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Peer into the future for a minute.

Could it be that, 100 years from now, every American who has a job will be working at just one of two places: for the government, or for the one and only private corporation left in the country?

Right now, U.S. companies are merging like mad. Big corporate fish are being gobbled up by even bigger ones. Carry this to its logical conclusion, and one day there'll be only a single, incredibly enormous company left. One that does everything from laying carpet to making toothpaste to selling insurance to baking bread.

What inspired this vision was the announcement that a department store chain called Federated is buying the May Company's stores for $11 billion. Federated and May already had a portfolio of old-line retailers like Macy's in New York and Marshall Field's in Chicago.

These once-regal independent department stores were the retail bedrock of every U.S. city. You could sample perfumes, take the escalator up to Lingerie or Men's Wear, gaze at the glittering Christmas displays, even meet people for lunch. Shopping there was an adventure.

But discount stores lured away bargain-hunting shoppers, and chic competitors with designer brands nibbled away the high-end customer base. That left the great landmark stores with an unpleasant choice: go discount, join forces with a rival store, or perish.

In a graphics shop somewhere no doubt, designers are creating signs for the most recently merged stores. So what would they read? Big, Incorporated?

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