Rather than a new age of democratic capitalism imagined by Reagan-era conservatives, we increasingly live in a world dominated by large companies. The overall revenues of Fortune 500 companies have risen from 58 percent of nominal GDP in 1994 to 73 percent in 2013. At the same time, small-business startups have declined as a portion of all business growth, from 50 percent in the early ’80s to 35 percent in 2010. Indeed, a 2014 Brookings report (PDF) revealed that small business “dynamism,” measured by the growth of new firms compared with the closing of older ones, has declined significantly over the past decade, with more firms closing than starting for the first time in a quarter-century. Only 35 percent of small-business owners, according to a recent survey by the National Small Business Association, express optimism about the economy.
This decline in entrepreneurial activity marks a historic turnaround. Start-up rates have fallen for young people in particular, dropping to the lowest levels in a quarter-century. At the same time the welfare state has expanded dramatically to the point that nearly half of all Americans now get payments from the federal government, notably through Medicare and Social Security. At the same time, the lack of grassroots economic activity may contribute to labor participation rates, now the lowest in almost four decades.
The Obama administration’s progressive-sounding rhetoric may offend some of the thinner-skinned members of the oligarchy, but his economic policies—the bank bailouts, super-low interest rates, and growing federal power—have also improved the balance sheets of the corporate hegemons and the super-rich. In contrast, these policies do little, or less than little, for the yeoman class. Money today is made far more easily today by playing games with the market than making or selling on Main Street.