Amazon: Taking Over the Global Economy

The World According to Amazon

Directed by Adrian Anon and Thomas Larfarge

Film Review

In this documentary, filmmakers express grave concerns about Amazon corporation assuming monopoly control over the entire global market place. At present the company has three million customers across five continents. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is the world’s first centibillionaire.

Amazon destroys two jobs for every one it creates. Owing the monopoly’s power to undercut all competitors, it is largely responsible for the closure (over 10 years) of 85 small businesses and 35,000 small and medium size manufacturers.

Amazon controls half of online US commerce and leads the market in sales of books, electronics, personal care products, DVDs toys, and clothing (which it also manufactures). It also sells drugs, insurance, video on demand, music streaming, video games, and cloud data storage. I was surprised to learn that 60% of Amazon’s profits derive from its 120 data centers, which host web servers in addition to providing cloud storage.

Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post, Whole Foods, and Blue Origin, a private rocket manufacturer and spaceflight services company.

Bezos’ immense wealth affords him immense political power. Last year, he forced Seattle City Council to repeal a $275 per employee tax on the city’s largest companies to fund an emergency housing program.*

Largely thanks to Amazon, which has its headquarters there, Seattle has the highest per capita homeless rate in the US. At present, 1,000 people move to Seattle every week, most to work for Amazon. With no possible way for the city’s housing market to keep up, this pushes many existing residents (who can’t afford 10% year rent increases) onto the streets.

Bezos’ steady takeover of the global marketplace receives little mainstream media attention. The only serious push back he has received has been from striking German unions and from Dehli merchants determined to keep Amazon out of India. Owing to its immense monopoly power, Amazon can afford to operate (for years) at a loss in India. Dehli merchants, who are a major base of support for Narenda Mohdi’s BJP party, are busy organizing national bus tours to warn other small business owners of the risk Amazon poses to their survival.

Unlike Europe, where Amazon faces no major competition, both Flipkart (started by two former Amazon employees) and Paytm (a subsidiary of China’s giant e-commerce platform Alibaba) are both major competitors in India.


*Bezos, who initially agreed to the tax, changed his mind 24 hours after the city council enacted it unanimously.

Anyone with a public library card can see the documentary free on Kanopy. Type “Kanopy” and the name of your library into your search engine to register.

Amazon Rainforest Protectors: Putting Their Lives on the Line

Brazil’s President vs the Amazon

SBS Dateline (2019)

Film Review

This Australian documentary is about the indigenous Mundruku tribe and their efforta to stop illegal deforestation in the Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. Altogether the Amazon is home to 300 indigenous tribes. All are threatened by multinational mining, agricultural and logging interests. This film also looks at the big threat to their way of life posed by the election of right wing populist Jair Bolsonaro as president.

The fillmmakers begin by interviewing the mayor of nearly Intaituba, a strong Bolsonaro supporter facing fines and corruption charges for illegally clearing forest to set up a cattle ranch. The mayor lobbies for international gold mining interests in addition to international and domestic agribusiness.

Under Brazil’s former government, indigenous tribes could file claims to have their ancestral lands demarcated for protection from logging schemes. Bolsonaro who has transferred oversight of indigenous rights to the department of agriculture, has suspended the right of Brazil’s first peoples to make further claims.

In response, Mundruku women from adjoining villages have installed their own signs demarcating their land.They are also organizing a resistance movement to confront illegal loggers. They do so despite numerous threats they have received from logging interests in the past.

They’re not the first Amazon protectors to put their lives on the line. Hundreds of rainforest activists have been murdered (with impunity) in the decades-long battle to save the rainforest known as the lungs of the world.

Omnipotent: Amazon, Jeff Bezos and Collecting Data

Omnipotent: Amazon, Jeff Bezos and Collecting Data

DW (2019)

Film Review

Amazon, which presently controls 50% of the US retail marketplace, relies heavily on data collection to flog its products, as Facebook and Google do. In addition to books and consumer products, Amazon also sells insurance, medication, films, TV programs and facial recognition software. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also owns Whole Foods and the Washington Post.

In addition to aggressively buying out competitors to maintain his retail monopoly, he also uses the massive amount of personal data he collects to suggest products for his customers to buy. .

In 2018, Bezos used his monopoly status to force the Seattle City Council to repeal a 0.7 payroll tax to provide housing for the city’s growing homeless population. Amazon, which pays virtually no taxes, provides 45,000 jobs in Seattle. About a third receive such low pay they qualify for food stamps.

Across the US and throughout Europe, the growing Amazon monopoly has led to the closure of hundreds of thousands of brick and mortar retail stores and the virtual death of numerous city centers.

As a matter of policy, Amazon declined to be interviewed for this documentary. So the filmmakers interviewed Alexa instead.


*Alexa is Amazon’s cloud-based voice activated Internet search service.

 

 

If It’s Free, You’re the Product

Digital Dissidents Part 2

Al Jazeera (2016)

Film Review

“If It’s Free You’re the Product”

In Part 2, Digital Dissidents reminds us that Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple daily collect and “monetize” (ie sell) millions of data points about us (including records of financial transactions).

The documentary also features rare commentary by Julian Assange on Sweden’s attempts* to charge him with sexual assault. These charges mysteriously surfaced exactly two weeks after Anonymous hacker Jeremy Hammonds released hacked emails between intelligence contractor Stratfor and the US government about potential charges against Assange under the 2017 Espionage Act. Was this mere coincidence? It seems unlikely.

NSA whistleblowers Thomas Drake and William Binney also talk candidly about the devastating effects of whistleblowing on their personal lives. His career in software systems management ruined, Drake presently clerks in an Apple retail outlet.

Binney, who refers to the NSA as “the Stasi** on super steroids, calls for the total dissolution of NSA. He maintains it has too much power to be reformed.


*Sweden dropped the sexual assault charges against Assange in Sept 2017. As Assange points out in the film, neither woman filed a police complaint and one accuses the police of inventing the crimes she supposedly accused him of.

**As the intelligence/security service for the former East German Republic, the Stasi was one of the most viciously repressive secret police agencies ever.

The video, which can’t be embedded for copyright reasons, can be viewed for free at the Al Jazeera website: Digital Dissidents

The Coming Financial Crash: Learning from History

Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity

Edited by Michael Lewis

WW Norton (2009)

Book Review

This book is a collection of essays about the four major Wall Street crashes of the last 30 years. The first was Black Monday, on October 19, 1987; the second the 1997 Asian financial crisis; the third the Dotcom crash of 2000-2002; and the fourth the global economic crash of 2007-2008.

Black Monday

At the time, Black Monday was the worst Wall Street crash in history – with a percentage decline in stock prices twice that of the 1929 crash. The various essays blame Black Monday on two main causes: an overvalued stock market (with too many shares bought with borrowed money) and new computerized trading programs that automatically sold larges volumes of institutional stocks (from pension plans, mutual funds, etc) once their price dropped below a designated price.

Asian Financial Crisis

The collapse of South East Asian currencies (South Korea, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia) in 1997 is blamed on a variety of factors. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad blamed Soros, but Lewis claims the latter had temporarily stopped currency trading in 1997. The Asian crisis was contagious, causing investors to also pull their funds out of Russia and Brazil, as well as the six Asian countries. Both the ruble and the Brazilian real collapsed in 1998.

China, India and Vietnam were virtually unaffected, as they defied the US and IMF by imposing capitol and currency controls (preventing foreign investors from withdrawing funds or exchanging large amounts of currency without government authorization).

All three countries continued to experience 9-11% growth during the next decade.

Dot Com Crash

The Dot Com boom was largely fueled by the advent of computerized day trading, allowing investors to purchase large volumes of stock directly without going through established brokers. It was also the first time in history that investors scurried to buy shares in companies that operated at a loss. The immediate cause of the Dot Com crash was a decision by the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates, bankrupting hundreds of Internet startups that could no longer afford to borrow money. Amazon, which also operated at a lost, was spared by the continued support of Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr.

The 2008 Global Economic Collapse

The most interesting essays in this section are by analysts who predicted the collapse. Hedge fund manager John Paulson made $3-4 billion in 2007-2008 by correctly predicting the timing of the crash and purchasing cheap credit default swaps.* As mortgage bonds started failing, demand for CDS’s skyrocketed as investors rushed to limit their losses.


*A credit default swap is a financial swap agreement that the bank that issues the CDS will compensate the buyer in the event of a debt default or other credit event.

 

 

 

Taxing Amazon and Starbucks: Seattle Passes Corporate Wealth Tax to Fund Low Income Housing

According to the The Guardian, Seattle City Council has passed a new tax that will charge large corporations $275 annually per worker to help address the city’s growing homelessness crisis.

About 60% of the tax revenue will go to new housing projects for low and middle-income Seattle residents. The remainder would go to homeless services, including shelter beds, camps and overnight parking.

Source: Tax Amazon: Seattle Passes Corporate Wealth Tax to Fund Housing

Offline is the New Luxury

Offline is the New Luxury

VPRO (2017)

Film Review

This documentary is about taking back control of our Internet connectivity. Ironically it starts by recommending a new app that allows you to identify increasingly rare “white spots” – areas of the earth that aren’t blanketed with WiFi signals. One MIT psychology professor, who bans cellphones, laptops and tablets in her classes, is part of a movement to create sacred spaces in these white spots – areas where people fully engage with each other instead of their electronic devices.

The filmmakers also talk about the late Steve Jobs and other prominent Silicon Valley moguls not allowing their kids to have cellphones and tablets and sending them to low tech Montessori and Waldorf schools. Increasingly the well-to-do are seeking out expensive retreats and detox facilities to cure their Internet addiction. While growing numbers of law firms and security agencies patronize a highly successful Dutch firm selling Faraday cages and microwave shields to protect clients from electronic snooping and damaging microwave radiation.

The Amish, of course, have a cheap low-tech solution to Internet addiction – namely a value system that rejects most advanced electronic technology.

The video concludes by explaining the concept of “surveillance capitalism,” in which our personal information is “monetized,” ie in which the data Google, Facebook and Amazon collect on us is sold to advertisers.

A key strategy of surveillance capitalism is to use drones, satellites and giant balloons to expand connectivity to remote areas of the developing world. At the time of filming, Facebook was pressuring the Indian government to allow the introduction of Free Basics (free Internet connectivity) to all Indian residents, with Facebook retaining control of their Internet access. Google, meanwhile, is pushing to extend 100% connectivity to Sri Lanka by launching giant WiFi balloons.

According to one analyst, the drive to acquire massive troves of Indian personal data is a ploy to placate shareholders. The latter are understandably concerned about a drop-off in Facebook users in the developing world – due to privacy concerns and the recognition that most Facebook content is meaningless drivel.