James E. Hanley: Save Amazon from Elizabeth Warren

I took a risk recently and asked my wife go to the store for toilet paper. Her eyes betrayed her nervousness when I said, “Remember, we want Charmin Ultrasoft Mega Rolls.” Given the dirty business for which we use it and how eagerly we dispose of it after use, toilet paper is a surprisingly sophisticated product. For research purposes, I went to our small local grocery store and counted nine brands offering 59 options of varying softness, strength, and sheets per roll. And I was asking my wife to remember which of those many options was the very particular one I wanted.

About the same time, Democratic presidential aspirant Elizabeth Warren called for breaking up Amazon. At first glance, there may not be an obvious connection between the varieties of toilet paper at my brick-and-mortar grocery store and e-commerce giant Amazon, but there is—product variety. Amazon’s true value to consumers is not low cost and free shipping but the great variety of goods it makes available to people, both directly and from third-party sellers.

Do we really need all that variety? Warren’s fellow presidential contender Bernie Sanders doesn’t think so. He thinks we don’t “need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or 18 sneakers when children are hungry in this country. I don’t think the media appreciates the kind of stress that ordinary Americans are working on.” It might have been an even more memorable statement if he’d focused on toilet paper, but it wouldn’t have made him less wrong.

We’d have to make as many cans of deodorant whether there was one style or the 36 I counted at my grocery (along with at least 50 styles of stick deodorant just for women), so it’s not clear how reducing variety will feed more kids. With 230 million American adults, 23 types would be only one type for every ten million adults. Some people sweat more than others. Some are sensitive to certain chemicals that don’t bother others. And for that stressed American worker, the scent of lilac, vanilla, or wolfthorn in the morning may be one of the little moments that improve their day.

When I raised this issue in class, one of my students pointed out that “people have sensitivities or discomfort based on a multitude of factors, so having that [variety] available to them is important.” How many choices of shoes do I need? Enough to find the perfect ones. The same is true of everyone else shopping for shoes. 

In truth, I’m not really that sensitive to toilet paper, but I do have particularly sensitive feet because my arches are too high and too far back. If I had been built in a factory, I might have been rejected by quality control inspectors. Finding shoes with an arch that is both high enough and doesn’t rise under the ball of my foot is a challenge.

I recently bought new hiking boots at Cabelas, which had at least four dozen styles to choose from. Narrowing the selection to those in my price range left about two dozen, and further winnowing by style (lighter boots, mid-height, water-resistant) and aesthetics, I had ten boots to try on. One pair was perfect, one would have been acceptable for moderate length hikes, and all the others were bad fits that would have left me hobbling in pain after a short jaunt. One hurt my feet in a short stroll around the shoe racks.

So how many choices of shoes do I need? Enough to find ones that don’t hurt. And the same is true for all those people whose feet are shaped differently than mine.

As to “the stress faced by ordinary Americans,” The market does not provide splendid variety as a wasteful frivolity. Variety is necessary to accommodate human differences.

I worked as a stock clerk in a building supply store while attending graduate school and being the primary caretaker of my infant daughter. Hours of walking on concrete floors is hard on the feet and knees. No ordinary American worker needs the extra stress of chronic pain from not having shoe varieties available to find a pair that cradle and protect their feet well.

The need for variety to meet human needs is rediscovered every time there’s value in discovering it. For example, in WWII, the US Army discovered that there were no average pilots when it tried to design a standard cockpit to decrease pilot-error. Not even one of the thousands of pilots they measured was average on the ten most important measures, so seats and control mechanisms had to be made adjustable to the variation in pilots’ torso, leg, and arm sizes. They learned something unwary clothing shoppers have learned time and again: one size fits all doesn’t.

What this example demonstrates is that the market does not provide splendid variety as a wasteful frivolity. Even in the absence of a profit motive, variety is necessary to accommodate human differences.

Some will argue that there’s a difference between need and want, that shoes and aircraft safety are different than deodorant. Oddly, though, they never push this argument to its logical end and condemn variety in music. But as economist Art Carden recently wrote about the death of Keith Flint, the frontman for the British electronic band The Prodigy, “[e]conomic growth . . . means much more than material production.” How many styles of music do we need? Materially, none. Immaterially, as many as all those stressed out American workers want to help themselves relax after a hard day at work.

Amazon has made its fortune on offering the great variety of goods that the varying millions of individual purchasers want. Warren’s call for breaking up Amazon, like Sanders’s complaint about deodorants and sneakers, although nominally aimed at the corporation, effectively targets individuals for their decisions to choose goods and services that they decide best meet their personal needs and desires.

Variety is not just the spice of life but an essential element of what it means to be human.

If humans were built on assembly lines, we could be standardized to need only one type of deodorant, one type of shoe, and one type of music, and everything could be provided in one type of store. But to our great good fortune, we are not so standardized, even in a mass consumerist society. Variety is not just the spice of life but an essential element of what it means to be human. And so it is that there’s a truly awful and dehumanizing hubris in thinking one can speak better for ordinary people than they can speak for themselves each time they make a purchase.

James E. Hanley

James E. Hanley

James E. Hanley is Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College.

This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

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11 Responses to James E. Hanley: Save Amazon from Elizabeth Warren

  1. Karabar

    “If humans were built on assembly lines, we could be standardized to need only one type of deodorant, one type of shoe, and one type of music”
    James you have hit on the raison d’etre of the Agenda 21 religion. The sole objective is to eliminate the human cancer that is devouring Gaia and replace with identical little clones, which are of course far more easy to herd and otherwise control than human beings.
    If we don’t find a way to eliminate the UN menace soon, we won’t need variety because we will all be carbon copies.

  2. Dr Fred Lenin

    I am sure comrade sanders the stuffed out old bolshevik aparatchik ,will make America Worse Again ,AWA on black caps for the antifa fascists . Under his ideal socialist paradise toiket paper would double as sandpaper,eodorant would be abolished ,it removes the glorious smell of the working class . He would introduce the minimum wage ,for everyone . The state would take over all means of production and pretend to pay the workslaves who would pretend to work. Yes the future ,run by the 10 percent decromat aparat .

  3. stackja

    Karabar
    #2982366, posted on April 8, 2019 at 1:54 pm … carbon copies.

    UN probably wants carbon copies phased out? Bad for the environment? Too much carbon?

  4. Diogenes

    Is James E. Hanley being disingenuous ?
    Amazon is more than an online bookstore/tat bazaar, but rather Amazon Prime or Amazon Web Services (Aka “the Amazon cloud”) or the Amazon AI . Then there are the other subsidiaries; Abe books, Amazon Robotics, Audible, Book Depository, Goodreads, IMDb, Twitch, Wholefoods to name but a few

    Until AWS came along Amazon(bookstore & tat bazaar) had never made a profit, or only a small one , in fact if the urban legend is correct then AWS came about because was about was to dodge taxes (in this instance Bezos could have been a Kerry Packer lovechild). AWS now subsidises the rest of the business.

  5. Bruce of Newcastle

    They’re not known as the FANGs for nothing.
    Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google are all lefty monopolists.
    You want political diversity? Break em’ to pieces and let a thousand flowers bloom.

    Amazon Censors Conservatives

  6. In Australia, Amazon provides bugger all variety and some of the highest prices on the internet, as well as a lot of crap. I have often looked at Amazon, both the Australian and US versions and then gone to eBay and it’s no contest, eBay wins every time.

  7. And I forgot to mention, I’m on various forums that have a strong US participation and Amazon is not spoken of very highly. All too often very expensive products aren’t delivered and Amazon couldn’t care less. It has many rogue sellers that seem to be completely immune to any action when they cheat buyers.

  8. NB

    The Democrats should look at their range of policies over the past few years, and their range of candidates for 2020, and realise that not only is variety the spice of life, but that even a vast array of choice can leave a need unsatisfied.

  9. Mother Lode

    They can have my Kleenex Cottonelle when they pry it from…

    I might leave it at that.

  10. I would argue COMPETITION and the threat of competition more so than variety.
    We would all still be driving black Model T’s if not for competition.
    Why would a toilet paper company bother to make improvements if they had no competition? We’d all still need to wipe our arses despite harsh paper on offer.

    The people of the former USSR were also all different. Yet their products were crap compared to ours, why? Because there was no competition.
    The only area where the USSR excelled to some extent (military and space exploration) was due to COMPETITION by the USA.

    The argument to break up Amazon or any other super large corporation isn’t about variety. It’s about the ability of the market place to provide competition.
    If competition is stifled either by regulation or the size of an existing player, then innovation and improvements to existing products and services is also stifled. This is not good for consumers.
    I am not arguing for the break up of Amazon or any other company. However if a solid argument can be made that competition is being stifled, then the situation should be examined closely for the good of the consumer.

  11. Elizabeth (Lizzie) Beare

    So how many choices of shoes do I need? Enough to find ones that don’t hurt. And the same is true for all those people whose feet are shaped differently than mine.

    That is such a male point of view. We ladies are prepared to accept a minor amount of discomfort if the style is perfect, although we prefer not to have to do so. But for us, the real issue is style. Men buy shoes that meet their simple ideas of looking good. As with many other things, and some of them male purchases, the look and style of the thing may often matter just as much as its function.

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