Why We Need to Break Up Amazon… And How to Do It
"Before we speak ill of Amazon, let us kneel down before it." says Franklin Foer at The New Republic. This creature, he goes on to argue, set the goal of building a bookstore as dramatic in scope as the Library of Alexandria; such a goal seems 'puny' compared to what Amazon today actually is, a technological and logistical marvel that can deliver books to your phone in the time it takes to yawn. There's a bit of a rebellion against this behemoth among the chattering classes, with George Packer of the New Yorker in February of this year warning that the company is destroying our ability to write books, enclosing our cultural commons into its own private fiefdom.
I decided to read Amazon's 10k, the company's 2014 annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, to see what I could understand from how that company describes itself. What I found is as Foer commands: bow down to this marvel. "We seek to be Earth's most customer-centric company," it says, under the general description of its business. "In each of our two geographic segments, we serve our primary customer sets, consisting of consumers, sellers, enterprises, and content creators. In addition, we provide services, such as advertising services and co-branded credit card agreements." That's it. That's the company's business. No mention of books, which is what the company first started selling. Or DVDs, electronics, or even shopping. They aren't a bookstore, or a even a store at all. Because Jeff Bezos isn't building a store. He is building a global spanning trading empire.
And who does Amazon compete with? Telecommunications, banking, retail, web infrastructure, media, advertising, publishing, computing services, consumer electronics… It might be easier to list which markets Amazon is not trying to take over. According to Amazon, it competes with "physical-world retailers, publishers, vendors, distributors, manufacturers, and producers of our products, other online e-commerce and mobile e-commerce sites, including sites that sell or distribute digital content, media companies, web portals, comparison shopping websites, and web search engines, either directly or in collaboration with other retailers, companies that provide e-commerce services, including website development, fulfillment, customer service, and payment processing, companies that provide information storage or computing services or products, including infrastructure and other web services, companies that design, manufacture, market, or sell consumer electronics, telecommunication, and electronic devices." Well it doesn't drill oil. Yet.
In addition, while net income is low, and while it is not even seeking to generate profits at this point, Amazon is still a very profitable enterprise. But this is hidden because Bezos, according to this 10K, is focused on free cash flow, and that isn't counted as earnings. So you can technically say 'Amazon doesn't make money,' but there's a reason it has a $100B+ market capitalization. Bezos also seeks to increase the value of the company itself through aggressive expansion. Every year, Amazon's net assets increase, because it is building more warehouses, software, data centers, and so on and so forth. Its cash hoard went up by $3 billion last year because it generates a lot of cash (roughly two to two and a half billion dollars a year). The best part of focusing on free cash flow is that Amazon doesn't have to pay income taxes on it.
One particular nugget in this investment report shows just how powerful Bezos really is. This report says, "On average, our high inventory velocity means we generally collect from consumers before our payments to suppliers come due."
Amazon is so powerful that it collects money on the stuff you buy before it has to pay its suppliers for the stuff. In its retail business, it requires negative working capital. To put it another way, if you are a supplier to Amazon, you not only sell the company goods at cut-rate prices, but you are also effectively required to make Amazon a 0% loan that turns over as long as you have a relationship with the company. Amazon is a cannibal, running itself on the working capital of other, small companies.
To take just one more example, Amazon offers great shipping prices. You might think this is due to its efficiency, and its ability to invest in robotic warehousing facilities. That's probably part of it. But Amazon also says that "we seek to mitigate costs of shipping over time in part through…negotiating better terms with our suppliers." Its low prices are a result of its power over its suppliers, not just its logistical prowess.
It doesn't just cannibalize small producers. As with all empires, Bezos preys on everyone he can.
Workers? Yup. "Beginning in August 2013, a number of complaints were filed alleging, among other things, that Amazon.com, Inc. and several of its subsidiaries failed to compensate hourly workers for time spent waiting in security lines and otherwise violated federal and state wage and hour statutes and common law."
The U.S. government? Well it keeps $2.5 billion of cash in foreign jurisdictions, untaxed, and has taken advantage of a retroactive R&D tax credit.
Foreign governments? Yup. The French Tax Administration is investigating. "The notices propose additional French tax of approximately $250 million, including interest and penalties through the date of the assessment. We disagree with the proposed assessment and intend to contest it vigorously." The company may be investigated for tax violations by China, Germany, India, Japan, Luxembourg, and the United Kingdom.
Entrepreneurs? Yup. It has 13 patent infringement lawsuits, pending including one by a quasi-government entity in Australia. In a well-understood traditional monopoly tactic that would make John D. Rockefeller proud, the company dropped its prices on diapers to destroy Diapers.com, and then bought the company for a song.
Its own shareholders? Yup. Amazon awards a lot of stock to employees to avoid using cash payouts, so its equity base is constantly expanding. That isn't noticeable when the stock is going up, as it has been for years. But it's hidden risk that is to be paid on a future date.
The economy? Yup. It's quite clear that Amazon is a deflationary force, pushing down wages, prices, tax revenues, and new non-Amazon business activity. It has deflated prices in book publishing, and retailers across the board are terrified that Amazon is in the process of ripping their guts out. The company is having a ripple effect across the economy. To the extent that deflation is a serious problem, which it is, Amazon is a villain. And this isn't just 'technological process', it's straight up market power over workers, suppliers, and even governments.
The neighborhood and politics? Yup. Harvey Milk got his start in politics by opening up a camera store in the Castro neighborhood in San Francisco. From there he used his store as a base of political organizing, and became the first openly gay elected politician in American history. The lesson here for our politics is clear. Local retailers train political leaders, local retailers do things for the neighborhoods they are in that Amazon does not. If Amazon continues its growth, that era of democracy is over. Harvey Milk couldn't open up a small camera retailer today. No more neighborhood store for you.
The one group that is treated with exceptional grace is consumers. They get low prices and great service. But this relationship is increasingly feudal, with low prices and great service as the benefits I get for surrendering my liberties to Jeff Bezos. I may get excellent prices on my Kindle, but I am now a renter of those books. I can't lend them to my girlfriend any more, unless Amazon says I can. Amazon can take them away at any point. It knows every page I've read, everything I've highlighted, it knows what I might want to buy. It knows what I've watched on Amazon prime, where I've lived, what I buy on a regular basis, whether I'm price sensitive, an impulsive buyer, what I might be selling. Amazon knows, and at any point can exert power.
Ok, so now that the problem is fleshed out, what can we do about it? Fortunately, we have a long tradition of anti-monopoly law, though it hasn't been used in decades. So let's use those dusty old legal tools and break the company up into chunks small enough to control, and large enough to allow for the innovation that Amazon currently provides.
Here's a first cut at what we could do with Amazon. Let's take a look at the company's lines of business.
Cloud services — Amazon is a cloud computing provider to lots of entities, such as Netflix, nonprofits, and the CIA. It even used to host Wikileaks. This entity should be spun this off, there are clear conflicts of interest with the rest of Amazon's business. Amazon should not have the ability to peer directly into the commercial infrastructure of its competitors, or control the critical infrastructure of entities with which it competes directly, like Netflix. And it should not be able to cross-subsidize its cloud computing subsidiary with its retailing operation.
Publishing and Studios — Amazon owns a TV/movie studio, several publishing arms, IMDB, and Alexa internet monitoring. Spinning this off would be great, it would add an independent competitor to the movie/TV business, a publisher to the consolidated publishing industry, and these entities would have a different data-driven culture than the existing players. As part of this giant Amazon empire, they are subsumed into Bezos's larger and murky ambitions. As an independent media entity, it would be a welcome entrant to an entire set of markets.
Advertising and Payments — These are markets which need more competition. Amazon is entering these spaces because it is going to leverage its customer data and scale to force its way in to these areas. There is no reason to allow this classic predatory behavior. Advertising and payments need more independent players, so spinning these off would be reasonable. It would also set a nice precedent to use to go after entities who are monopolizing the advertising and payments space. It's not clear to me how to split customer data, but that data will degrade over time anyway.
Consumer Electronics (Kindle) — Amazon has built one successful product, the Kindle. This is a huge problem because it has a monopoly in the ebook market. I'm not sure if this should be spun-off into a separate entity, but it should be required to license its technology to anyone who wants it (like Xerox was in 1975, which led to low cost innovative photocopiers, and RCA was which led to low cost and better TVs). Anyone should be allowed to set up a Kindle store.
Online retail store— Amazon has 50% of the book market. That's way too much. It has pricing power over its suppliers, and is now determining what gets published and by whom. Since the company already divides itself up regionally based on warehousing, break up the company into regional players a la Standard Oil break-up. Each new company would get customer dataand warehouses in one regional area, and then they would be free to compete with each other (though not merge). Warehouse technology would be put into a shared pool and required to be open to anyone who wants to license it. The government should also require the Robinson-Patman law to be enforced again, a law which gives power to set prices back to producers.
Third-party marketplace — Amazon's marketplace should be spun-off into a separate company. Here the conflicts of interest are substantial, because right now Amazon can see which products from third party producers are popular and then just decide to stock them itself. In other words, having its third-party marketplace and its retail division combined gives Amazon an unfair information advantage over its third-party entities.
So that's one plan. It's a bold plan, for sure. And it requires a significant departure from the current thinking in our political order.
It's important to take these monopolies on in the context in which they were born. Amazon is not Standard Oil or AT&T, it was born out of a legal environment established in the 1970s in which fear of inflation was paramount, and consumer rights were a driver of our political conversation. So the company is deflationary in its model and prioritizes the interests of consumers to the ruthless exclusion of the larger democratic culture around it. This plan would take apart the underpinnings of Amazon's power, and force it to compete on an open playing field. It would set precedents for other antitrust suits in the payments, advertising, and retailing arena, and unleash enormous amounts of innovation both within the new Amazon subsidiaries themselves and with retailers and producers as they saw a much more open and freer ecosystem of commerce.
The problem with Amazon is not fundamentally one of economics. I mean, yes, it's destroying wealth, but this is a symptom of the real issue. Amazon is a cannibal. It eats other companies in ways large and small, it eats the time of its workers, and it eats our government through tax avoidance, all to create a cash generating machine. It sucks in investment in as much of the economy to serve its ends, much as Walmart did in the 1990s (a substantial amount of American productivity basically boiled down to Walmart getting more efficient). Amazon is a tyrant, it rules through terror, and left unencumbered, it will destroy swaths of the U.S. economy. Arguments for Amazon as pro-consumer essentially boil down to 'well its use of economic terror is efficient'. And the British East India Trading company sold really cheap tea in 1775. Our culture is about more than having a trading company run by a tyrant smoothly delivering goods to us for low prices. It is about our rights as Americans to not be oppressed, whether that oppression comes in the form of a government or in the form of a private monopolistic corporation.
The final point is about how Amazon is not operating in a market system, but is attempting to replace that market system with rule by one man. This is noted right in Amazon's 10k, and it's listed in the company's risk factors. "We depend on our senior management and other key personnel, particularly Jeffrey P. Bezos, our President, CEO, and Chairman," says the report, bloodlessly. Amazon, trading giant, is run, well rather, ruled by one enormously intelligent person. This man, Jeff Bezos, can pick and choose which products to sell, which systems to run, and how goods and services will be managed across the economy. He is, by all accounts, an extraordinarily bright business operator, and a monomaniacally focused control freak with enormous discipline and ability. Yet, however bright he might be, the problem boils down to what Foer quoted from Louis Brandeis, "If the Lord had intended things to be big, he would have made man bigger — in brains and character." Bezos simply is not capable, nor is one entity, capable of managing so much of our culture. It's too big.
Open markets serve as signaling mechanisms, transmitting information across the economy so firms and individuals can adjust themselves to surpluses and deficits of goods, material, people, and money. By internalizing this entire organism through raw power, Amazon is essentially trying to replace our open markets with a planned economy organized by one man. As good a planner as Jeff Bezos might be, Soviet-style bureaucratic structures do not in the long-run deliver anything but catastrophe. They can produce a burst of growth up front, as Amazon is doing now and as the U.S.S.R. did in the 1950s, but they fall apart as their internal dynamics reveal themselves unable to meet human needs. The anti-monopoly movement has always stood against the forces of concentration, for precisely this reason. Power is not only corrupting, it is self-destructive. Breaking Amazon's power, and returning to free enterprise, is the only path that will restore our property rights and our liberties.
This plan, or a plan that constrains or restructures Amazon in a real way, isn't impossible, it just requires a change in how imagine ourselves. We need leaders who believe that public power needs to be applied for public ends, and this includes the management of our corporate structures and important public forums like open markets. This isn't as radical as it may first seem, in fact this kind of thinking was the norm prior to 1978 or so. We've only forgotten. But we can remember. We can do something about this problem. Whether it was the British in 1776, the southern oligarchs in 1860, or banking predators in 1933, we have a history of standing up for our rights in the face of tyranny. And today that face may come in the guise of a smiling Jeff Bezos offering us low prices. But that face looks suspiciously like King George telling us to be good little colonists and drink our cheap tea.
(I'd like to thank Barry Lynn of the New America Foundation for helping me understand these ideas. Read his books, Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction and End of the Line: The Rise and Coming Fall of the Global Corporation. And yes, those are links to Amazon.)