heroes

In the week just dominated by everything Jeff Bezos and Amazon, we’ve witnessed intrigue, drama, outrage, salaciousness, and yes, even heroics. That’s right. Despite his record as Amazon chief of rapacious exploitation and domination of America’s consumer economy, some were calling him a hero for his ballsy response to apparent blackmail by the publisher of the National Enquirer. Even the reliably snarky Maureen Down got into the act in her NY Times column,

Bezos may be a key player in the Silicon Valley scheme to destroy privacy and ratchet up excess in the interest of mammonism, but for the moment, he’s a hero.

Self-deception is a bitch. It’s one thing for Billionaire Bezos to stick it to the Enquirer, but calling his act heroic is to blindly accept the mainstream media’s propaganda, which is more about petty politics than social justice.  According to Macmillan Dictionary, a hero is “someone who has done something brave, for example saving a person’s life or risking their own life.” So, while Bezos’ going after the Enquirer may suit your politics, or even your sense of personal justice, let’s look at our neo-feudal lord-in-chief ‘s overall impacts on society and see whether Bezos deserves to wear the hero’s badge.

Bezos: Hero or Zero?

Riding high on his digital hobby horse, Jeff Bezos built his company by trampling on the back of American society – for the sole benefit of himself and his shareholders – for the past quarter century. The tales of Amazon’s brutally competitive practices have been well chronicled. (If you need me to review such evidence, you probably should stop reading now and go Googling.)  What’s clear in the overall picture is that with the failure of U.S. regulators to advance proper and just anti-trust remedies since the 70s, Amazon has been able to use technology and data in ways that are monopolistic and damaging to American society and economy on many levels. Writing in the Guardian, Matt Stoller offers a window on how Amazon has used its unchecked power to bully New Yorkers,

One reason the idea of subsidizing Amazon with New York city and state tax monies was so galling is that the corporation is already extracting so much wealth from the region. Amazon for more than a decade has steadily battered the American book publishing industry, which is largely based in New York, and which employs tens of thousands of residents. The corporation has done so through thuggish negotiating tactics, including simply refusing to sell a publisher’s inventory unless they agreed to a detailed list of concessions.

Similarly, Amazon a few years ago used age-old predatory pricing tactics to essentially bankrupt Diapers.com, a business located in the New York city suburb of Jersey City, by underpricing its rivals. In the end Diapers.com sold itself to Amazon, which shut the operation down.

Stories like the Diapers.com disposal are legion at this point, and part of Amazon’s core marketing strategy: kill the competition. Literally. And with government regulators asleep at the wheel, retailers fear Amazon will come for them next, as observed by Erica Pandey, writing in Axios, “Jeff Bezos’ tech giant has quickly become the existential crisis facing almost every e-commerce and brick-and-mortar firm.”

And in a surprising column published in today’s NY Times, Mayor, Bill de Blasio makes clear who he was negotiating with,

In the end, Amazon seemed unwilling to bend or even to talk in earnest with the community about ways to shape their project. They didn’t want to be in a city where they had to engage critics at all. And it’s a pattern. When Seattle’s City Council passed a tax on big employers to fund the battle against homelessness, the company threatened to stop major expansion plans, putting 7,000 jobs at risk. The tax was rescinded…

…The same day Amazon announced its decision to halt its second headquarters here, it was reported that the company would pay no federal income tax on the billions in profits it made last year. That’s galling, especially at a time when millions of working-class and middle-class Americans are finding that they are getting smaller tax returns this year thanks to President Trump’s tax plan, which has hugely benefited the wealthy.

Which makes me wonder why the mayor thought it so essential to foist this beast upon his constituents. Maybe he’s just looking to grab the hero’s badge for himself. But this reeks more of shucking accountability in the public eye onto Amazon, when it was he who schemed with Corporate Cuomo to force-feed this 3 billion dollar heist – with no apparent guarantee of anything on the part of Amazon – onto city and state taxpayers. But there was more. The mayor and governor worked in secrecy with Amazon to construct a scheme they were certain would avoid public scrutiny and approval, because this is how monopolies like Amazon insist these negotiations happen. It’s a straight-up mob shakedown. The only thing missing: the horse’s head in the bed. It doesn’t seem like de Blasio was surprised. Self-deception is not only a bitch, but it can unleash a bear, if unchecked. This is why we need public review of such corporate welfare projects, for starters.

We can be heroes

That my wife and I continue to resist Amazon culture, which feels heroic at times, is rapidly becoming a self-inflicted wound, since you now must be a Prime member to avoid getting completely fleeced buying groceries at Whole Foods. For myself, growing up in a family-owned retail business, Amazon seemed like a bad idea from the get-go. I’d seen how our suburban New York housewares shop go from a thriving anchor in our community for twenty years to an endangered specie when Bed, Bath and Beyond opened down the block in the late 80s. Forget loyalty between merchant and customer. The allure of the big box store drew our long-time customers away in exchange for lower prices. There was no way we could compete against the buying power of a national chain operation. It was devastating for my dad to witness, and be victim to. The rules of the game had changed in the night, without input or warning. It was not long in the human arc of time before Amazon came along and kicked the big box stores in the nuts, and consolidated the entire consumer economy in the corporate underpants of Jeff Bezos.

Who are the heroes in this tale? They are the ones that petitioned and agitated against the Amazon deal, particularly the elected officials under direct threat from Cuomo for retribution at the polls. When it comes to political retribution, no one doubts the ire of New York governor. As Stoller also makes clear, opposition to the Amazon deal was not a socialist ploy, but just crap,

The pushback came from community activists, as well as courageous politicians like state Senators Michael Gianaris, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Jessica Ramos, and councilmen Corey Johnson and Jimmy Van Bremer. But the opposition to the deal did not only come from individual citizens, politicians, and grassroots groups. The former mayor Michael Bloomberg also attacked the Cuomo-DeBlasio deal as a naïve giveaway, as did existing businesses in the city who opposed the unfair subsidies.

“We know the game is rigged,” Mayor de Blasio confides in his column. Yes, we know. Now do something about it!

In the end, it’s not the defense of Bezos’ pecker that earns the hero’s badge. It’s resisting his shafting.

And the shame, was on the other side
Oh, we can beat them, forever and ever
Then we could be heroes just for one day
–Brian Eno/David Bowie