One of the key values that fuels good work is personal autonomy.
This kind of freedom gives you a sense of control over your prospects (instead of the feeling that external forces determine your life and work); greater confidence in your capabilities; the ability to feel more at peace with yourself in the job that you're doing; the opportunity to pursue goals that are personally important to you while working; and ultimately, a higher payback in terms of self-esteem.
Good work always permits—when it doesn’t encourage—your personal autonomy. A job that doesn’t support this amount of psychological freedom is only worth doing when your basic survival depends on it. However once your basic needs are met, the aim is always to invest your skills, experience and savings in jobs that value your autonomy as much as you value it.
Unfortunately, this isn't always easy in our economy.
1. The American Economy Only Seems to Value Consumer Convenience and Low Prices
What the American Economy values is often at odds from what you value in terms of your work.
The way the Economy functions today often suggests that delivering consumers the goods and services they want at the lowest possible price is is most important consideration, if not the only one that matters. But it's not.
When a nation’s economic values are out of sync with what you value personally, what should you do? What is the right response when the autonomy you value from work is subservient to (or disregarded altogether) by a system that only seems to care about delivering its goods and services as cheaply as possible?
Maybe the system aims to eliminate your job altogether to serve this objective, automating what you used to do. Maybe it removes whole categories of jobs—like Amazon largely wiped out independent bookstores and Walmart eliminated mom-and-pop stores in small towns across America. You can’t gain the autonomy of good work when you no longer have jobs to do.
What if you have a job but it pays you so little that you’can't escape the demands of your basic needs (like food and shelter) to pursue greater work-based autonomy? What if you enjoy so few opportunities for innovation, problem solving and idea exchange on-the-job that you might as well be replaced by a robot or an algorithm?
How do you even begin to think about pursuing good work when “keeping prices low” seems to be the only economic value that matters?
Amazon, in particular, illustrates the conflict between low prices and other economic values that include: a fair playing field for its retail competitors, and the availability of low skill/entry-level jobs for workers in bricks-and-mortar retail that have traditionally provided a path to more autonomous work but are increasingly being driven out of business by our relentless pursuit of the lowest price.
But before getting to Amazon’s story, there are many other instances today where a commitment to low prices (or no price) is clashing with other economic values that are important to communities and individuals. As with Amazon, the challenge is how we should weigh and balance these competing values. For example:
- teachers just concluded a state-wide strike in West Virginia and are continuing to strike in Oklahoma for higher teacher pay and support for underfunded public schools. In these states and others, the value of educating your children is in conflict with the importance of no more taxes.
- Facebook and similar platforms remain “free” by selling your data to advertisers. The value of these cost-free social networks is at odds with your costs in terms of personal privacy and political manipulation.
- Walmart prides itself on offering “everyday low prices” for its merchandise, but while doing so it has not only put mom-and-pop stores across America out of business; for years, it also refused to pay many of its workers enough to live on in the communities that it served. In a familiar pattern, the value of paying “a living wage” was in conflict with consumer demands for lower prices. (I posted previously about why competing personal and community values should also be accommodated, even if Walmart's prices had to be raised to accommodate them); and finally
- Another recent story here was about the loss of American manufacturing jobs and some of the moral considerations that argue against exporting them to places where the work can be done more cheaply.
When your personal values about work or what your community values in terms of jobs or local business vitality are at odds with the importance of low consumer prices, how do you weigh and balance the conflicting economic values? In controversies that are boiling to the surface across America, there is an urgent need to find thoughtful ways to consider what’s at stake and how to start making some difficult trade-offs.
2. Should More Competition or Increasing Regulation Be in Store for Amazon?
Who doesn’t like buying, say, a book on Amazon, paying less for it than you’d pay in any local store, while having it delivered to your doorstep? But Amazon’s convenience and low prices aren’t the end of the story.
As an author who also happens to be a lawyer, I’ve been wondering for years why America’s antitrust laws aren’t playing a more active role in reducing the harmful effects of Amazon’s new marketplace not only on the book publishing industry that I find myself in today, but also on all of the other businesses that are struggling to compete with it.
Our laws—including America’s antitrust laws—are conservative in their guardianship of public preferences, but also liberal in their instigation of balance and compromise when the public’s mind about those preferences comes into flux. I think the later is where we are today with Amazon. As a general matter, our antitrust laws are used to maintain a healthy level of competition among businesses while preventing any single business from accumulating so much market power that it can profit from its own predatory practices. How can these laws be used to help us balance the pre-eminent preference for low prices with other economic values, like reasonably fair playing fields for competing businesses and personal autonomy for workers?
I’m writing about this quandary for two reasons this week. For the first time since the rise of Amazon (and Google and Facebook) there is a debate about the negative effects of their market power and what’s to be done about it. But I also came upon a law review article this week that sharply questioned whether Amazon’s extraordinary success at delivering low prices to consumers should continue to protect it from broader kinds of scrutiny. Given the policies behind our antitrust laws, the author asks whether other economic values” should be considered too when it comes to Amazon, and then goes on to suggest how we might begin to accommodate them.
In her articlein the Yale Law Journal, Lina M. Kahn discusses what she calls “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox.” While I’ll be summarizing her arguments below, you should follow the link to her piece, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with how law journals contribute to the cultural conversation when one widely-shared value is at odds with other widely-shared values.
Kahn begins with the following facts:
- over the past decade, Amazon has experienced staggering growth while generating meager profits. Unlike previous retailers that attempted to maximize their annual returns, Amazon reported losses in two of the last five years, and its highest yearly net income was still less than 1% of its net sales;
- Amazon has used its size and negotiating power to sell products below cost, to subsidize their home delivery, and to expand aggressively into additional retail markets;
- it has established an e-commerce marketplace and essential infrastructure that Amazon along with many of the businesses it competes with also depend upon; and
- due to changes in legal thinking and practice during the 1970s and 1980s, antitrust regulators today look only to whether consumers are paying low prices, and not to whether a company’s competitors can compete effectively or to the health of the particular market as a whole. In other words, until now Amazon has escaped any governmental supervision under the antitrust laws.
Kahn’s first argument is that an on-line e-commerce platform like Amazon is unlike any business that the American economy has seen before. As a result, its business model may need to be assessed differently—including under anti-competition standards that pre-date the 1970s.
She reviews how the nimbleness of on-line platforms like Amazons over bricks-and-mortar retailers create incentives to pursue growth over profits. It’s a strategy that systematically weakens competitors, when it doesn’t eliminate them altogether. Additional competitive harm comes from Amazon’s control over massive amounts of data, not only from consumers but also from retail competitors that increasingly need to sell their own products on Amazon’s platform if they hope to remain profitable.
Kahn proposes two different ways to use the antitrust laws to address these unfair advantages. One involves the government’s becoming more aggressive at safeguarding competition. For example, because Amazon can use data it acquires from its retail competitors when they sell one product to undercut them when they sell a different product—a so-called cross-leveraging of data—an antitrust case could be brought by the antitrust division of the Justice Department to, in Kahn’s words:
“prohibit the company from running both a dominant retail platform and a dominant platform for third-party sellers. These two businesses would have to be separated into different entities, in part to prevent Amazon from using insights from its role as a third-party host to benefit its [own] retail business, as it reportedly does now.”
In other words, the anticompetitive market that Amazon has created for itself would be restructured into a more competitive one by a government-initiated legal action.
A second approach would be to treat Amazon’s marketplace as inherently monopolistic, much like a gas or electrici utility. Instead of restructuring this kind of business, the government accepts the benefits it provides while attempting to regulate the unfair practices that a competitive market would otherwise hold in check. Here, for example, Amazon might be prohibited from using its deep pockets to harm other retailers “in a predatory manner” by selling the same product below its actual cost.
What’s important in Kahn’s review of the problem and her proposed solutions is less about their specifics and more about her attempt to balance one value (low consumer prices) with other values (such as a robust marketplace where other retailers can compete effectively).
In a digital age, where other powerful companies also wield unprecedented market power--like Google in the market for information, or Facebook in shaping public opinion and the news that influences it--we need to get more comfortable weighing the relative importance of “low cost or no cost” with other important community and personal values as well as deciding what trade-offs to make when a better balance is struck.
3. Amazon and Community or Individual Values
Low prices, the convenience of home delivery, and one stop shopping for goods as varied as books, technology, specialty food items and exercise clothes are all ways that I’ve benefited from Amazon. If I paid for an annual Prime membership, I’d likely be watching its video offerings as well. But Amazon has also had a negative impact on other personal and community priorities that are important to me.
As an author, I keep track of new books and often want to check them out. Amazon’s “Look Inside” at limited excerpts is a poor way to experience a new book (as you may have discovered as well), but there are increasingly few alternatives. Most new books are unavailable at libraries, and bookstores have become scarce. Barnes & Noble’s presence is sharply reduced in Philadelphia and other book retailers like Borders, Waldenbooks, and B.Dalton have gone out of business, in large part due to Amazon's cut-throat pricing. As a result, I’m often forced to buy a book from Amazon if I want to take a good look at it. My livelihood is more difficult without the bookstores that its low price-low profit business model effectively eliminated.
Philadelphia is an assemblage of formerly independent towns, each with its own “Main Street” of storefronts. Because Amazon (and big box retailers like Walmart) sell almost everything at low prices, what kind of business can afford to fill these storefronts with local commerce. Many neighborhoods here and across the country have lost their centers of commercial gravity and the attendant loss of community. The ability to experience my own community “at work” continues to be diminished by Amazon’s and similar business models. I'm convinced that more of these local businesses would open and be able to stay open if Amazon were prohibited from engaging in predatory pricing practices and its retail competitors had a fair opportunity to succeed.
Finally, the way that Amazon has operated has eliminated retail jobs that once gave thousands if not millions of people opportunities to move up the economic ladder through their work. Are “low prices” more important than entry level or lower skill jobs on Main Streets across America or at national retailers that Amazon is driving out of business, like K-Mart, J. C. Penney and Sears? The decimation of bricks-and-mortar retail means that more economically vulnerable workers have greater difficulty moving from jobs that pay for necessities and on to work that can build their personal autonomy.
Philadelphia has a larger percentage of poor people than any other major city in America. Are low prices all we should be thinking about when so many of our neighbors are stuck in poverty? Aren't other economic values important too, including how many entry-level jobs are available?
Because price isn't all that's important, I'm hopeful that we’ll learn how to have s conversation that weighs and balances the other economic values we've been neglecting. It should be about far more than "low cost" with Amazon and Walmart, or what we think we're getting "for free" from Google and Facebook.
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Here’s to finding more autonomy in your work this week! See you next Sunday.
Your questions, comments and hellos are welcome. Just hit reply.