Update, 7/24: The powers-that-be at Forbes were apparently sufficiently embarrassed by the essay in question, and have removed it from their website.
On Saturday, Forbes ran a piece by someone named Panos Mourdoukoutas making a very interesting (read: stupid and harmful) argument. Before we get to that argument, though, I want to note again that it ran on a Saturday. This is not an irrelevant fact—as an editor, I can tell you that Saturday is when you run the pieces that don’t really fill you with pride. Usually, you’ve made an obligation to the writer, and it’s easier to run it than not, but you really don’t want lots of people seeing it. I have no idea if that’s what happened at Forbes. I’m not a frequent reader of that particular publication, but I’ve never thought of them as a clickbait hot take factory. My educated guess is that they had to run it, for whatever reason, and were trying to sneak it under the radar.
It didn’t work. You can’t hide a title like this:
“Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money”
Folks, we have achieved it. We have achieved peak capitalism, as defined by a slavish devotion to the free market and large corporations, and disdain for the welfare (intellectual or otherwise) of real people. If Citizens United was the judicial apex of heartless capitalism, this is the philosophical version.
The essay is short—just 589 words—and even those are basically redundant. Everything you need to know is in the title: Replace libraries with Amazon stores. And it can be refuted with two simple points:
1. Books (and etc.) at Amazon cost money.
2. Books (and etc.) at a library are a public service, and are free at point of use. They cost the average American taxpayer over 18 years old about $4.50 per month.
That doesn’t tell the whole story of what libraries offer, of course. Beyond books and movies and music and Internet access, it is a community space that includes programs for children, seniors, and veterans, career help, and research databases. Even that just barely scratches the surface—libraries are a public good in the truest sense, and one of the last redeeming things about this country. For a great and thorough thread about all the wonderful services public libraries provide, read here.
So it’s no surprise that the capitalists want to come for them next. Let’s take a deeper look at Mourdoukoutas’ argument, paragraph by paragraph.
Amazon should open their own bookstores in all local communities. They can replace local libraries and save taxpayers lots of money, while enhancing the value of their stock.
First off, if Amazon decided to open their own bookstores in local communities, it would kill local bookstores, not libraries. Which is exactly what Amazon is doing now. Since libraries are funded by taxes, there would have to some kind of government reform that killed libraries separately from whatever action Amazon took. That’s what the author is actually asking for—kill public libraries, and justify it with some bullshit about Amazon.
Also, you have to love people who are super concerned with Amazon’s stock value. Doesn’t Jeff Bezos have enough lackeys?
There was a time local libraries offered the local community lots of services in exchange for their tax money. They would bring books, magazines, and journals to the masses through a borrowing system. Residents could borrow any book they wanted, read it, and return it for someone else to read.
Yes, and that is what still happens. That mystical time you speak of is now. But thanks for the definition of “library,” I guess?
They also provided residents with a comfortable place they could enjoy their books. They provided people with a place they could do their research in peace with the help of friendly librarians. Libraries served as a place where residents could hold their community events, but this was a function they shared with school auditoriums. There’s no shortage of places to hold community events.
Oh boy, it continues. He only used 589 words, but he’s going to spend two paragraphs defining libraries. Also, I love that his first real attempt to undermine the concept of a library is basically, “eh, it’s just a glorified school auditorium.”
Libraries slowly began to service the local community more. Libraries introduced video rentals and free internet access. The modern local library still provides these services, but they aren’t for free. Homeowners have to be financed by taxpayers in form of a “library tax.” It is usually added to school taxes, which in some communities are already high.
FOLKS, WE’RE AT PARAGRAPH THREE. That’s three paragraphs of defining a library. Also, I like how his big dramatic shift is “but they aren’t for free.” As if the system of using tax dollars to fund libraries is brand new. Where does he think library funding used to come from? Free public libraries supported by taxation is a concept that dates back to 1833. If Mourdoukoutas wrote his piece in 1834, maybe his “THEY TAKE YOUR PRECIOUS TAX DOLLARS!” scaremongering might make sense. But 184 years later? Feels a little stale, amigo.
Meanwhile, they don’t have the same value they used to. The reasons why are obvious.
Just kill me now. Don’t make me read the rest. The only real way to ruin the public library for me at this point is to tell me this essay is available there.
One such reason is the rise of “third places” such as Starbucks. They provide residents with a comfortable place to read, surf the web, meet their friends and associates, and enjoy a great drink. This is why some people have started using their loyalty card at Starbucks more than they use their library card.
Ah yes, the famous “third places,” which is totally the term he wants here, and not one that actually means “a social surrounding that is not work or home,” and which encompasses…yup, public libraries.
Also, what’s the argument here? That Starbucks makes libraries redundant? Can you get books for free from Starbucks? Do they provide learning programs for kids? Or is just another private business that this guy thinks can combine to replace libraries?
For those keeping track at home, here’s a running list of things that are not at all like libraries, but which Panos Mourdoukoutas is pretty sure are the exact same things:
1. An Amazon store
2. School auditoriums
On top of this, streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have replaced video rentals. They provide TV and movie content to the masses at an affordable rate. Actual video rental services like Blockbuster have gone completely out of business.
This is sneakily the best part about the whole article, because the truth is that Netflix and Amazon Prime cost more per month than the average tax dollars that go to fund a library. And they don’t offer nearly as much! But he just called them “affordable,” so clearly a library must be downright cheap, right? Right Panos?
Then there’s the rise of digital technology. Technology has turned physical books into collector’s items, effectively eliminating the need for library borrowing services.
A. It has not remotely turned physical books into collector’s items, idiot.
B. Even if it had, it would not eliminate the need for borrowing books in their new digital formats, because those books STILL COST MONEY. And by the way, know where you can borrow e-books? Public libraries!
C. This guy is an actual economics professor. Why does he both write and form arguments like he has never even visited a public libr—oh. Right.
Of course, there’s Amazon Books to consider. Amazon have created their own online library that has made it easy for the masses to access both physical and digital copies of books.
Is it free? No? They don’t give books away for free? Then it’s not the same as a library.
Amazon Books is a chain of bookstores that does what Amazon originally intended to do; replace the local bookstore. It improves on the bookstore model by adding online searches and coffee shops.
Yup, it kills local business alright!
Amazon Go basically combines a library with a Starbucks.
Nope, it combines Starbucks with a bookstore. Which is what Barnes & Noble and Borders also does. But since it’s not free at point of use, it has nothing to do with libraries.
And expanding into the local library space will be an opportunity for the technology giant.
Who cares, you massive lickspittle?
At the core, Amazon has provided something better than a local library without the tax fees. This is why Amazon should replace local libraries. The move would save taxpayers money and enhance the stockholder value of Amazon all in one fell swoop.
First off, it would only save me money until I wanted literally one book in a month. But let’s forget that, because it’s missing the main point: If you’re not willing to sacrifice a few tax dollars for public libraries, you are fundamentally a bad person. It’s pretty much that simple—for a bit of money that he won’t even miss, Panos wants to deprive his entire community, and communities across America. Why? Because, like most extremist capitalists, any sense of empathy or public welfare has been wiped from his brain. He does not care about anyone but himself, and this is capitalism at its most essential.
To be fair, library surveys do not seem to confirm the idea that public libraries don’t have the value they used to.
“On other hand, let me present two paragraphs of evidence that an editor probably forced me to add, and which proves that my entire argument is bogus.”
Apparently, more data are needed to confirm a trend. But the opportunity for Amazon to enhance shareholder value remains.
What a stirring conclusion! It may be ruinous to close public libraries, he confirms, and the arguments underlying my entire essay may be absolutely bogus, but at least my king Jeff Bezos will make a few more dollars that he will absolutely not pass on to the workers who currently have to skip bathroom breaks to serve their master.
As I noted earlier, Mourdoukoutas is a professor at Long Island University. He also co-wrote some leadership book nobody read, so I’m not sure what his intent is here, or what vested interest he has in Amazon as a company. Whatever the case, his argument was immediately panned across the Internet, and at this point I’m mostly just piling on. I’m okay with that, though, for a reason described perfectly by Amanda Mull:
A few other worthy thoughts:
In the end, this is a story about a privileged man (a man like me!) who wants to end a public service that overwhelmingly helps poor people. He would throw them all under the bus if it meant a few dollars off his tax bill, and more profit to almighty Amazon. It’s sick, it’s heinous, and it’s philosophically so ugly. It is also a perfect embodiment of unchecked capitalism taken to its logical end—the free market in its vicious essence.