Monopsony Is Not O.K

By Krugman, Paul | International New York Times, October 21, 2014 | Go to article overview

Monopsony Is Not O.K


Krugman, Paul, International New York Times


It comes down to this: Amazon has too much power, and it is abusing it.

Amazon.com, the giant online retailer, has too much power, and it uses that power in ways that hurt America.

O.K., I know that was kind of abrupt. But I wanted to get the central point out there right away, because discussions of Amazon tend, all too often, to get lost in side issues.

For example, critics of the company sometimes portray it as a monster about to take over the whole economy. Such claims are over the top -- Amazon doesn't dominate overall online sales, let alone retailing as a whole, and probably never will. But so what? Amazon is still playing a troubling role.

Meanwhile, Amazon's defenders often digress into paeans to online bookselling, which has indeed been a good thing for many Americans, or testimonials to Amazon customer service -- and in case you're wondering, yes, I have Amazon Prime and use it a lot. But again, so what? The desirability of new technology, or even Amazon's effective use of that technology, is not the issue. After all, John D. Rockefeller and his associates were pretty good at the oil business, too -- but Standard Oil nonetheless had too much power, and public action to curb that power was essential.

And the same is true of Amazon today.

If you haven't been following the recent Amazon news: Back in May a dispute between Amazon and Hachette, a major publishing house, broke out into open commercial warfare. Amazon had been demanding a larger cut of the price of Hachette books it sells; when Hachette balked, Amazon began disrupting the publisher's sales. Hachette books weren't banned outright from Amazon's site, but Amazon began delaying their delivery, raising their prices, and/or steering customers to other publishers.

You might be tempted to say that this is just business -- no different from Standard Oil, back in the days before it was broken up, refusing to ship oil via railroads that refused to grant it special discounts. But that is, of course, the point: The robber baron era ended when we as a nation decided that some business tactics were out of line. And the question is whether we want to go back on that decision.

Does Amazon really have robber-baron-type market power? When it comes to books, definitely. Amazon overwhelmingly dominates online book sales, with a market share comparable to Standard Oil's share of the refined oil market when it was broken up in 1911. Even if you look at total book sales, Amazon is by far the largest player. …

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