In 2018, Amazon made $11 billion in profits and paid no U.S. federal income tax. As one of the first events of this year's Winter Institute 15, on Tuesday the American Booksellers Association hosted a symposium in Washington, D.C., featuring a quartet of speakers addressing the perils of Amazon’s dominance in online retailing and what might be done to level the playing field.
“This is going to be fight,” said Stacey Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “When surveyed, we have seen trust in Google and Facebook plummet, but not Amazon. . .But there is hope: trust can change on a dime.”
Alongside Mitchell, were panelists Maria Coppola of George Mason University Law School; David Dayen, author of Monopolized: Life in the Age of Corporate Power (The New Press, June 2020); and Matt Stoller, author of Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy (S&S). David Grogan, director of ABFE, Advocacy and Public Policy at the ABA, moderated the panel.
The panelists emphasized that Amazon’s economic hegemony extends well beyond bookselling, where it is now responsible for 40% to 45% of all books sold in the United States. “Amazon’s monopoly and general market concentration is affecting people" in a variety of businesses, said Dayen. Stoller was somewhat more sanguine about the present situation. His book takes a historical look at how the United States has handled monopolistic practices in the past and cited numerous examples of how the government broke up powerful corporations, from the railroads trust to AT&T. “It is possible to initiate change — you have already started it — and we’ve had more anti-trust conversation in our politics this election cycle than anytime in the previous 25 years.”
Various panelists outlined just how powerful Amazon is, noting that among all the superlatives, there was no more disconcerting fact that more than 48% of the world’s public computing power is controlled by Amazon Web Services. This give the company enormous economic and, increasingly, political leverage, as important government institutions now depend on the company for internet services and purchasing.
"Jeff Bezos is currently renovating the biggest mansion in Washington, D.C., and it will have the biggest ballroom in the city” said Mitchell. “The idea is that soon the country’s political elite will have an opportunity to come to party and kiss the ring of the king.”In addition, Mitchell noted, Amazon spent more on political lobbyists in Washington, D.C., than all but one company in the U.S. last year.
All this means that any effort to force Amazon to do much of anything will meet stiff resistance. But, the panelists emphasized it is not impossible. Maria Coppola, the law professor, is an expert in antitrust law as applied in Europe and pointed out that the EU has imposed “some eye popping fines” on major tech companies. “The rhetoric in the U.K. and Europe is toward regulating Amazon and other tech companies.”
When it comes to finding a remedy for Amazon’s market concentration, the panelists largely agreed that breaking up the company is the easiest and simplest solution. The panelists also agreed that the only entity large enough to effectively take on Amazon was the U.S. government.
“Antitrust legislation is just one tool to do this,” said Stoller. “Throughout history we have seen a wide-variety of tools and instruments, such as the Hepburn Act [of 1906 that gave the Interstate Commerce Commission the power to set maximum railroad rates.]” He added that while the idea of taking on Amazon and companies like Facebook seems intimidating, grassroots efforts — like the Athena coalition — can be effective.
Robert Sindelar, former ABA president and managing partner at Seattle’s Third Place Books, is well positioned to comment on Amazon. Asked for his reaction to the panel, he said that he felt it was important to keep the conversation going. “In Seattle, we’re surrounded by Amazon and they have done a lot for the city, but there is also Amazon fatigue setting in and people are looking for alternatives to shopping with them.” He added that while booksellers have been fighting Amazon for a long time now and those in the room were the ones who had learned to live with the online retailer and survive, the general public, while still largely uninformed, were also starting to pay attention. “I think when Amazon bought Whole Foods is when people really started to pay attention. That and when their streets started getting clogged with Amazon delivery trucks,” Sindelar said.
While many booksellers continued to express trepidation and doubt about Amazon after the event, each expressed the importance of even the smallest gestures of defiance against Amazon. Lisa Misosky, owner of Southland Books and Cafe in Maryville, Tenn. has developed her own charity program that aims to outdo Amazon's own smiles program. "Smiles donates five cents for every $10 spent by a customer to the charity of their choice. I donate $.25 per $10 spent to our local 'friends of the library' program," she said, adding "It's one way I actually outdo Bezos."
For Annie Carl, owner of The Neverending bookshop in Edmonds, Wash., her messaging to the public about Amazon is very simple. "I have a swear jar in my store. Amazon is a swear word. So every time you say Amazon in my store, a quarter goes into the swear jar. People have learned not to say the name of Amazon aloud in my store!"
Correction: This piece initially misspelled David Dayen's name.