Amazon Must Be Stopped It's too big. It's cannibalizing the economy. It's time for a radical plan. By Franklin Foer
Before we speak ill of Amazon, let us kneel down before it. Twenty years ago, the company began with the stated goal of creating a bookstore as comprehensive as the great Library of Alexandria, and then quickly managed to make even that grandiloquent ambition look puny. Amazon could soon conjure the full text of almost any volume onto a phone in less time than a yawn. Its warehouses are filled with an unabridged catalogue of items that comes damn close to serving every human need, both basic and esoteric—a mere click away, speedily delivered, and as cheap as capitalism permits.
Rather than pocketing the profits from this creation, Amazon has plowed revenue into bettering itself—into the construction of well-placed fulfillment centers that further hasten the arrival of its packages, into technologies that attempt to read our acquisitive minds and aptly suggest our next purchase. Shopping on Amazon has so ingrained itself in modern American life that it has become something close to our unthinking habit, and the company has achieved a level of dominance that merits the application of a very old label: monopoly.
That term doesn’t get tossed around much these days, but it should. Amazon is the shining representative of a new golden age of monopoly that also includes Google and Walmart. Unlike U.S. Steel, the new behemoths don’t use their barely challenged power to hike up prices. They are, in fact, self-styled servants of the consumer and have ushered in an era of low prices for everything from flat-screen TVs to paper napkins to smart phones.
In other words, we’re all enjoying the benefits of these corporations far too much to think hard about distant dangers. Besides, the ideology of Silicon Valley suggests that we have nothing much to fear: If these firms no longer engineer breathtaking technologies, they will be creatively destroyed. That’s why Peter Thiel, the creator of PayPal, has argued that the term “monopoly” should be stripped of its negative connotation. A monopoly, he argues, is really nothing more than a synonym for a highly successful company. Insulation from the brutish spirit of competition even makes them superior organizations—more beneficent employers, better able to both daydream and think clearly. In Thiel’s phrasing: “Creative monopolies aren’t just good for the rest of society; they’re powerful engines for making it better.”
Thiel makes an important point: The Internet-age monopolies are a different species; they flummox our conventional ways of thinking about corporate concentration and have proved especially elusive to those who ponder questions of antitrust, the discipline of law that aims to curb threats to the competitive marketplace. Part of the issue is the laws themselves, which were conceived to manage an industrial economy—and have, over time, evolved to focus on a specific set of narrow questions that have little to do with the core problem at hand.
Whether Amazon, which does $75 billion in annual revenue, has technically violated antitrust laws is an important matter, of course. But descending into the weeds of predatory pricing statutes also obscures the very real threat. In its pursuit of bigness, Amazon has left a trail of destruction—competitors undercut, suppliers squeezed—some of it necessary, and some of it highly worrisome. And in its confrontation with the publisher Hachette, it has entered a phase of heightened aggression unseen even when it tried to crush Zappos by offering a $5 rebate on all its shoes or when it gave employees phony business cards to avoid paying sales taxes in various states.
In effect, we’ve been thrust back 100 years to a time when the law was not up to the task of protecting the threats to democracy posed by monopoly; a time when the new nature of the corporation demanded a significant revision of government.