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American workers are bored and disillusioned. Here’s what may bring them back

Source | LinkedIn | Matt Stoller | Fellow at Open Markets Institute

In Silicon Valley, Elizabeth Warren — who is running on a platform that includes breaking up Google — is getting more employees at Google to donate to her campaign than any other Democratic presidential candidate.

Google is renowned for its luxurious treatment of its engineers, with Business Insider running a story focused entirely on pictures of the free food the corporation offers to employees, including “Banana cheesecake, lobster for lunch, poké bowls.” It’s a famously idealistic company; people work at Google to make the world a better place. So the donations to Warren seem like a paradox, if you think about Google as a company where all employees and executives are aligned around the same goals of organizing the world’s information.

But something has gone wrong in paradise, the utopian idealism of the corporation is now being strangled by the monopoly power wielded by its executives.

Nitasha Tiku’s remarkable August story in Wired shows, Google is a miserable place these days. It is riven by factional disputes, bureaucracy and unsolvable political disagreements. Its product lines are stale and, increasingly, the company organizes itself to find ways to squeeze more ad revenue from its search box. It has become boring, a middle-age monopolist. Its employees increasingly fight over politics, not products, and there are mass walkouts over executive-level misbehavior and unfair treatment of workers.

Perhaps Google has a special culture. It is full of former entrepreneurs whose startups were bought by the company. These people do not like being caged, even if the cage is gilded with golden fetters and free poké bowls. But in fact, no one likes being caged. I hear from people across the corporate world all the time, both in Silicon Valley and at companies like Boeing, Procter & Gamble, Boston Consulting Group and so forth. Corporate America is miserable.

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I received a letter from a young engineer trying to find his way, and he told me about how alienating it was to work at P&G. “Very few white-collar workers at P&G really did anything,” he said. “There was zero exposure to actual risk or competition, but everyone had to pretend to be innovating and competing in order to justify their success…. I swear to God, my manager actually took me aside at the beginning of my internship and said, “At the end of the day, nothing you or I do is really going to impact P&G’s bottom line, so I wouldn’t stress too much about your projects.”

Fortunately, there is a solution. It’s called competition. There’s an old legal framework, unenforced for decades, intended to stimulate the American economy by breaking up companies that have grown too large. To understand how and why it works, we have to go back seventy years.

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