Opinion

Trump is right about Amazon

Just because the president says something doesn't make it wrong

Ann Coulter may well be right that in most respects President Trump is a "shallow, lazy ignoramus," but he's undeniably a kind of genius at one thing: driving his political opponents into a kind of self-destructive madness.

Liberals find the president so morally repulsive and so transparently dishonest that they now respond to everything he says with instantaneous outrage and disgust, while presuming in each and every case that his statements are made in bad faith, concealing baser motives. The latest example is the response to Trump's Thursday tweet zinging Amazon.

The universal response to this tweet has been to assume that it follows entirely from the president's hostility to The Washington Post. Amazon founder and owner Jeff Bezos also owns the Post, which has relentlessly pursued stories of possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, flagrant corruption in and around the Trump family, and overall White House dysfunction. The president would love to destroy the paper, or at least get it to back off of its politically damaging coverage of his administration, and the broadside against Amazon is a transparent effort to make that happen.

Now it's entirely possible that this is what's motivating Trump. But does that mean it makes sense for liberals to rally around Bezos in response? Not at all — at least not if the left in this country wants to stand for more than reflexive opposition to whatever Trump says and does.

Amazon is much too big. Its exponential growth has been greatly aided by its avoidance of taxes. And its business model has done enormous damage to retail outlets across the country. It's also harmed, and in some cases decimated, numerous industries by ruthlessly dropping prices below levels of profitability and using other advantages of its enormous size and power to squeeze competitors.

All of this was more or less laid out in one of last year's most important books, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech by liberal journalist Franklin Foer. The book made a cogent case for breaking up Amazon on the grounds that it (like Google and other tech giants) functions as a 21st-century digital analogue of the industrial monopolies that Theodore Roosevelt and other Progressive reformers took on at the turn of the 20th century.

Consider what Amazon has done to the industry I know best: university press book publishing.

To highlight just one aspect of its rapacious business practices, Amazon has begun over the past year or so to replace the "Buy" button on book pages with a button that automatically defaults to the cheapest purchase option from any seller, including used book outlets. For a newly published book, those "used" copies nearly always originate as gratis (free) copies distributed to potential reviewers of the book. This means a new copy of the book was never purchased in the first place.

For a scholarly book that will sell only a few hundred copies in total, this means that a significant portion of its sales will generate zero revenue for the publisher or royalties for the author. Consumers will be happy to get a cheap book, but the publisher, which probably operates on a shoe-string, with substantial overhead and extremely tight budgets, will end up getting badly hurt. When this is repeated across dozens or hundreds of books a year, it can turn a lean enterprise that barely manages to break even into a money-losing one. And when such a transformation is replicated across an entire industry, the industry itself begins to lose its commercial viability.

To which the libertarian economists and free-market fetishists will say: "Good riddance! If the publishers can't compete, let them perish! We can't have the government determining winners and losers. Businesses need to do their best and be willing to die in the scramble to provide the cheapest products to consumers. If Amazon does it better than anyone, then the company has earned the right to come out on top. Even if it ends up as the only business in America left standing."

But of course, this isn't the view of our protectionist-in-chief, who ran for president promising in flamboyantly populist terms to defend the little guy against powerful, predatory elites at home and abroad who seek profits at the expense of ordinary American individuals and communities. Trump's Thursday-morning Tweet about Amazon was completely harmonious with this point of view, whatever other motives might have been behind it.

What about liberals? Will they let their hatred and suspicion of Trump completely warp their judgment and priorities? Will they turn themselves into obsequious defenders of one of the richest and most powerful men in the world, demonstrating that they're the very pro-corporate, neoliberal shills that their leftist critics always insisted they were?

Yes, Trump is awful. But that doesn't mean he's always, invariably wrong.

On Amazon, he's indisputably right.

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