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Corporate World is experiencing a surge in the urge to merge.

Control of market after market — from cable TV to chickens, banking to washing machines — has been seized by less than a handful of enormous corporations. Rather than compete, they collude to set prices, cut quality, shrink service and squeeze out any would-be competitors.

There was a time, not that long ago, when monopolies, duopolies and oligopolies were not only frowned upon by our public officials and watchdog agencies but also aggressively challenged and busted up. In recent years, however, corporate giants feel free to get ever-gianter by gobbling up their competitors, knowing that the watchdogs will barely bark, much less bite. In fact, now that the Supreme Court has turned corporate campaign donations into legalized bribes, our so-called “public” officials — including congress critters, governors, judges and even presidents — have become tail-wagging accomplices to the amalgamation of corporate power.

The Bush-Cheney regime was infamous for cheerleading this consolidation, including allowing the merger of AT&T and Verizon to capture 70 percent of all wireless phone subscribers. But this is not just a Republican phenomenon. Obama’s Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission and Federal Aviation Administration genially waved through American Airline’s takeover of US Airways and United’s consumption of Continental, effectively leaving air travelers to the brutish mercy of one or two bullies in every major airport — and no service at all in smaller cities.

Now come dominant health-care giants Aetna, Humana, Anthem and Cigna, as well as Walgreens and Rite Aid, demanding to merge into behemoths that would control the availability of health insurance and essential medicines to millions of Americans. Ironically, the very lawmakers, corporate lobbyists and pundits who push and praise each of these mergers are also the noisiest preachers of the virtue of competitive markets, small business and consumer choice.

Oh, they also claim to be champions of the people’s will — even though the clear will of the vast majority of Americans is to stop the merger-mania and anti-consumer monopolization that corporate America and its political servants are hanging around our necks. That’s not just ironic. It’s cynical, hypocritical… and disgusting.

Even our brewskis are falling to monopolists. Belgian conglomerate Anheuser-Busch InBev is set to swallow South American-owned conglomerate SABMiller. The merger, they gloat, will be the first “truly global brewer.” Indeed, it will control a third of all beer sales in the world and a whopping 70 percent of all U.S. sales.

The monopolizers assert there’s no anti-trust problem because hundreds of small breweries are popping up like dandelions all over America and the world, thus creating wide-open competition. The winner, says the Anheuser-Busch behemoth with a wink and a crooked smile, will be the one that gets the most customers.

How free-enterprise-y! And fallacious. The “winner” will be the one with the key to the marketplace gate. To get customers, you first have to be able to get your beers in the bars and on store shelves, which is mostly controlled in the U.S. by beer wholesalers who distribute beers from various breweries to the retailers. These wholesalers can simply refuse to distribute the brews of smaller “competitors.” Now, guess which big honking beer-maker has been aggressively buying up wholesale distributors in recent years in order to fill the shelves with their brands and lock out the new independents?

If Anheuser-Busch InBev is allowed to become the first global brewery, it won’t be because it makes the best beer but because it’s rigging the marketplace to slam the door on its “free enterprise” competitors. The word “free” in “free enterprise” is not an adjective, it’s a verb; i.e., let’s “free up” the enterprise of small businesspeople by stopping giant monopolists from locking them out of the marketplace.

To find out more about Jim Hightower, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

Photo: View of the Anheuser-Busch InBev logo outside the brewer’s headquarters in Leuven February 26, 2014. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

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