Because I do not want to start another of those famous blog wars that bring trolls in masses to my comments, I’m not going to mention the name of the blog or link it here.
I’m just going to say I have a policy of following links that point to my blog and get me more than half a dozen hits, and while doing that, a couple of days ago, I happened on a rather strident post shrieking that yes, Amazon is the big bad, that yes, it needs to be brought under the heel of the government, or it will take advantage of everyone and everything and that yes, corporations are evilmeannasty.
Oh, and I’m a poopy-head for saying otherwise.
I have a short story due today (for the Baen Christmas collection) and besides I’m tired of this, and I’m just going to point out some inescapable truths. I’m not going to go into the history of corporations, or the history of monopolies, mostly because frankly I don’t have time to pull up links. Suffice it to say that monopolies don’t happen without active or passive collaboration from government, otherwise it is in the nature of all human institutions to go sclerotic and be surpassed.
And that brings us to the important and inescapable verity: corporations are composed of people.
No, corporations didn’t get here from planet zorg. Their leaders are not creatures unlike us. They are exactly like us, with our virtues and our faults, and variable, of course. Which means to begin with that a corporation is only as good or as bad as those in control.
And before you tell me that the rich are not like us – b*llshit. That’s a Marxist fairytale. They’re exactly like us. They just have more stuff. And more freedom. And less freedom. And no, that’s not a paradox. In the time we made more money more effort was required to administer it. At the same time, weekends away were easier and we were free to take them whenever. (We didn’t take them enough, because we were busy administering the money. It’s a vicious cycle.) I grant you we’ve never made even a measly million let alone several a year. But from our limited experience, we were still us. Our priorities just shifted. Our time became more precious than our money.
My experience is enough to see one end of the continuum where you are a poor man living in a hut, perfectly free to spend most of the day walking on the beach – and free to starve – and the other end where you’re the CEO of a multinational with every minute of the day scheduled, but you employ tons of people to do work you don’t want to spend time doing, and you can buy a luxury car for fun.
What does that have to do with corporations? Well, as people’s priorities shift, they sometimes do lose track of things. For instance, publishers these days think the point is to control who gets to read what. They lurch around, in a fog, refusing to get that ebooks are game changers and that self-publication is easy – and not a great addition to what we’re already doing which does include everything from paying for editing to publicity – and demanding that things go back to the way they were.
That is a good example of corporations that had established a joint monopoly of sorts. You had to go through one of them to get on shelves and to get any push. Because of sweetheart deals and other concentrating movements in distributors, the publishers CONTROLLED how much you sold. They picked winners and losers. There was no wiggle room.
Which is why they lost sight of who their real customer was. Which was why Amazon stepped in.
Do you see how that works? Yes, corporations grow sclerotic. Having seen up close and personal big computer corporations, I can tell you any company big enough behaves like a dictatorial regime. There is enough room for the people at the top to make decisions that will not affect them, which means there won’t be enough bad backlash. Which means, they keep doing more of the same. There is room for illusion, self-aggrandizement and grand gestures that mean nothing. Watching the death throes of MCI/Worldcom some years ago, it occurred to me some of the people in charge reminded me of nothing so much as the more decadent Roman Emperors and that it would have been much better if they JUST declared war on Neptune, instead, of say, getting rid of development teams and then demanding new software.
BUT when corporations reach that stage, they develop blind spots. And in the blind spots newer, faster, more targeted corporations appear.
Hence, Amazon exploited the fact no one was really doing ebooks as they should be done. And it has grown big. (Though not yet big enough to have issues.)
When Amazon grows too big – and it will – and too senile – and it will – others will exploit its blind spots.
Calling on government to regulate it now is counterproductive for two reasons.
First, just like the corporations are made up of people, so is government. Worse, once government gets its big long nose in, what you have is effectively the final phase of corporations, because government IS big, and by its structure, none of the individual bureaucrats is affected by the decisions made in regulating. In fact, the only thing that affects bureaucrats is the existence of regulations. It gives them a job. BUT they don’t have to jump through the hoops they make for peons. The DMV employees don’t stand in line for their licenses. They just get them done quickly and early.
The “government” is not some disinterested entity run by angels. It is made of flesh and blood people, many of whom are not insanely well paid, but because of that relish their power all the more. (And no, I’m not suggesting paying them more. They’re on a par with private employees.) That means that they will exert their power to the utmost, and don’t care who it hurts because well… why would they? It doesn’t affect them.
So, say we pass a law saying Amazon has to sell books at certain prices, so other companies can compete. Do you know who wins? First the bureaucrats who surf the net checking the prices. Second, the largest companies. Amazon, B & N, etc.
Why? Because they have the money to hire the lawyers to deal with the wrong-complaints and the multiplicity of confused bureaucrats who will think my Soul of Fire and Ruth Long’s Soul Fire are the same book and must be sold at the same price – to quote one of many many other sources of confusion.
Do you know who loses? You. Me. The multitude of indie publishers. The readers who would never have got to read Ric Locke’s excellent Temporary Duty.
There is no way of proving that opportunities were lost. If you regulate ebooks today, ten years from now I can tell you “yeah, we’re okay with these small publishers who are big enough to hire lawyers, but think how wonderful it would be if we didn’t need them. Think of all the great books people might have put up on their own.” And you’ll tell me “the indies would have made the very concept of ebooks repulsive. It was a tsunami of crap.”
I can’t prove otherwise. No one can. You can’t prove that it wouldn’t be “even worse” if there had been less regulations.
But we can look at the inevitable course of bureaucracy, stately and deadly like the black plague. And we can look at countries that prize regulation over innovation. Say, the USSR where there was a law for everything, and it was impossible to live without breaking the law. We could ask the Politburo– Or then again no, since the USSR is no more…
And we can admit that government officials are no more and no less human than corporation CEOs. And we can admit that the more divorced from consequences anyone’s decisions are, the more irrational/selfish or at best ineffective that person will be. And government officials manage to be more insulated from the regulations they pass than CEOs are from the consequences of firing all of R & D. And that’s saying a lot.
I might be a poopy-head (often) but these are inescapable facts of the human condition. The thing about inescapable facts is that you can’t escape them, even if you choose to believe all government employees are good people, selfless and full of the milk of human kindness. No, not even if you put your fingers in your ears and sing “We are the world” REALLY loudly. The facts of human nature will still get you in the end.
And meanwhile in your misguided effort to regulate you’ll have squandered innovation and wealth.
You’ll have squandered the future: mine, yours and the whole nation’s.