“One of the busiest corners of the globe at the opening of the year 1872 was a strip of Northwestern Pennsylvania, not over fifty miles long,” journalist Ida Tarbell wrote in 1902. In the span of just 12 years, those once quiet Pennsylvania hills were overrun with hardy young entrepreneurs seeking to make their fortunes from a new product: petroleum. But the days of bustling competition did not last.
“At the very heyday of this confidence,” Tarbell went on, “a big hand reached out from nobody knew where, to steal their conquest and throttle their future.”
The hand was that of John D. Rockefeller. By 1880, his Standard Oil Company controlled about 90 percent of the oil produced in the United States, including its transport, refining and marketing. Rockefeller pioneered market domination by undercutting prices across all areas of the oil business and buying up his competitors.
For a cohort of eight journalists on campus at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business last spring, Tarbell’s two-year, 19-article exposé on Standard Oil—widely considered to be the birth of investigative journalism—served as both inspiration and how-to guide.
Credited with exposing the deleterious effects of monopolies on society, as well as inspiring government efforts to counter them, Tarbell’s muckraking series “created the political demand for intervention,” Chicago Booth economist Luigi Zingales explained in an episode of his podcast Capitalisn’t. In 1911, the Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of Standard Oil into 34 individual companies. (Rockefeller, who referred to Tarbell as “Miss Tar Barrel,” became the nation’s first billionaire and spent the later years of his life giving away much of his fortune, including funds to found the University of Chicago.)
Journalists and business school professors may seem like strange bedfellows, but not to Zingales, the faculty director of the George J. Stigler Center for the Study of the Economy and the State. In 2017, he launched the Stigler Center Journalists in Residence program. For the reporters who participate, it’s a taste of the business school experience and a crash course in economic theory: they audit classes, meet scholars, and attend special events.
Why invest in the next generation of muckraking? Because, in Zingales’ view, capitalism depends on it. He believes investigative journalism is a major reason why American capitalism has historically been so successful compared to the “crony capitalist” systems that prevail elsewhere. Take his native Italy, where, he has argued, personal connections—not merit or competition—determine who wins in the marketplace.
The guiding idea behind the residency is that journalists in the trenches—filing pieces on the daily and weekly happenings of the business world and exposing special interests that aim to subvert markets for their own gain—help create a demand to keep markets free.
“Inquisitive, daring and influential media outlets willing to take a strong stand against economic power are essential in a competitive capitalist society,” Zingales wrote in the Financial Times in 2015. “They are our defense against crony capitalism. When the media outlets in any country fail to challenge power, not only are they not part of the solution, they become part of the problem.”
‘A period of great ferment’
The problem is the fragility of capitalism itself. Adam Smith’s invisible hand and the free-market laissez-faire approach so famously espoused by Chicago economists can easily be shackled by special interests. These include price-cutting monopolies like Rockefeller’s Standard Oil; competition-shy incumbents aiming to deter new market entrants; and rent-seeking corporations that look to the government for an advantage in the marketplace via subsidies or regulatory capture—that is, when laws increase the market advantage for the very firms meant to be regulated.
It was Nobel Prize winner George J. Stigler—the UChicago economist who founded his namesake center—who first questioned the impact of regulation on competition, and who in 1971 put forward the idea that industry “acquires” regulation for its benefit. His two-part hypothesis: one, industries will wield whatever political power they have to prevent new competitors from entering the market, and two, regulations will be written to slow those new entrants’ growth.