When people were ordered to stay home during the pandemic, online shopping became a vital resource for basic goods like toilet paper, groceries, and cleaning supplies. People need those products fast, and Amazon provides that service.
Before the pandemic, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance reported in 2016 that Amazon captures nearly one in every two dollars that Americans spend online. Over the past month, Amazon’s stock value has increased significantly during a recession while its demand grows further, advancing its dominance in the online shopping market.
Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, says that kind of dependence should make us deeply concerned.
Mitchell has been a vocal critic of Amazon’s monopoly power in the United States for years, and she was recently profiled in The New York Times explaining how visible Amazon’s dominance has been during the pandemic.
The week on The Vergecast, Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel invites Mitchell to the show to discuss her thoughts on how we should be thinking about the decrease in supply lines in the market, the movement of regulating Amazon, and the need for competition not only in the marketplace but also in the workforce of America.
Below is a lightly edited excerpt of the conversation.
Nilay Patel: With the growing antitrust sentiment that we’ve been covering, do you think it’s reaching an inflection point inside the pandemic? And if so, the effort to think that the companies are too big, is that growing in vigor, or is it kind of declining? Because there’s another thing to worry about.
Stacy Mitchell: I think in the midst of the pandemic, the kind of power that these companies have is more exposed than ever. I mean, obviously, our whole lives, how we interact with one another, how we engage in commerce, has now sort of all collapsed onto the web. And you have a handful of gatekeepers in that context, including Amazon. So I do think it’s really underscored some of the arguments that I’ve been making, that others have been making, about how Amazon serves as a kind of essential infrastructure and what the dangers are of allowing that infrastructure to be entirely privately controlled without regulation.
I mean, if we don’t have any oversight over Amazon, we’re effectively allowing it to regulate our economy as a private entity — to decide which products succeed and fail, which companies succeed and fail, which communities succeed and fail. I mean, is that really the kind of future that we want to have? I think the other thing that the pandemic is really exposing quite profoundly is how vulnerable our society is because of inequality. I mean, we see this in the numbers of people who have very little cushion or slack in their lives to fall back on during the economic stresses.
We see this in who is a frontline worker and who is not, who is more in danger. Just every aspect of how both the public health crisis and the economic crisis is playing out is underscoring the risks of inequality. And I would argue that Amazon is really like a central driver of rising inequality across the economy.
And also it’s very notable to me that we’re having these stories about the dangers of highly concentrated supply lines. You know, we’re seeing all of these stories about how much of our pork, for example, is produced in these incredibly small number of slaughterhouses out in the West or how a lot of our drugs come from one set of factories in China.
And so the idea that we’re going to come out of this pandemic having shrunk the distribution system to an even smaller number of players, it seems to me like not at all a good idea. And I do think that we’re seeing, to some degree — at least on the margins within Congress and in the public discussion — some people who are saying, “Wait a second. Maybe we need to really think about economic policy differently.” And in particular, maybe we really need to tackle the issue of monopoly power.