From The Atlantic:
Shortly after I met Lina Khan, her cellphone rang. The call was from a representative of a national organization, regarding a speech it had asked her to give. Khan was courteous on the phone, but she winced momentarily after hanging up. “That was the American Bar Association,” she confessed. “I don’t know if I’ve passed the bar yet.”
This feeling—that Khan’s ideas are in high demand slightly before her time—has characterized much of her life lately. In the past year, the 29-year-old legal scholar’s work has been cited approvingly by the lefty, rabble-rousing congressman Keith Ellison and by a Trump-appointed assistant attorney general, Makan Delrahim. She has been interviewed by NPR and written op-eds for The New York Times.
She has done it neither by focusing on a hot-button issue nor by cultivating a telegenic demeanor. She is just a young adult—one of many, I would learn—interested in an old topic: antitrust law, that musty corner of American jurisprudence aimed at curtailing monopoly power.
. . . .
For the past few decades of American life, the specter of monopoly was generally raised only regarding companies that seemed custom-designed to rip off consumers—airlines, cable providers, Big Pharma. These were businesses that pulled from the long-standing monopolist’s bag of tricks: They seemed to keep prices artificially high, or they formed an unspoken cartel with other industry titans. Typically, consumers worried most about how monopolies would pinch their wallet. For Khan and her colleagues at the Open Markets Institute, an anti-monopoly think tank based in Washington, D.C., monopoly power includes all of that. But it goes further. Even when monopolies appear to benefit consumers by offering free services or low prices, Khan contends that they can still be deeply harmful. Among the group’s frequent targets are some of the most popular companies in America: Google, Facebook, and the one to which Khan has committed much of her published work, Amazon. She tells a comprehensive story about how these companies make Americans less free.. . . .“There’s a whole line of critique about Amazon that’s culture-based, about how they’re wrecking the experience of bookstores,” Khan told me as we surveyed Neil deGrasse Tyson’s latest tome. “I personally am less focused on that element.”
Instead, she argues that Amazon has denuded America’s book-buying landscape in other ways. “Amazon has massively—and I’m trying not to use this particular word, but I can’t not use it here—disrupted the business model in publishing,” she told me. “Publishers used to be able to take risks with heavier books that might not be as popular, and they used to be able to subsidize them with best sellers.” But Amazon’s demand for discounts has made it harder to cross-subsidize this way, leading to consolidation among book publishers and reduced diversity.
This is a typically Khanian analysis. In her telling, monopolies don’t just exploit consumers and workers in their part of the economy. Even when they offer low prices to consumers, their influence propagates through the entire system. If one part of an industry consolidates, then all the other parts of the industry will feel pressure to consolidate too.
. . . .
[I]n January 2017, she published the result of that study, “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox,” in the Yale Law Journal. It went viral—or at least as viral as dense legal scholarship can go. Its driving question is simple: How did Amazon get so big?
The answers are nearly as straightforward. First, Khan says, Amazon has been willing “to sustain losses and invest aggressively at the expense of profits.” This isn’t a controversial assertion: Amazon has posted an annual profit for only 13 of the past 21 years, according to The New York Times. Historically, it has plowed any profits right back into cheaper prices and R&D into everything from robotics to image recognition. Second, Amazon is integrated vertically, across business lines. In addition to selling stuff online, Amazon now publishes books, extends credit, sells online ads, designs clothes, and produces movies and TV shows. It is also one of the world’s largest providers of cloud storage and computing power, renting server space to Netflix, Adobe, Airbnb, and NASA.
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[Judge Robert] Bork’s views become interesting in light of Amazon. Bork thought vertical integration was fine: Since he believed markets were perfectly efficient, he assumed that a lower-cost competitor would always butt in and fight off a would-be monopolist. And predatory pricing? It is “a phenomenon that probably does not exist,” he wrote. The Chicago school, he said, had proved that companies would always pursue short-term profits over long-term growth.
Amazon’s history seems to belie this claim. For more than a decade, Wall Street allowed the company to plow any profits into price discounts. Partly as a result, Amazon has grown so large that it can undercut other companies just by announcing that it will soon compete with them. When Amazon purchased Whole Foods, its market cap rose by $15.6 billion—some $2 billion more than it paid for the chain. Meanwhile, the rest of the grocery industry immediately lost $37 billion in market value. (Amazon protests that it has no control over how investors value its competitors.) When a company has such power, Khan believes, it will almost inevitably wield that power far and wide, distorting not just the market itself, but the whole of American life. With sufficient power, companies can commission studies, rewrite regulations, bulldoze neighborhoods, and impoverish education and welfare systems by securing billions in sweetheart tax cuts. When a company comes to monopolize a market—when it grows so big that it can threaten other industries just by entering them—it ceases to be merely a company. It becomes an institution so powerful that it can rule over people like a government.
Link to the rest at The Atlantic
PG suggests Ms. Kahn, as an “expert” in antitrust law, is remarkably ignorant about American publishers. Publishers are a classic example of a shared monopoly, offering identical royalty rates and nearly identical contract terms to authors and attacking competitors who don’t join the cartel.
Additionally, there is the inconvenient fact that most of the largest American publishers have already plead guilty to conspiring to fix book prices, a classic antitrust violation, in order to keep Amazon from lowering book prices for consumers. Publishers are, by their own admissions, violators of antitrust laws.
It is possible for an organization to violate antitrust laws by lowering prices to drive competitors out of business, then raising prices once it obtains the monopoly power to do so.
However, lowering prices by itself is a benefit to consumers, not a detriment, and speculation that, at some time in the future, Amazon is going to use monopoly power to raise prices is just that, speculation, without any facts to back it up.
“Predatory pricing” is a characteristic of this type of monopoly activity – cutting prices to drive competitors out of business, then raising prices to capture monopoly profits.
When Amazon starts taking advantage of its market position to force unconscionable price increases on consumers, PG will be happy to condemn the company, but amateur mind-readers who claim this is Amazon’s business plan are simply speculating for purposes that likely aren’t connected to the welfare of consumers at all.
Looking into a crystal ball and perceiving an evil Amazon that will be going into the price-gouging business is a bizarre practice that is often funded by Amazon’s competitors who find Amazon’s consistent price-cutting business strategy offensive because Amazon takes sales away from them or disturbs their way of doing business in their particular fiefdoms.
If we are to speculate, let us speculate about the state of the book business had Jeff Bezos started the company selling something other than books online and stayed out of the book business because he didn’t ever want to upset people like the author of the OP. For the purposes of our speculation, we’ll assume no Bezos clone stepped in to do what Bezos has done.
Would readers be purchasing more or fewer books today? Would the price of books be higher or lower today? (remember that Steve Jobs wanted publishers to fix the retail price of ebooks so there would be no price competition) Would authors be earning more or less than they do today? Would there be a wider or a narrower selection of books offered to readers today? Would more or fewer authors be publishing their own books than do that today?
For any Amazonians who happen to stumble across this post, PG suggests that it might be a good idea for Amazon to consider publicizing how much money they pay directly to individual indie authors each year through KDP and similar programs, bypassing the Big Publishing and small publishing middlemen and middlewomen.