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Swimming Against the Mighty Amazon

The anti-capitalists on the left have always railed against the biggest retail sales giant of the moment. Back in the prairie populist days they warned that the Sears & Roebuck catalogue would destroy all local commerce, and by the early 20th Century it was the A&P grocery store chain that threatened to rule us all with a monopolistic fist. Until recently the scary corporate villain was the Wal-Mart discount store chain, but they’ve lately been usurped in both sales totals and political notoriety by the on-line retail giant called Amazon.
This time around, though, it’s putatively Republican and unabashedly capitalist President Donald Trump who’s leading the boos and hisses. Trump has frequently criticized Amazon, and he did so again on Thursday with yet another “tweet.”
“I have stated my concerns with Amazon long before the Election,” Trump wrote. “Unlike others, they pay little or no taxes to state or local governments, use our Postal System as their Delivery Boy (causing tremendous cost to the U.S.), and are putting many thousands of retailers out of business!”
Putting aside our usual complaints with the usual arbitrary capitalizations and use of parenthesis and that always annoying exclamation point, pretty much every word of it is embarrassing economic illiteracy and pure balderdash. Even worse, we’d say than what the left has always peddled.
In actual fact, rather than alternative fact, Amazon does indeed collect and then pass along sales taxes on items sent to the 45 states and many localities that have decided to require it by law. The other five states apparently have their own reasons for not requiring it, probably either purely ideological or brazenly corrupt, but we figure that’s their business, and Trump is in no moral position to criticize Amazon for not paying a penny more in taxes than is most strictly required.
Amazon does indeed use America’s postal system as one of its “Delivery Boys,” but so do all the rest of us who have sent a letter or utility bill payment or greeting card or Christmas package through the postal system. This is what the postal system does, after all, and it will take one hell of a “tweet” to explain how having the country’s biggest retailer as a client is bad for business. We can well believe that Amazon has negotiated a favorable deal with its delivery boy’s biggest client, but every analysis we’ve read suggests the delivery boy should be glad for the business in these days of on-line communications, and once again Trump is in no moral position to criticize their artful dealings.
There’s no doubt that Amazon will drive at least a few thousand Main Street brick-and-mortar retailers out of business, just as Sears & Roebuck and the A&P and Wal-Mart undoubtedly did, but the Republicans and the right in general used to chalk that up to the “creative destruction” of capitalism. The much-railed-against railroads delivered delivered Sears & Roebuck catalog’s low-priced items to people across the rural areas, including all the guitars used on all the great country and blues recordings of the time, and it worked out pretty well. The A&P chain did well because it used its market share to negotiate good deals with the wholesalers and then passed the discount along to its consumers, and more recently Wal-Mart has found itself in a position to negotiate profitable deals the likes of China and pass along the everyday savings to their grateful and often obese customers.
In every case, it all proved relatively momentary and nobody wound up ruling the world. These days nobody’s afraid of the big, bad Sears & Roebuck catalogue, the last of the far-flung rural A&P grocery stores went under three years ago, and Amazon has now passed Wal-Mart both in sales and as the leading target of the traditional left and the newfangled right.
Amazon is already using drones as an occasional delivery boy, which can’t be good for the postal system’s negotiating position, and there’s no telling what they’ll come up with next. Whatever Buck Rogers gizmo they come up with, though, we’re sure that some kid in some garage somewhere on the fruited plains is on the verge of something that will overtake Amazon in sales and villainy and low, low prices to the consumer. Perhaps it’ll be one of those “Star Trek” gizmos that immediately transmits whatever your desire and whatever your credit card will allow.
It’s not that we’ll regard it as a grand and glorious day. We’re the old-fashioned sort of Main Street Republicans who still nostalgically long for that ol’ corner store — if you’ve got a few moments to spare, our friend Jonathan Richman put it especially well — and we still resent almost everything from the Sears & Roebuck catalogue to the A&P to Wal-Mart to that newfangled Amazon thingamajig. There’s something tactile and human about brick-and-mortar and face-to-face commercial interactions, and we’d hate to see it go, but we don’t worry that any kid in any garage will soon match that.
Still, we’ll be rooting for Amazon over Trump in their momentary battle for rule over the world. Amazon has ever done us any wrong, as we’ve had nothing to do with them except for their publication of our e-novel “This Town Is Nowhere,” and at this point we have more complaints with Trump. We can’t help suspecting that part of Trump’s crusade against Amazon is because it’s owner, Jeff Bezos, is provably far richer than Trump claims to be, because Trump really is that petty. Bezos is also the owner of The Washington Post, a nationaly-read newspaper that daily publishes news stories Trump would rather not hear, and that seems to have something more to do with this feud.
We don’t care much about Sears & Roebuck or the late A&P or Wal-Mart or the currently almighty Amazon, or whatever comes next, as we do little business with any of them, but the freedom of the press is dear to our heart. So is the constitutional prohibition of bills of attainder, which has long prevented the government from acting against any specific person or specific group of persons, and we don’t worry that Trump will wind up ruling the world.

— Bud Norman

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OKC is Doing OK

A holiday gathering of our extended family drew us down to the greater Oklahoma City area on Tuesday, and we are pleased to report the town is booming. Perhaps it’s just the Christmas season that’s put us in such a generous mood, but we’ll acknowledge that taxes and government have apparently had something to do with it.
Oklahoma City is a politically and culturally and religiously conservative town even by prairie standards, which largely explains its recent prosperity, and of course the most recent oil boom also has a lot to do with it, but even our most rock-ribbed Republican kinfolk will concede that a series city government-run and taxpayer-financed Metropolitan Area Projects have also played a part. The “MAPs,” as everyone calls them, renovated the Civic Center Music Hall, a convention center and the state fairgrounds, built a new main library and a canal that helped turn an abandoned warehouse district into the thriving drinking-and-dining area called Brick Town. Such improvements have prompted private investment, which has been helpfully coordinated with the very pro-business City Hall. The National Basketball Association’s Thunder is now the city’s first major league professional sports team, if you don’t count the University of Oklahoma Sooners football squad, and the Triple-A Oklahoma City Dodgers baseball team is playing in a gorgeous new stadium. There’s a privately donated collection of impressionist art that was privately donated, big time shows are now routinely scheduled at various venues in the revived downtown area, and just about any chain restaurant you might want to eat has at least one location.
Such quality-of-life improvements has made it easier fur the city to lure all sorts of big and small business, which has helped diversify a local economy that was previously prone to the boom-and-bust cycles of the oil business, and no one seems to mind the slightly socialistic aspects of the MAPs. Conservative concerns have been allayed by a strict adherence to a pay-as-you-go policy, with the entire city chipping in through slight increases in sales taxes, and it was done at the local level and with the blessings of the voting public. The first $350 MAP payed for all those much-needed renovations, and the second paid for $700 million is in more desperately needed renovations to the local public schools, and the third will spend $777 million on trails, parks and sidewalks, which for some reason have long been rare in this city. That third one passed with only 54 percent of the vote, and there seems to be a sense that the next one will be a tough sale, but for now most Oklahoma Citians seem pleased with the results if not all of the methods. The city is adding jobs and new residents at a fast clip, and the old-timers like their city even better.
We would like it better, too, and we’ve had a soft spot for the city for all the years we’ve been coming here for the extended family gatherings. Mainly we like the extended family, who are mostly a politically and culturally and religiously conservative bunch, but we do like the city they’ve made.

— Bud Norman