In his new book ‘Goliath’, author Matt Stoller explains how the 2016 election heralded the return of authoritarianism and populism to American politics, due largely to concentrated financial power and rampant consumerism. This week, Matt joins Nick and Goldy for a conversation about creating a new democracy.
Matt Stoller is the author of ‘Goliath: The Hundred-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy’ and a fellow at the Open Markets Institute. He is a former policy advisor to the Senate Budget Committee, and also worked for a member of the Financial Services Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives during the financial crisis.
How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/10/how-democrats-killed-their-populist-soul/504710/
Tech Companies Are Destroying Democracy and the Free Press: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/17/opinion/tech-monopoly-democracy-journalism.html
Boeing’s travails show what’s wrong with modern capitalism: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/sep/11/boeing-capitalism-deregulation
Nick Hanauer: Hey Pitchfork gang. It’s our one year anniversary. And to celebrate, we’re giving away some of our awesome, fun, trickle down economics coffee mugs. So to get one, all you have to do is head to Instagram and follow us at Pitchfork Economics and comment on the mug post to enter. It’s first come, first serve while supplies last. You have been at the forefront of identifying and pushing back on one of the most corrosive elements of the modern neoliberal economy, which is concentrated wealth and power, monopoly power in particular.
Matt Stoller: It’s not just the big markets where you see this problem. You also see it in pretty much every market. So things like peanut butter or coffins or missiles and munitions or voting machines. Everywhere in our society, you’ve seen this concentration of power in our markets in the hands of the few. This is the physical manifestation of what you often talk about, which is the rise of Plutocracy.
Speaker 3: From the offices of civic ventures in downtown Seattle. This is Pitchfork Economics with Nick Hanauer, confessions of an American capitalist caught on tape.
Nick Hanauer: I’m Nick Hanauer, founder of Civic Ventures.
David Goldstein: I’m David Goldstein, senior fellow at Civic Ventures.
Nick Hanauer: Today, we get to talk to one of my favorite people, our old friend Matt Stoller. Matt, as you know, and I know you agree, is just a really thoughtful, incisive thinker and writer and he has this fantastic new book out called Goliath: The Hundred Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy, and he has been hard at work for a bunch of years at the forefront of this conversation about monopoly power.
David Goldstein: Monopoly power, market concentration, concentrated wealth, concentrated power, and how it’s damaging not just our economy, but it threatens our very democracy.
Nick Hanauer: That’s right. And Matt is a fellow at the open markets Institute, and we’ve had his boss, Barry Lynn on the podcast before, and that organization is dedicated to this issue of monopoly power and concentrated corporate power, and they’re doing honestly great work. They were ahead of the curve and have been instrumental in raising the issue of monopoly power and concentrated corporate power into the public consciousness in a way that it wasn’t before.
David Goldstein: And it’s great timing for this book to come out because you’re reading more and more about this issue every day, and it’s really entering the political conversation finally.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah, so it should be a great conversation. I can’t wait to talk to Matt.
Matt Stoller: My name is Matt Stoller. I am a writer and a former policymaker in Congress. I write a newsletter called Big, and what I’m here to plug is a new book that I came out with called Goliath: The Hundred Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy.
Nick Hanauer: And we are super pleased to have you on our Pitchfork economics podcast, Matt, because you have been at the forefront of both identifying and pushing back on one of the most corrosive elements of the modern Neo liberal economy, which is concentrated wealth and power, monopoly power in particular, and your new book, Goliath, goes into… How should we put it, Goldy.
David Goldstein: Meticulous detail. Pickety like a historical detail.
Nick Hanauer: On the history of these dynamics. So, for our audience, why don’t you start by just outlining the argument you make in your book.
David Goldstein: In like two minutes, tell us, summarize your 600 page book.
Matt Stoller: It’s 400 pages. 200 pages [inaudible 00:04:10]
David Goldstein: That’s what I mean by meticulous. I didn’t read the footnotes, but I read the book.
Matt Stoller: Well, here’s the thing. I put the foot notes in there because when you talk about billions of dollars of power, you better have some footnotes, right? Yeah, so if you look around the world today, like what you’ll see is a lot of people talk about a crisis of capitalism, but what’s really going on is you have a crisis of monopoly. So pretty much every market you go into, like the big ones would be search and social with Google and Facebook, but also airlines and cable. Everybody knows that those are very concentrated, and they transfer wealth from consumers and workers to financers. They create inequality in lots of different ways, including regional inequality. They corrupt our politics, but it’s not just the big markets where you see this problem. You also see it in pretty much every market.
So things like peanut butter or coffins or missiles and munitions or voting machines, just like everywhere in our society you’ve seen this concentration of power in our markets, in the hands of the few. This is the physical manifestation of what you often talk about, which is the rise of Plutocracy, and they manifest their control over our lives over what we can buy and sell, over what we can say through their control of markets. Now a lot of people are like, “Ah, this is just American capitalism. Just how it is.” And what I show in Goliath is that that’s not actually true. So in the first half of the 20th century, we had this problem before. We had a Robber baron problem with very similar problems of inequality and corruption and a soft corporatism.
And I go into that with scary characters and fascinating villains like Andrew Mellon, secretary of the treasury, Wright Patman, who’s this Texas populous Congressman, FDR, Robert Jackson. Just like a whole group of people who fought against Robber barons and defeated them. And there were these battles over how to do it and mass movements and marches and boardrooms and blood and sweat and tears. And that’s the first half of the book. And the second half of the book starts from the 1950s when you’ve built a imperfect democracy, but it’s a new deal order where we’ve tamed this industrial power in the US, and then globally. And the second half is why we allow these Robber barons to come back. And it’s a very weird story, and it involves a lot of, basically, it’s an indictment of both the left and the right. So I go into why the consumer movement emerged in the 1970s and why they accidentally changed our definition of self from citizen to consumer and invited the Robber barons back into our lives.
And then, you roll that forward. So 40 years after the late 1970s when the consumer movement and the Chicago school of law and economics types subverted antitrust law, you roll that forward 40 years, and you see this enormous concentration of power in every sector of our society, incredible dissatisfaction, anger, alienation and so on and so forth. And that’s the story of the book, but it’s also a story of hope because what I wanted to show is that we’ve been here before, we’ve taken care of this problem before and then we allowed it to come back so we can do it again. Right? That’s the issue. It’s always up to us. Every generation gets the choice about whether, and I’ll finish here about whether to give up our liberties or to govern ourselves as a free people. Every generation gets that choice, and now it’s our choice.
David Goldstein: And this is not just a political choice. It’s an economic choice. I mean that’s one of the themes in our podcast is that economics is a choice and the ideology that has led to the current regime of market concentration is largely based on the idea that we don’t have a choice. That’s just the way economics works. Can you talk a little to how the emergence of that neo liberal ideology influenced policy in the US?
Matt Stoller: Yeah, it’s such an important point because the number one objection to trying to do nice things for people until universal healthcare or open markets or… It’s not, “Oh, well, we like being controlled by these monopolists.” It’s, “Oh, the problem is too big. There’s nothing we can do. This is the only way to do it.” And that’s a problem. That’s an ideology that emerged in the 1950s, and it came from, weirdly enough, it came from socialists. So Richard Hofsteder is a historian, John Kenneth Galbraith who is an economist, C Wright Mills, a sociologist and a series of people at Columbia. They came out with this idea that economics just progresses naturally, that power is not a thing. That big business is big and monopolistic because that’s just how progress works and that politics doesn’t actually include banks or corporations. Politics is about personal liberation, personal expression, things like flag burning and so on and so forth.
And they created a different historical narrative that we all understand the world in which deference to these technocrats and what we call economist who framed themselves as scientists was the only way that you could handle this machine that we call the economy. Right. And that’s the narrative that you’re talking about, that neoliberal narrative of just inevitablism. It’s too big. It’s out of the realm of human agency. That was created in the 1950s, and it is the central challenge that we have today is to persuade voters to persuade policy makers to persuade all of us as citizens that these choices are up to us. That economics, our economic system, is basically a bunch of political choices that we make and that we don’t have to think about this as a science because it’s not a science, it’s a social set of social questions that we as citizens have as much right to talk about as anyone else.
Nick Hanauer: And I think what’s interesting is that the way in which neoliberalism was so effective in obscuring the fact that embedded within all of these choices are trade offs that people should weigh and consider very, very seriously obviously. Because I mean to be clear, there are some benefits to scale economies and bigness, right? There are, it is just that the costs may very well outweigh the benefits.
David Goldstein: And the costs are not always surely economic.
Nick Hanauer: No, no, that’s what I mean is that the costs extend across the range of human experience and the benefits are very, very clear. First of all, most of the benefits are clear to the owners, but again, one of the most, I think, corrosive things that neoclassical economics and neo-liberalism did was that they assumed away power as a dynamic in economics and in human economies, which was to me like proposing a physics which does not include gravity. And when in fact power is the currency of human affairs. It’s not this exogenous thing or thing that doesn’t really exist. And by assuming it away, it enabled policy makers to accrete massive amounts of power to a very small group of people. And that in turn has resulted in the kind of crappy arrangement that we currently have where a few people earn everything and most everybody else earns nothing.
David Goldstein: So you spend a whole chapter actually going after Galbreath, and he actually is one of the economists who talks about power. At least explain for Nick because we’ve been talking about this in the office, why his theory of countervailing power actually helped to enable market concentration.
Matt Stoller: Well, first of all, I just got a large amount of money from Google, so I’ve decided to take the other side of the argument. Now, I disagree. It’s a terrible book. Don’t buy it. Everything is wrong. Google is just helpfully organizing the world’s information for us. So I don’t even know why I’m here, but…
Nick Hanauer: Excellent.
Matt Stoller: Sorry, I have to say that I just feel like the billionaires don’t get a lot of voice, and I needed to speak for them.
Nick Hanauer: Thank you so much.
Matt Stoller: Yeah. Right. So Galbreath is a beautiful writer, right? Wonderful writer. He’s really funny. It’s great to read. I mean, he’s really like a poet and so it’s hard to read these guys and not really like them. You know? Galbreath had a lot of great things to say, but what his basic framework of countervailing power was, it was an argument, and it wasn’t quite coherent because he changed it over time, but he basically just said, “Look, you don’t need to worry about concentrations of power in business because there will be a natural response.”
Right? So if you have a big steel company that farms, then naturally people will unionize to countervail the power of that steel company. And it is natural. If you have, say, a large packaged good manufacturer that forms, you will see a chain store naturally form to countervail that power and bargain on behalf of consumers, right? And he just like said “Everywhere that you see a big institution form to capture power, you see other institutions forming that countervail that power. And so it is a natural automatic process that we do not need to deal with.” Now, he was criticized for this, right. And I went through his letters. People were like, well yeah, I mean there, there definitely is. Unions were countervailing the power of say steel companies, but that was also a political choice, right?
So the labor laws passed in the 1930s, and then strikers ended up unionizing steel, but since basically the 1890s the steel companies won, right? And they won until the 1930s and it’s like this didn’t have…
Nick Hanauer: To be clear, they killed a shitload of people to prevail.
Matt Stoller: Yes, they were. It was not a pleasant…
Nick Hanauer: They actually shot people.
Matt Stoller: Well, when you learn about the systems, right? I mean, so there’s a couple of things. So like one of them, one of the really amazing things in this book is like they would basically, Henry Clay Frick, who created the American framework for how the American working class would live, he’s kept bringing over immigrants from Eastern Europe to work in the mines. Basically, people who didn’t speak the existing language of the current miners so they couldn’t unionize.
And then when he brought over like Russians, they would actually say, “Oh, the coal and iron police.”, which were Pennsylvania police that were hired by the miners to the mine owners, they called them Cossacks because they were like, “Oh, that’s exactly what the czar used to do.” And Andrew Mellon was really good friends with… Not good friends, but he really supported Mussolini and his brother. And this is a very powerful billionaire in the 1920s who owned and ran a lot of coal mines. His brother was asked by a Senator, progressive Senator, was like, “Hey, can you run a coal mine without machine guns?” And Richard Mellon was like, “well, I don’t see how you could.” And then he caught himself. He was like, “Oh, I didn’t mean that.” But yeah, they were like shooting people, right? They were killing people. It was like a pretty constant thing.
And then let’s not forget that Jim Crow in the South, which was a part of the deal, like it was Northern monopoly capital and Southern racial oligarchs. That was fascism in the US, and that was based on a terrorist regime. So yeah, this was about… There’s a lot of murder involved in making sure that you could corrosively keep these power arrangements going. So yeah, you overlook that, and you just say, “Oh, these things are just natural and automatic, right?” It’s just not true, right? These things involve power, and he misleads people. So the other thing that John Kenneth Galbraith did is he said in 1958 he published this book called The Affluent Society. And his basic argument was America, we’ve solved the problem of economics, right? We solved the problem of corporate power.
America just endlessly produces goods and services and jobs. And the question now is, what do we do about the consumption side of this? Right? We’ve solved the production side. Corporations just do what they do. We don’t need to worry about them. And that framework of affluence basically told liberals from 1958 onward, don’t worry about corporate power. It’s not a thing. Don’t worry about the economy. It’s not a thing. And so 20 years later, in the 70s, when you saw these breakdowns of inflation and crises in New York City going bankrupt, and Penn Central and I go and now the train system’s been bankrupt, all this like fun stuff. By the way, every financial crisis involves, for some reason, Florida real estate and Citibank, I’m not sure why, but this is something I learned. But Galbraith was a… in 1970s when all these things started going haywire because the new deal systems were breaking down, the liberals had nothing to say because they hadn’t thought about political economy for 20 years because Galbraith told them not to.
Nick Hanauer: But just, one of the points that you make in the book is that this is not a problem of the right, that the left and right conspired or at least worked together, if not conspired, to bring corporate concentration back. That both political parties were infected by the same assumptions and Neo liberal ideas and that the blame should be placed, if not equally, and perhaps even more at the feet of liberals.
David Goldstein: Well, you have a lot of blame that you lay at the feet of the Watergate babies.
Matt Stoller: Basically, the left, right, and everyone’s always like, what left are you talking about? It’s not our fault, and it’s okay, fine, we can have that discussion. But basically, what I find is that the people that are interested in the problem of say Boeing or the people that are interested in the problem of like the farm crisis or the problem of big tech, whatever problem you want to look at for closures, were not people on the left, and they were not people in the democratic party who basically are not interested in business, and they are not interested in the military, and they’re not interested in power, right. The people who are interested in this are people who are conservatives, people in the military, and then people who make things, grow things, engineer things, producers, right. And the left, which includes both the like, a lack of a better word, like the MSNBC laughter or the Jacobin left, whatever.
They float in this world of symbols, right, which is divorced from paper pushing, which is divorced from actually trading or growing things or expressing ideas. It’s just this weird fantasy land, right where they’re addicted to powerlessness. It’s a very strange dynamic. And that straight up comes from Galbreath who told them power didn’t exist, right, and that is what opens up the door to the law and economics people. Because if you don’t govern, and this is what FDR said in 1938, weak democracies create dictatorships. Democrats have run weak democracies and the left has allowed them to run weak democracies.
Nick Hanauer: Let’s turn to solutions, right? So if Matt Stoller was in…
David Goldstein: Was the benevolent dictator.
Nick Hanauer: The benevolent dictator.
David Goldstein: Question, assuming you could be benevolent.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah, which is going way out on a limb.
David Goldstein: I know I couldn’t be anymore. I used to think I could be a benevolent dictator.
Nick Hanauer: Let’s just stipulate. You’re a benevolent dictator.
Matt Stoller: I will make the trains run on time.
Nick Hanauer: Okay. What? What should we do?
Matt Stoller: Okay, well it’s pretty simple. First of all, I would order everyone to buy this book and read it, and then immediately they would overthrow me as benevolent dictator by the way. Which would so actually, well, the first thing I would to is I would get all copies. If I were benevolent dictator, I would get all the copies of this book and burn them. Then I would, okay, well what I would do, it’s very simple. Okay. If something is too big, make it smaller. Right? Rule of thumb. The institutions across our society are too big, so let’s start making them smaller, and you don’t have to get rid of technical economies of scale. There’s always this sense, oh, we can, the law and economics, the neo-liberals want to say, “Oh, that just means that you want to like get us back to being like new England subsistence farmers who have to carve out our life from rocky soil.”
Like this is nonsense, right? It’s like Google doesn’t have to own a search engine and YouTube, right? That’s just a legal arrangement. It has nothing to do with technical economies of scale. And that’s true across the economy.
Nick Hanauer: Amazon doesn’t have to have AWS. Facebook doesn’t have to have Instagram, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Right?
Matt Stoller: That’s right. And so I would just start chopping up companies, right? I mean this is what Wall Street does all the time. They have… This is investment banking, mergers and acquisitions. Just start making these companies smaller. And then, the basic idea of the new deal was you had four financial holding companies that were controlling the economy. It was Rockefellers, Morgan’s, Melons and the DuPonts. Right? And they each ran these informal giant financial holding companies. That’s essentially what we have today, except it’s a slightly larger number of companies. And then you have private equity. So basically if you just get rid of… you just make those companies smaller. You once again break up the financial links, and you get rid of the pillaging and private equity. You’ll basically have a… You have to do a lot of other things, but you give me one thing to do. It would radically restructure our economy and just make it a lot more fair and democratic.
David Goldstein: Inherent in this is to get rid of that notion that the only measure of consolidation should be its effect on the consumer. Right?
Matt Stoller: Yeah. I mean it also, if there’s, you just really want one simple thing, I would just get rid of all the economists. That’s the easiest thing to do because it’s not even, they don’t even like, yes, they say they’re for consumer. They want us to think of ourselves like consumers. But really what that actually means is let’s just have the economists do really complicated bottles to tell us what might be better for consumers in the future. It’s essentially hiring witch doctors on the payroll of Plutocrats to tell us what to do. So just get that. We’ve got to get rid of that because we got to use our common sense.
David Goldstein: So first kill all the economists. That’s not very benevolent, but…
Matt Stoller: I didn’t say that. I say get rid of them. They can design a program for job assistance retraining for economists. An economist wrote a paper called the China Shock saying people’s jobs move to China. And then the economists were like, Oh man, people’s jobs moved to China. And it’s like, you know what? Fuck you. Right. Like they were staking it, right? Like that’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. It’s not a science. It’s not a discipline. It’s just witchdoctors who are on the payroll of concentrated finance at this point? Right?
David Goldstein: At least some of them. We have some friends.
Nick Hanauer: Right? Okay.
Matt Stoller: No, no. I mean some of them are fine. I just mean as a discipline.
Nick Hanauer: As a discipline. It has been… There’s just no other way to say it, an egregious failure.
Matt Stoller: Yeah. There we go. There we go.
David Goldstein: Okay. We’re not going to make you dictator anymore. Let’s talk about democracy a little bit here. You quote Brandeis in the book, the famous quote that we can have democracy or concentrated wealth, but not both. Now that you’ve talked a little bit about solutions, tell us about the risks of where we’re going from here. The actual threat to democracy, that concentration is posing.
Matt Stoller: Well, I mean, I think you can see it really, obviously with something like China censoring the NBA, right? What’s happening is that we have concentrated our markets and censoring us through Disney, right? We’ve concentrated our markets to such an extreme extent that you have private autocrats. Whether it’s Mark Zuckerberg or other people like Larry Page or whoever who are making decisions about how we structure our world, and we have no way to reach them, right? Because they control… Mark Zuckerberg controls how we communicate with one another. And you have no other choice to communicate through social media except using one of Mark Zuckerberg’s platforms. You lose a little bit of choice, but, but billions of people use his forums to communicate. And that level of concentration, right, enables other autocrats to come in and actually just start to rule us openly, right?
And not allow us to have any form of democracy. So we’re headed for a very scary world if we don’t do something to restore open markets and the American way of life, and not just in the US but all over the world, and I’m seeing this incredibly vibrant debate that it’s just wonderful to see. And I do think that the spirit of Liberty is reawakening in the hearts of the American people, and we really… that’s what’s so cool about democracy. And that’s what’s so amazing about America. It’s that really if we do choose to govern ourselves, we can, like, it really is up to us, and we have chosen not to be a free people for many decades, but we don’t have to stay subservient.
David Goldstein: I know we’re running out of time here, Matt. So we want to ask you, why do you do this work?
Matt Stoller: I just hate bullies, and I think that the way that we have a bullying in our society at a scalable level is in these boardrooms, and we have to stop this systematic bullying of all of us. And it’s just a personal thing. I don’t like seeing this level of injustice. I also think that it’s just really fun to study business. It’s like, it’s fascinating. It’s exciting. It’s interesting. And I like teaching people about it. I think it’s like… It’s very empowering.
Nick Hanauer: Well, Matt, thank you so much for joining us. Pitchfork Economics gang. The book is called Goliath by our friend of Matt Stoller, The Hundred Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy and Matt, is it out in stores right now?
David Goldstein: Yeah.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah. Okay. It’s already hit. Yeah. Yeah. We got an early copy.
David Goldstein: And the audio book, Nick.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah. And the audio book.
David Goldstein: I know you like the audio books?
Nick Hanauer: Yeah. Okay.
David Goldstein: You can get it from that monopolist Amazon.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah. Bastards. Yeah. Okay man. Matt, thank you so much. It was great talking to you.
Matt Stoller: Hey, you guys are the best. Thanks so much.
Nick Hanauer: Talk soon. Okay, bye.
David Goldstein: Bye.
Matt Stoller: Bye.
David Goldstein: So what do you think, Nick? Are you ready to elect a Matt Stoller benevolent dictator?
Nick Hanauer: Absolutely. I love the idea of collecting all the books and burning them first.
David Goldstein: It’s a very dictatorial thing to do. But the positive takeaway from this book, as Matt said, is that we’ve dealt with this issue in the past, which means we can…
Nick Hanauer: Deal with it in the future today.
David Goldstein: And we have a roadmap for how to do it.
Nick Hanauer: That’s right. And, as you mentioned in our conversations with him, I think Americans are becoming more and more attuned and aware to the issue of concentrated power and clearer and clearer in their minds that it actually isn’t benevolent. It isn’t good for them. That, in fact, what’s good for Amazon.com may not be good for America. What’s good for Exxon may not be good for America. What’s good for America’s Plutocratic Wall Street Titans may not be good for them in America, but you know, boy that was a story that was told both by Republicans and Democrats for generations.
David Goldstein: The bigger, the better, the more efficient, great economies of scale brings down prices, but there was a report just this week that showed that the average American is paying about $5,000 a year more due to market concentration. And the failure of that study is that it’s again only focusing on consumers. What it’s not looking at, and we’ve talked about this a lot, is how much less people are earning because of monopoly power.
Nick Hanauer: Exactly, and we can actually quantify exactly how much people are earning less than if they had tracked productivity growth. And in fact, for the typical family in America earns about $60,000 in income a year. If they had not been savaged by 40 years of neoliberalism, they’d be earning close to $100,000 a year. It adds up.
David Goldstein: And for those of you who still can’t let go of the supply demand curve in your econ 101 textbook, the opponents to the minimum wage, the $15 minimum wage, their argument was, if you pay above marginal product, it’s just going to destroy jobs because companies won’t be able to afford to employ you because they’ll lose money on you. Right? Right. And what’s happened everywhere we’ve raised the minimum wage.
Nick Hanauer: Unemployment has gone down.
David Goldstein: Right. Jobs have gone up. It hasn’t cost jobs at all. So what does that tell you if you’re econ 101 is right. That people are actually making less than their marginal product because all that market concentration, all that monopsony power again, check your econ 101 textbook, was depressing wages. Too much power in the hands of too few people incorporated.
Nick Hanauer: But let’s just acknowledge that the principle of marginal productivity is a fraud anyway.
David Goldstein: I’m just playing devil’s advocate here. I’m just trying to appeal to the econ 101ers.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah. What few of them are left in our audience?
David Goldstein: You know me, always building bridges, Nick, and then luring them out onto it and then blowing up the bridge.
Nick Hanauer: Well, anyway, it was a great conversation with Matt. It’s a really neat and important book and remarkably detailed in its analysis.
David Goldstein: You can find the book everywhere, not just from the big online monopolists. You can find it in your local bookstores or you can wait and get in line at the library.
Nick Hanauer: There you go.
David Goldstein: But read the book.
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