Monday, July 23, 2012

50 Shades of Stupid

What color should I use as I paint the face of Sharis Pozen, an Assistant Attorney General for the United States Department of Justice?

How about 50 Shades of Stupid?

For those of you who don’t know why I fume, let me sum up:  The DoJ decided to charge the Mighty Titans of the Publishing World with price-fixing - a charge they vehemently dispute.  And I'm picking on Assistant Attorney General Pozen because she ran point on this witch hunt.

See, those Mighty Titans of Publishing would sell an ebook to Amazon and Amazon would then sell that ebook to you.  But often?  Amazon sold it for less than they paid.  They would lose money, happily.  And lo, the Mighty Titans scratched their heads.  They pondered late into the night.  Perhaps Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, was just a really nice guy?  Unless, unless...

Oh, no!  With the truth finally revealed, as if in a dream, these Mighty Titans - unlike those others before them, the Lords of the Music Industry - these Titans had the gall to say, Stop right there!  You can’t sell our product for less than its cost.  That’s predatory pricing in order to gain a monopoly!  You don't have the interests of the consumer at heart!  You just want to rule the world and do with it as you please!

(For the dangers of monopolies please see Boss Tweed).

The DoJ went ballistic.  Ooh, Sharis Pozen was mad.  That's when she thought, Witch Hunt!  But then she went after the wrong guy.  Jeff Bezos?  He harbors black cats, has a hundred brooms hidden in his closet - he wears the pointy hat at parties.  There's your witch!  But instead she decided to target the Mighty Titans!

These Titans, armed only with pens, not swords, would soon be skewered.  During the course of her hunt, she solicited public comments.  Today she responded.  And to those who worried that Amazon would gain a monopoly with its predatory pricing scheme - she sneered.  Those concerns were, in the DoJ's estimation, “highly speculative.”

Well now.  Before the Mighty Titans of Publishing asked Amazon not to sell their books for a loss, Amazon owned 90% of the market.  After?  Amazon’s share of the market had fallen to 60%.

You're thinking, Wait - I’m confused by the DoJ’s reasoning.  It isn’t "highly speculative" that Amazon would have a monopoly.  They did.  Right?


Perhaps Ms. Pozen's boss - Attorney General Eric Holder - maybe he went to a different school than you and I.  Maybe he was taught New-Math and 2+2 doesn’t equal 4.  Maybe?

The DoJ also argued “No objector to the proposed Final Judgment has supplied evidence that Amazon threatens to drive out competition and obtain the monopoly pricing power which is the ultimate concern of predatory pricing law.”

Get out more 50 Shades of Stupid.  Does Attorney General Holder not read the news?  In the Bay Area, we look at our denuded literary landscape - at the loss of A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books, Cover to Cover, Cody’s – we look at these losses as illustrations of good bookstores not just driven out by Amazon, but destroyed by Amazon.

Oops, my bad.  The Attorney General doesn't live in the Bay Area, so maybe these are bad examples.  Maybe, then, just maybe - could he perhaps have heard of the fate that befell Borders?

Justice should be blind, though - isn't that why Lady Justice is so often depicted with her eyes covered as the scales she holds tip right and left?  And so here Attorney General Holder supports that notion by turning his blind eye to the ample evidence that Amazon threatens to destroy its competitors - Jeff Bezos, after all, is on record as saying that he wants to eliminate all gatekeepers.

This isn’t a secret, people – this is greed writ large.

The DoJ also argued that “federal antitrust laws….were enacted to protect competition.”  Lord a mighty, this ain’t brain surgery.  I can only guess that in addition to not living in the Bay Area, Attorney General Holder never ever played Monopoly.  Does he not know why it's called Monopoly?  The whole point is to wipe out your competition and be the last mogul standing.

With Attorney General Holder's help, we’re going back to that.  Back to Amazon having control of 90% of the market.  Maybe when they reach 95% the brain trust at the DoJ will decide Amazon has finally become a Monopoly.

Or is it necessary for the number to be 100%?  Maybe they need it to be nice and round?

I'm especially fond of the DoJ's reaction to the 868 comments it received about the proposed settlement of their price-fixing suit.  It rejected and disparaged more than 90% of the comments because those opinions came from selfish bastards like me.  It embraced the other 8% because, um, well - darn it all.  They actually were selfish bastards, too.  But I guess they were the good kind of selfish.

Look, I admit - I'm selfish!  I want a level playing field.  I want all the players to follow the same rules.  I want Amazon to pay taxes like I do, for a start.  I want Amazon not to engage in predatory pricing practices just because it can - in order to create a monopoly.  So if you want healthy competition, let's start there.

I get it.  Consumers want everything cheap.  Hell, they want it free.  And it’s painless to steal online.  But stealing in the real world is harder.  It necessitate the difficult and ugly act of walking out of a grocery store with the box of donuts under your shirt (which is exactly what consumers do when they easily and illegally download movies and music, but that’s another story.)

So they want it cheap and that’s the only thing.  Me?  I want options.  I want small nurseries and hardware stores to exist so I can go in and ask questions and receive intelligent answers.  I want choice.  I want to support those good business people who actually live in my community.  Who hire my neighbors.  Who pay taxes so the roads are paved and the firefighters are ready to respond when I need help.

I want independent bookstores to exist so I can walk in and discover a writer I wouldn’t have found otherwise.  As a bookseller, I don’t want to just be considered a gatekeeper – an impediment – that Jeff Bezos can kill so his empire can grow.  I want to help you find a voice that was hidden otherwise.  I want to champion writers who have exceptional stories to tell (for example, please go read Ben Fountain's novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.  Right now.)

I want to interact with you.  In person.

Silly, isn't it?

The Department of Justice?  (How's that for a misnomer?)  They want the opposite and so they actively seek the path of no competition - but in some Orwellian twist they argue that they're fighting for consumers everywhere.  Yet because their reasoning is so faulty and inconsistent - but strident! - I begin to question myself.

Help a brother out, please – does 2+2 still equal four?

Ah, well.  I should make it easy for the Department of Justice, for Attorney General Holder.  He's got more pressing matters to attend to.  He must.  Maybe I’ll put on my spats and bowler hat one last time.  Head to the front door of my book shoppe and turn the sign around so it reads - Closed.  There I’ll be, one last little anachronism swept away for the good of Bezos.

And Sharis Pozen, representing the United States Department of Justice, she'll smile.  Well played, she'll gloat as she high-fives Attorney General Holder.

Well played.