is Amazon the reader's friend?

The monthly NPR series Intelligence Squared U.S. is the American version of a program that originated in England. It is a debate show in which two teams of two people each argue the issues of the day. Audience members vote on a proposition before and after the vote, and the winning team is the one that moves the needle most. The program is frequently quite illuminating and what makes it work so well, in my opinion, is the construction of the resolution to be debated. On Intelligence Squared U.S., old chestnuts like "Abortion should be legal" or "Capital punishment is morally justified" give way to more idiosyncratic statements such as "Flexing America's muscles in the Middle East will make things worse" or "Income inequality impairs the American Dream of upward mobility." Though sometimes imprecise ("flexing America's muscles"?), this imprecision frequently guides the debaters toward exactly the right issue, which is to say, the one at the heart of the unease that can lead well-informed, reasonable people to disagree about so strongly about a topic.

This is why I particularly enjoyed the current month's debate. The resolution under discussion is "Amazon is the reader's friend." Whether Amazon is a force for good largely depends on the perspective that one is taking. The company is clearly innovative, customer-oriented and (until recently) quite a lucrative investment. At the same time, its workers are not treated terribly well, publishers claim it is destroying the printed word, and it has yet to turn a profit. A debate on all of these topics at once would be cumbersome and unwieldy.

The viewpoint of the reader is the one that most people implicitly take when considering the merits of Amazon's "disruption" of the print media landscape. Other perspectives are equally important but the resolution captures the argument that people are mostly likely to have by stipulating that of the reader. Moreover, when limiting my interests to those of the reader, I must admit that I am quite conflicted about Amazon. I buy more books, at lower prices, though Amazon than I would be able to do if the company did not exist. I own a Kindle, which I love. I have boxed and moved my books far too often to have any romantic attachment to their particular incarnation as physical objects. I do not share the concerns of those who fault Amazon for hastening the demise of paper books, thought I do believe that the company is doing that. I also have reservations about the fact that it is Amazon, rather than me, who owns the books that I have paid for and downloaded. And I very much mourn the decline of bookstores as important and perhaps irreplaceable sites of community, expertise and discovery.

The program did not help with this indecision, but underlined my difficulties in reaching a firm position. The debaters who favored the resolution (Joe Konrath and Matthew Yglesias) pointed out that many of the points raised by their opponents (Scott Turow and Franklin Foer) were not objections to the current state of affairs, but to some projected dystopia that would result when Amazon takes over the world. In this unwelcome future, Amazon had squeezed publishers and booksellers to the point that only popular mass-market titles could see the light of day, authors had become free agents without access to the resources that publishers once provided (primarily advances and, by extension, time to research and write) and the online bookseller could raise prices to any level it desired.

The pro-Amazon team argued that such a state of affairs does not constitute a logical extension of the current one, and refused to consider whether it represented a future that we would want. As a listener, though, I got the impression that they also didn't think it would represent such a terrible fate. The team repeatedly invoked the logic of the market, claiming that Amazon had gotten so large and powerful because it gave people what they wanted. Presumably, then, if it were to become even larger and more powerful than it is now, the firm's greater size would work to the advantage of all those people who had voluntarily decided to conduct business with Amazon.

This philosophy is the same one that Thomas Frank decried in the 1990s as "market populism": the idea that markets allocate goods in a way that benefits the largest number of people. Like other apolgias for social Darwinism, market populism is often advanced by those who benefit from the distributions that the market offers. People who are so situated, one might assume, are more likely to believe that these benefits are more widely shared than they may actually be. As a result, they are often quite willing to generalize about the virtues of the market in a way that I am not.

I do think that the debate over Amazon often serves as a proxy for a larger conversation about the extent to which we are comfortable with market values. Those who believe that markets generally give the people what they want are perfectly happy to let an efficient corporation coordinate the distribution of as many goods as possible. By using the reader as the frame of reference, however, the resolution stacks the deck in favor of the market apologists. Literature is certainly essential to a meaningful life, and it serves as a repository of culture. But it is not necessary in the same sense as is food, housing or medical care. Thus in the Amazon case, any examples of market failure will appear less than catastrophic, and those who oppose market distributions will have difficulty appealing to our sense of injustice. The objections they can offer will likely come across as subjective or antidemocratic: that the market does not respect quality, history or tradition or that it is not equipped to cater to those whose tastes fall outside the mainstream.

Even the most salient criticism of market-based distribution systems--that the market systematically privileges the interests of those with more money--falls flat here, because Amazon clearly drives down the prices of books, thereby making reading material less expensive and more widely available. Of course, those low prices might also have the effect of making life very difficult for producers. An economic state in which one buyer controls too much of the market is known as monopsony. The charge of monopsony is most often leveled at Wal-Mart, but Paul Krugman recently applied that label to Amazon. To the extent that the charge is correct, Amazon would be helping the reader to obtain books at low prices but also potentially contributing to a long-run outcome in which fewer books exist overall. Amazon, it would seem, is clearly not the publisher's, worker's or bookseller's friend. But is it the reader's? Overall, I tend to think that the squeeze the company puts on producers is likely to harm publishers and authors, thereby limiting reading opportunities at the margin. But I still see it as a pretty tough call.