, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Yesterday I was in New York City, on one of my monthly trips to attend board meetings of the Henry George School of Social Science, an economic research and educational institute I serve as a Trustee. And beforehand, I was privileged to moderate a school seminar focusing on the possibly revolutionary economic as well as social and cultural implications of Amazon.com’s move into book publishing.

You can watch the eye-opening presentation by economic and technology consultant Robin Gaster here, but I’m posting this item for another reason: It’s an opportunity to spotlight and explore a little further two Big Think questions raised toward the event’s end.

The first concerns what Amazon’s overall success means for the rough balance that any soundly structured economic needs between consumption and production. As known by RealityChek readers, consumption’s over-growth during the previous decade deserves major blame for the terrifying financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession – whose longer term effects have included the weakest (though longest) economic recovery in American history. (See, e.g., here.)

Simply put, the purchases (in particular of homes) by too many Americans way outpaced their ability to finance this spending responsibly, artificially and unprecedentedly cheap credit eagerly offered by the country’s foreign creditors and the Federal Reserve filled the gap. But once major repayment concerns (inevitably) surfaced, the consumption boom was exposed as a mega-bubble that proceeded to collapse and plunge the entire world economy into the deepest abyss since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

As also known by RealityChek regulars, U.S. consumption nowadays isn’t much below the dangerous and ultimately disastrous levels it reached during the Bubble Decade. And one of the points made by Gaster yesterday (full disclosure: he’s a personal friend as well as a valued professional colleague) is that by using its matchless market power to squeeze its supplier companies in industry after industry to provide their goods (and services, in the case of logistics companies) at the lowest possible prices, Amazon has delivered almost miraculous benefits to consumers (not only record low prices, but amazing convenience). But this very success may be threatening the ability of the economy’s productive dimension to play its vital role in two ways.

First, it may drive producing businesses out of business by denying them the profitability needed to survive over any length of time. Second, Amazon’s success may encourage so many of its suppliers to stay afloat by cutting labor costs so drastically that it prevents the vast majority of consumers who are also workers from financing adequate levels of consumption with their incomes, not via unsustainable borrowing. Indeed, as Gaster noted, it may push many of these suppliers to adopt Amazon’s practice of turning as much of it own enormous workforce into gig employees – i.e., workers paid bare bones wages and denied both benefits and any meaningful job security. And that can only undermine their ability to finance consumption responsibly and sustainably. 

I tried to identify a possible silver lining: The pricing pressures exerted by Amazon could force many of its suppliers to compensate, and preserve and even expand their profits, by boosting productivity. Such efficiency improvements would be an undeniable plus for the entire economy, and historically, anyway, they’ve helped workers, too, by creating entirely new industries and related new opportunities (along, eventually, with higher wages). Gaster was somewhat skeptical, and I can’t say I blame him. History never repeats itself exactly.

But to navigate the future successfully, Americans will need to know what’s emerging in the present. And when it comes to the economic impact of a trail-blazing, disruption-spreading corporate behemoth like Amazon, I can think of only one better place to start than Gaster’s presentation yesterday –  his upcoming book on the subject. I’ll be sure to plug it here on RealityChek as soon as it’s out.