Assembling Tapas and Dismantling Monopolies With Zephyr Teachout

Photo: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Zephyr Teachout is making tapas for lunch and this, in a world that has become so jumbled and jibbering, is a small and welcome instance of something making perfect sense. Tapas is a decentralized lunch, snacks arrayed equally to form a meal. Teachout is an advocate for decentralization, power divided equally to form a democracy. For Teachout, the opposite phenomenon, a consolidation of power, is revolting, which is to say, something in need of a revolution. That’s what Teachout calls for in her new book, Break ‘Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom From Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money.

In the book, the former candidate for New York attorney general and governor and just about every other office for which one can run, presents a cogent and unassailable argument that monopolies in the form of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Tyson, Monsanto, Uber and (a few) more have co-opted the country, bought off our politicians, broken the mechanisms of democracy, spoiled our minds, despoiled our goods, consolidated the power of the people into the hands of a few, and, in the greatest trick ever pulled, convinced the world they don’t even exist. The book is available on Amazon, which is part of the problem.

Every page of Teachout’s text glints with outrage. She shows how these massive companies abuse their authority to shirk antitrust oversight, illustrating how the legislative overseers have come to be the overseen themselves, how they’ve been turned to vassals through cash unleashed into their coffers. Teachout argues that, through forced arbitration clauses, these monopolies privatized the court system to the detriment of workers, and furthered systemic racism by supporting voter suppression through organizations like ALEC. She explains how their data harvesting — not a glitch, but a feature — turns us into Gelflings staring at the Dark Crystal while our freedom and capital is sucked from us. It’s all really ghastly and just a major bummer especially since, as Teachout notes, the point of a monopoly is to leave no other options.

Nevertheless, Teachout is her typically sunny self when I reach her via Zoom at her East Harlem apartment, because she’s an optimist and because it’s time for tapas. “My husband has a crazy idea,” she says. He’s a software executive turned high-school physics teacher named Nick Juliusburger and he’s about to upgrade our Zoom call. He’s trained a second camera on a cutting board and, via the magic of screen sharing, I see Zephyr Teachout beaming in a bright-pink blouse in a small kitchen, knife at the ready, and I also see, in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen, her cutting board, upon which a tomato waits to be chopped.

We’re in the middle of a heat wave, and the apartment Teachout shares with Juliusburger and their 1-year-old son can’t be cool. But the heat, as the saying goes, has never bothered Teachout, a thorn in the side of Establishment politicians since well before she famously antagonized Albany’s Machiavellian nipple-ring prince turned COVID hero, Andrew Cuomo.

“I am making tomato toast. It’s an Andalusian lunch to stave off the hot weather,” Teachout explains. “I started doing this when my parents went to Spain in 2000 and I visited them. They had these bottles of tomato, garlic, and olive oil and they put it on toast and I was like, ‘This is all I want to eat.’”

Like the rest of us, Teachout and Juliusburger have been cooking more and ordering less since the pandemic began. It’s simple stuff. Sometimes, she tells me, she just feeds her son peanut butter for lunch. But the point is, she can make the choice of what to feed her family. Kinda.

The dystopian part of Break Em Up is that we don’t have a real choice but, as Teachout calls it, “the brilliant illusion of choice.” Her tomatoes, for instance, are almost certainly the product of Monsanto, whose stranglehold on farmers across America is part of what she calls the chickenization of the American middle class. That term comes from the ways in which three processors — Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Perdue — exercise inordinate control over their farmers, mandating everything from how much they pay per chicken to the use of Tyson-manufactured antibiotics to how bright the pens are, all the while asking farmers to shoulder the cost, burden, and risk while the company retains the profits. (By dint of restrictive contracts, these companies also forbid the farmers from discussing their terms with each other.)

According to Teachout, this model has spread not just from chicken to pork and beef, but into cities, too, in the form of the gig-opolies of Uber, Lyft, Grubhub, and Seamless, which force workers to bear the burden and consumers to merely think they have real choices about which companies they support.

It goes without saying that Teachout’s analogy extends to the relationship between Amazon and its suppliers, and also between Google, Facebook, and everyone who uses the internet. “People should be very scared,” Teachout warns. “You can see a lot of different futures right now. We all are treating Zuckerberg as our privacy commissioner. That’s crazy. When did we think that is okay? That he would be picking which news sources live or die?”

But things might be shifting, says Teachout. A few hours before our lunch, Zuckerberg, Bezos, Sundar Pichai, and Tim Cook had appeared before the House Antitrust subcommittee and, like the slices of baguette Teachout puts in the oven, they were grilled. “For the first time, it wasn’t clumsy and sycophantic with a few good moments,” she says. The chair, David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island, set the table. “He didn’t act like they were nice people. He basically said, ‘You kill or acquire competitors. You steal ideas who rely on your platform. You use big data to extract as much data as possible from people who rely on you. This isn’t good but we need some details.’ I love that framework. It’s a massive sea change.”

Yet, though it is beyond Teachout’s natural inclination to sunlight, it also seems true that the sea’s surface might be changing, but the pandemic has substantially altered the ocean floor. Teachout, like many progressives, watched in horror as the Democrats rubber-stamped the CARES act which, while providing much short-term relief to small businesses, provided billions more funding to be dispersed, with little to no oversight, by Steve Mnuchin. “The CARES Act is a constitutional document that gave Steve Mnuchin extreme power to reshape our economy,” Teachout says. “Just as restaurants are struggling to get their small loans, guess who is getting to borrow the big money? This can’t be just about the good things we got — it’s about a system that is designed to lead to more monopolies. ”

Then, a hiccup in the kitchen. “Oh, I am using the wrong thing,” Teachout says. The tomatoes and the garlic are commingling in a bowl. “I was about to use canola oil and I want to put olive oil.” She contemplates two different spray bottles, then chooses the right one. “You know, this is definitely out of character. It’s fancier than I’d usually do. My husband convinced me it’s better to have a spray thing.” She finely mists the tomato mixture and, for a moment, golden droplets are caught in the sunlight.

Lunch is almost ready and the question of what to do is still unsettled. It seems unfathomable to free oneself from the reach of monopolies. Google is air, Facebook is water, and Amazon is the earth. Restaurants survive these days thanks to delivery services like Seamless and, if you don’t like Seamless, Grubhub. Except Grubhub is Seamless, Instagram is Facebook, What’sApp is also Facebook, Odwalla is Coca-Cola, Tom’s of Maine is Colgate, and on and on. Boycotting anything seems both futile and impossible, and what are you but a hypocrite if you rail against one monopoly while, at the same time, avail yourself of another’s cheap fruits by getting 20 percent off all deliveries with the promo code SUBWAY?

Teachout has no time for shame or, for that matter, boycotts. “To be clear, boycotting Google and Facebook is impossible. Boycotts work if you have a decentralized economy,” she says. In fact, not only is a boycott impossible, it might be harmful. “Boycotts and ethical consumerism can be dangerous because they can relieve people of their sense of political responsibility.” As she writes in the book, “The very companies we are protesting are working to leverage feel-good leftism for profit and power.” Instead, boycotting needs to be paired, or even replaced, with political action. “The first thing you should do when you become aware of bad behavior,” says Teachout, “is to call Chuck Schumer or Kirsten Gillibrand. We can’t fantasize we’ll fix structural problems without the law.”

And with that, Teachout extracts the toasted bread from the oven and places the slices on a plate. As she begins to spoon the tomatoes over the bread, she doesn’t seem to mind — in fact, she seems to prefer — that the tomatoes are slightly messy, and that their juices run freely over the plate and bread alike.

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