of Yaakov, we have inherited his spiritual genes, and therefore we have the ability to spurn the momentary pleasures of this world, in an attempt to build better character for our future, and for a glorious next world. In each of our lives we have a pottage that is red, enticing, and ready to deliver instant gratification, but we overcome the Edom in us, we spurn the momentary and choose the eternal.
The Parsha begins with Yitzchak and his wife Rivka, praying fervently for a child as they didn’t have one in twenty years of marriage. G-d grants them their wish and grants them twins. One of them is great and every time Rivka passes a Yeshiva he kicks indicating that he wants to learn. However, when she passes an idolatrous temple, the other guy is kicking away! This confuses Rivka, who didn’t know she had twins, so she goes to ask two scholars, Shem and Aver. They, through Divine Knowledge explain to her that she has two babies in her womb, both of who will be the father of great nations. They further tell her that there will be an inverse relationship between them, with one gaining power when the other loses it.
Soon two babies are born. The first comes out fully formed, and with a hairy coat of reddish hair, and he is called Eisov, which means “made.” His brother comes out holding onto the heel of his twin, and he earns the name Yaakov, which alludes to the heel he was pulling out in his attempt to get out first.
The twins as kids are pretty similar as babies (you know how it is with babies, they all look and act the same! They cry, dirty their diapers, and eat!) But when they get older, it becomes painfully obvious that these fellas couldn’t be farther apart. One spends his time learning in the tents, and one goes of hunting and robbing people in a way that would only make Ted Nugent proud. On the day they turn thirteen, Avraham dies right before his grandson, Eisov has his debut as All-Mesopotamian Bad Guy, as he spends his Bar Mitzvah committing all three of the Big Three sins, Adultery, Idolatry, and Homicide.
Arriving home from a day of high crimes, Eisov is famished and finds Yaakov cooking a lentil dish for his fathers (mourners are supposed to eat round things to remember that life is a cycle, and although they are in a down right now, things will turn up again). Eisov sells his birthright to his brother for a bowl of beans that was poured into his mouth and some bread, thus showing that he has zero appreciation for the finer things in life such as a fork and spirituality (the birthright is primarily a spiritual function as it designated who was supposed to serve in the Temple).
Then there is a famine in the Land of Israel and Yitzchak and his wife must go to Gerar to live amongst the Pilishtim, where food is abundant. Using a trick he learned from his father, Yitzchak tells his wife Rivka to tell everyone that she is his sister, to avoid getting killed by someone trying to steal his wife. When Avimelech, the King of Gerar finds out that they are actually married, he scolds Yitzchak, saying that one of the nation (himself) almost took Rivka as a wife, and then asks them to leave town. They pack up and move to the neighboring valley, where they successfully dig up some wells that Avraham’s servants dug when Avraham was there. There are a number of fights between the local servants and Yitzchak’s servants over the wells, until finally they come to an agreement regarding one of the wells on which they made a treaty, and it was named Be’er Sheva.
Yitzchak has enormous agricultural success producing 100 times the amount his fields were assessed to produce, and eventually realizing that Yitzchak obviously has G-d on his side, comes and makes a treaty with Yitzchak.
There has been a longstanding difference between Yitzchak and his wife, Rivka. Yitzchak displays more affection toward Eisov, hoping that the extra love showered on him will turn him around, while Rivka knows that Eisov is a no-goodnik, whose not coming back so fast and she loves Yaakov more. As Yitzchak is getting older, he decides that he must bless his children before he dies. Yitzchak decides that he should give the bulk of the blessings to Eisov hoping that success will breed success. But Rivka seeing her son with the deeper understanding that women possess, understands that Eisov will take the powers and use them for the other sides and she sets up a plan to circumvent the situation in a way that Yaakov will get the blessings. (It is interesting to note that both Avraham and his son Yitzchak had a son who was wicked, and each times their wives were the ones who realized how harmful they were, and took the necessary steps to ensure that the good children got whatever they needed.)
Yitzchak calls Eisov and tells him to bring him a good meal so that he can bless him out of appreciation. Rivka sees the opportunity and tells Yaakov to bring her two young kids (the goat kind) and she makes them into a dish she knows her husband loves. She then puts some of the goat skins on Yaakov’s smooth hands and neck so that they should feel like Eisov’s hairy ones. Yaakov brings the food into his father who asks him who he is. Yaakov, understanding the importance of his getting these blessing, needs to twist the truth a bit, and claims to be Eisov. His father unsure beckons him close to feel him, and feeling the skins thinks it is Eisov, and announces “The hands are the hands of Eisov, but the voice is the voice of Yaakov!” (This hints to the powers of the respective nations. Edom the progeny of Eisov, has their power in their hands, their physical strength, while the Jewish people, the offspring of Yaakov, has their power in their mouths, through prayer and Torah study!) Yitzchak then continues to give Yaakov all the blessings.
Soon after Eisov comes to his father with the meal he prepared for him, but when he arrives it becomes immediately clear that he has been tricked and that the blessing have already been given away. Eisov cries to his father, “have you left me at least one blessing?” Yitzchak tells him that he really gave all the good blessings to Yaakov, but he gives one blessing to Eisov, that his land should be fertile, that he shall live by his sword, and that although he will serve his brother, when his brother does the wrong things, Eisov will throw off his yoke, and dominate his brother.
Eisov furious that his brother stole his blessings begins to plan for the day his father will die so that he can kill his brother. Rivka realizing the danger facing her favored son, sends him off to the land she came from to get away from his murderous brother, and to get married with someone from her family. The parsha ends by telling us hoe Eisov seeing how much his parents dislike the local Canaanite women, marries himself a non-Canaanite woman, the daughter of Yishmael. Of course he keeps the Canaanite women, marrying a different wife was just a PR ploy to get parental approval.
Quote of the Week: Rule #1is, don’t sweat the small stuff. Rule #2 is, it’s all small stuff. ~ Robert Elliot
Random Fact of the Week: The largest private sector employer in Africa is Coca Cola!
Funny Line of the week: I went into a clothes store and a lady came up to me and said, “If you need anything, I’m Jill”. I’ve never met anyone with a conditional identity before.
Have a Splendid Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham