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

Made in America in a Global Age

You might not have noticed, what with all the news about Russia and health care, but this is “Made in America Week.” The week was so proclaimed by President Donald Trump to draw public attention to his plans to increase employment in the American manufacturing sector, and he kicked it off on Monday with a White House display of products from all 50 states and a nostalgic and dire speech warning that they’re all threatened by competition from those darned foreigners.
“Buy American” is always a crowd-pleasing slogan, and we can well understand why Trump would prefer to talk about something other than Russia and health care, and there were no doubt some good points somewhere in the typically hard-to-parse speech, but it was a nonetheless a risky public relations move. Pretty much everyone who covered the event mentioned Trump’s long history of building his properties with foreign steel and foreign labor and stocking his luxury hotels with foreign-made goods and having almost all of his Trump-branded products made in low-wage foreign countries, and that his daughter’s clothing and jewelry lines are entirely made far offshore, with the mentions ranging from begrudging on the right to downright gleeful on the left.
Everyone who voted for Trump knew all that when they voted for him, though, and either begrudgingly or gleefully accepted his explanation that he was just playing by the rigged rules the globalist establishment had imposed on the country. Many of those voters believed Trump’s constant promises he would re-write those rules to the benefit of the American workers he had previously declined to hire, and that he could do so without running afoul of either the Constitution or the far more iron-clad laws of economics, but keeping them happy until the next election cycle will probably prove tricky. Re-writing the rules of a multi-trillion dollar American economy is always tricky, and predicting its effects on a even more-multi-trillion dollar global economy is trickier yet.
Over the past three decades the manufacturing sector of the economy has dwindled to less than 8 percent of the American workforce, and that’s largely due to companies moving factories out of the country, but American manufacturing output has doubled over the same time period, which is entirely attributable to a technological revolution in productivity. When our parents were born the agricultural sector employed about half of the American workforce, now it’s less than 3 percent, yet Americans are fatter than ever, and the days of slopping hogs and plowing behind mules are no more appealing to the average American than any assembly line job of the ’50s. All the other technological revolutions wrought by the largely laissez-faire rules the globalist establishment has imposed have also delivered telephones that answer your trivia questions and Uber drivers who deliver you safely home from a drunken evening and drugs that keep you libidinous well into senility, along with the cheap t-shirts and countless other life-enhancing products available for everyday low prices at Wal-Mart, but life is also increasingly tough for the kinds of people who are willing and able to do an honest days work in a factory but can’t come up with those ideas.
Mitigating the harm done over the past three decades without impeding the progress that has been made is tricky indeed.
There truly are a lot of ridiculous workplace regulations in America that make foreign workforces appealing to American companies, and we begrudgingly credit Trump with a thus-far effective effort to undo many of them, but he’s going to have to go a lot further than that to make the American workforce economically competitive with the sweatshops that the Ivanka Trumps and Triangle Shirt Factories of corporate America are currently flocking to. Once Trump reaches that degree of de-regulation he’ll have reached the point of diminishing political returns, even with his staunchest supporters on the factory floor.
Trump would have to go even further to offset the economic benefits of all the robots and computer kiosks all the other newfangled efficiencies of the modern age, and if he did he’d threaten the highly-taxed livelihoods of all the people who are able to come up with such bright ideas, as well as the people they still have to man the reception desk and clean up the offices and ensure they’re in compliance with all those federal regulations. Those highly-taxed people with the bright ideas could easily relocate to more welcoming economies with lower tax rates and similarly fine restaurants, but it would be hard to explain to the rest of the workforce how that made America great again.
Still, listening to Trump’s speech we can’t help sharing some of his nostalgia. “Remember in the old days?,” the president said, “We used to have made in America, made in the USA.” He touted such iconic American products as Tennessee’s Gibson electronic guitars, Texas’ Stetson hats, and Oklahoma’s Ditch Witch excavators, and although he touted some baseball bat from Louisiana rather than the classic Louisville Slugger out of Kentucky he was admirably all-American in his choice of props. He also touted the Sikorsky Helicopters from Connecticut, boasting to his working class fans that “I own three of ’em,” and we thought he looked rather ridiculous pretending to be a fireman in a Wisconsin-built firetruck or a cowboy in a Stetson hat, which his more snarky critics had lots of fun with, but all in all “Buy American” was nonetheless a pretty crowd-pleasing slogan.
The conversation about what to do about it will quickly become very complicated, though, so the talk will probably soon get back to Russia and health care and all the rest of the stuff Trump would rather not talk about.

— Bud Norman

Our Humble Marketing Advice for Hillary Clinton

The great Bob Newhart used to perform a comedy routine titled “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue,” which imagined a telephone conversation just before the Gettysburg Address between a slick ad man and the rather dim fellow who had been cast to portray the wholly manufactured and thoroughly market-tested public image of the rail-splitting Great Emancipator. It’s a brilliant bit, the sort of shrewdly observed satire that comedians no longer seem up to, but for sheer laughs about Madison Avenue-style politics even the eerily prescient Newhart would be hard-pressed to beat a recent Washington Post report headlined “The making of Hillary 5.0: Marketing wizards help re-imagine Clinton brand.”
Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign has “recruited consumer marketing specialists on to her team of trusted political advisers,” according to the report, and “are sketching ways to refresh the well-established brand for tomorrow’s marketplace.” One of the wizards is taking a leave of absence from her job as a marketing executive for Coca-Cola, and another has previously produced commercials for such corporate giants as Southwest Airlines and Wal-Mart. The pair are busy at work on an “H” logo, with the article suggesting it might become as iconic as Coca-Cola’s contour bottles or the McDonald’s golden arches or that three-pointed Mercedes-Benz hood ornament that all the rappers used to wear as jewelry back in the ’90, but they’re also involved in developing a broader campaign message that will reportedly stress “economic fairness.” The authors acknowledge that “authenticity can be a powerful trait,” and note rather ruefully that “despite some raw displays of emotion” in her past failed presidential campaign Clinton “often came across as overly programmed,” but they seem hopeful that the new marketing wizards will solve that problem. They note that the Coca-Cola has a reputation for selling aged brands to youthful consumers, and we’d point out that Wal-Mart has acquired such a reputation for working class authenticity that upper-class liberals such as Clinton won’t allow one in their neighborhoods, so the pair might well be able to work similar magic for their candidate.
It probably isn’t helpful, however, for the Washington Post to make like Toto and draw back the curtain on the wizards as they pull the levers of a smoke-spewing candidate. Democratic primary voters are prone to thinking of “economic fairness” in terms of sticking it to the hated corporations, with manufacturers of sugary drinks and carbon-emitting airlines and minimum-wage-paying Wal-Mart right up there with the Koch Brothers and Monsanto in the liberal hierarchy of villainy, and it might blunt the necessary anti-capitalist message if the audience knew that it was produced by corporate ad agencies on behalf of a board member of numerous corporations. The Southwest Airlines and Wal-Mart guy even came up with the “Don’t Mess With Texas” anti-littering slogan that since become a rallying cry of Lone Star State conservatism. A Liz Warren insurgency campaign could easily lure the guys who did the campaigns for Ben & Jerry’s and other hippie businesses, or even the ones who came up with those exceedingly multi-cultural and vaguely homosexual Benniton ads, and make hay of the competition’s corporate connections.
Being untainted by any history of corporate marketing, and eager to avail ourselves of an already formidable campaign chest, we are willing to offer on speculation a few suggestions of our own for the “re-branding” of Clinton.
We would urge that the “new” Clinton be black. Race always trumps sex in the Democrats’ hierarchy of victimology, as Clinton found out to her dismay last time around, and a black Clinton should be able to counter all challenges. Racial transformations are possible, as proved by James Whitmore in “Black Like Me” and Godfrey Cambridge in “Watermelon Man” and Michael Jackson in what was more or less real life, and with help from the most skilled plastic surgeons and Hollywood’s finest make-up artists we think we can get Clinton looking something like Pamela Greer back in the “Cleopatra Jones” days. She’d have to work on that “ain’t no ways tired” minstrel show accent she does, but with help from an ebonics coach and some practice at wagging her hips while waving a finger snap she should do fine.
A black lesbian Clinton might be needed to cover all the bases, along with enough American Indian ancestry to match whatever Liz Warren is claiming, but there’s no telling if the fashion for lesbianism will still be strong come election time. A black and bisexual Clinton seems a surer bet, but that new governor that Oregon installed after the other one was kicked out because of his much-younger fiancee’s phony-baloney “green energy” scams has already staked out that historic “first,” and there’s obviously no way for a Democrat to out-liberal Oregon. In any case, some sort of sexually transgressive tattoo will be required.
The “economic fairness” schtick sounds promising, since only a handful of us doctrinaire libertarians and our puppet masters the Koch Brothers are for economic un-fairness, but it’s always best to not get too specific about such things, since somebody’s ox will inevitably be gored and none of it’s likely to achieve that elusive 3 percent annual growth in the gross domestic product, so we recommend a catchy slogan instead of any policy positions. “Hope and Change” is probably too ’00s, Huey Long’s old “Every Man a King” is too gender-specific, William Jennings Bryan’s “I will not be crucified on a cross of gold” doesn’t make much sense even if you are bold enough to revive the free silver issue, and “You have nothing to lose but your chains” is a bit explicitly Marxist, so we suggest something along the more original lines of “Don’t mess with Hillary.”
Of course, the biography will take some tweaking as well. The “old” Clinton was undistinguished as a lawyer and once chortled about the child-rapist she aided despite knowledge of his guilt, was most famous as a First Lady for pretending that her philandering husband was being framed by a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” her brief tenure in the Senate produced nothing of note, and her tenure as Secretary of State was one deadly blunder after another, so the “new” Clinton will need some accomplishments that the press will be willing to report. Given the willingness of the press, these deeds can be as fanciful as the claims made for Coca-Cola and Southwest Airlines. Our tale would begin with Clinton being born in a little log cabin that she built with her own two hands, then her years at sea with a kindly old Portuguese sailor, followed a storybook marriage written by someone other Jacqueline Susann, more talk about her being “dead broke” from all the lawsuits stemming from problems that we really don’t want to get into, and then her sudden epiphany during a strangely erotic Beyonce concert at the White House that she is and always has been a black woman. Along the way there will be world peace and economic revival achieved and vast right-wing conspiracies quashed, and the focus groups love all that stuff.
Authenticity is what counts most in politics, however, and once we teach Clinton how to fake that we’re sure she’ll be a sure-fire winner in the market place. With our well-remunerated help she could be even bigger than New Coke.

— Bud Norman