Slate's defense of Amazon forgets just one thing: Workers

New hot take celebrating the behemoth is a great example of how elites justify inequality and oppression

Published October 16, 2014 6:27PM (EDT)

  (AP/Scott Sady)
(AP/Scott Sady)

Despite the fact that annual protests against Walmart, the more traditional corporate bogeyman of the present era, are about to kick-off in earnest, the news as of late has been dominated by talk of Amazon, the overlord of the U.S. economy's future. In part, this is because the company's proxy defense of wage theft is now in front of the Supreme Court. But considering the cloistered nature of American media, the biggest reason is probably the latest statement piece from the New Republic, an attack on Jeff Bezos's creation by editor Franklin Foer that claims the retail giant is a future monopoly that must be stopped.

Semantic nitpicking from New York Magazine and obtuse point-missing from Vox aside, Foer is probably right. Amazon's model does seem predicated on taking losses upfront in order to devour as much of a market as it can, and something tells me that its stockholders wouldn't be comfortable with this strategy if they didn't believe it was ultimately going to result in higher prices and bigger profits. Yet as Foer himself acknowledges, the argument is happening at a moment in American economic history in which monopolies have once again become the norm, and is thus a bit indulgent and abstract (or as I like to call it, boring).

Far more interesting, I'd argue, is this response to the debate from Reihan Salam, the neoconservative National Review pundit that Slate recently hired to write the kind of counterintuitive defenses of the powerful (a.k.a., the #slatepitch) that is their bread and butter. Salam, to his credit, sidesteps the monopoly question for the most part, choosing to focus instead on all the ways Amazon is making our lives better and improving the American economy. Salam, to his discredit, then goes on to argue that there are many ways Amazon is making our lives better and improving the American economy.

Yet in spite of taking on such an expansive topic — and in spite of being given in excess of 1,500 words to do it — Salam's paean to the wondrous, revitalizing effects of Amazon on these United States manages to entirely neglect one little detail: American workers. And if you're trying to understand why our media has, until about five minutes ago, been so blasé when it comes the death of the middle class, Salam's piece offers more than a hint.

Salam has worked to build a reputation as one of the leaders of the splinter group within the conservative movement interested in appealing to Americans who aren't wealthy, white, Christian and from the South. In fact, before Paul Ryan consiglieri Yuval Levin and fellow National Review pundit Ramesh Ponnuru managed to rebrand the rebrand (now they're called "reformicons") and place themselves at its center, Salam was arguably the conservative intellectual most interested in moving the GOP beyond Karl Rove's base. He is, in other words, supposed to be what liberals crave (sometimes seemingly more than any actual policy) — the reasonable conservative.

From the very start of his Amazon essay, Salam shows the extremely relative value of that praise. After some perfunctory throat clearing on how he's got no inside view into Jeff Bezos's mind (which is kind of immaterial, if this is supposed to be a conversation about the dynamics of modern corporate capitalism; but whatever) Salam lays down his marker, declaring Amazon is "a force for good" because it "points American capitalism in a better, healthier direction." But if that quite understandably sounds pretty good to you — after all, as one legendary businessman once said, nice things are nice — you might want to keep reading before you re-up your subscription to Amazon Prime.

The key thing, you see, is what Salam means when he says Amazon is helping American capitalism move in a "better, healthier direction." For let's say about 99 percent of the U.S. population, capitalism moving in a healthier direction would mean something like this: Providing rising wages, accessible housing, affordable education and comprehensive health care for all workers. But for Reihan Salam, on the other hand, moving in a healthier direction means "keep[ing] the Salam household stocked with paper towels, dish soap, rolling ball pens, map tacks, and lots and lots of cheap books" as well as encouraging what he calls "innovative entrepreneurship."

Now, before your eyes begin to glaze over and you start hearing the voice behind the GOP's last failed White House run (who Salam wants to see do it again in 2016, of course), stick with me for a bit longer, because there's a connection between Salam's belief in the heroic innovative entrepreneur and his absolute lack of interest in everyone else. Relying on PayPal billionaire Peter "America was better before women and blacks could vote" Thiel as a guide, Salam argues that Amazon is the one we've been waiting for because it believes above all else in disruption, which Salam assumes we all know inevitably makes life better (we don't; it doesn't). Without Amazon's innovation, Salam warns, "consumers would endure the same high prices and mediocre service, and shareholders in the various not-Amazons of the world would be sitting pretty."

Tip of the hat to Salam's attempt to spin carrying water for Jeff Bezos as standing up against entrenched power. It's a nice rhetorical move, especially if your audience is socially aware enough to know there's something gauche about reflexively venerating the 1 percent. But as Salam reveals with the second element of his argument, this through-the-looking-glass version of populism is fundamentally hollow. Because Amazon and Bezos shouldn't be celebrated simply for the way they make our nicknacks cheaper, Salam argues, but also for the way they inspire the Peter Thiels and Jeff Bezoses of the future to make everything else better, too. The argument, basically, is that if we come down hard on Amazon now, well, we risk nothing less than a mass exodus into Galt's Gulch.

"In sector after sector," Salam concludes, "large incumbent firms have found new ways to protect themselves from competition, whether through coziness with regulators [or] entrepreneurs who refuse to take on the toughest challenges." If you're someone who travels in the kind of social milieu in which everyone's got money, a home and health care — and in which you see a lot of the best minds of your generation destroyed by Valleywag, bored, gluten-free, and vapidly self-indulgent — that probably strikes you as a legitimate problem. For the vast majority of Americans, who don't come from the Ivy League and don't keep abreast of of the New Republic, those other things are considerably more important.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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