Tuesday, June 03, 2014

There Are No Coincidences In The Chicago Way

Former Chief of Staff to President Obama (on the right, not the guy on the left)
When you go against the local alderman, stir up some trouble or complain too vigorously about all the potholes in your street, you will find that the four-flat you own is suddenly of intense interest to the building inspector.

Sure, buildings are inspected all the time in Chicago, but that doesn't mean your bundle of violations was discovered by pure coincidence.

In the Chicago Way of doing business, there are no coincidences.

Which brings us to the ongoing battle between Amazon and the publishers who provide books for Amazon to sell.

Jeff Bezos owns Amazon, and he donates largely to Democrats. And he has plenty of money to give them, given his considerable salary. Amazon itself may not turn a big profit, but Mr. Bezos is profiting from his business.

You, with the four-flat, can donate heavily to the alderman and all those nasty tickets will be voided. Again, it is not a coincidence. Political campaigns cost money to run. If you help your alderman get re-elected and hold on to power, the alderman will return the favor and let you get off easy. Except you have to keep giving, but if the rental income is substantial you can keep donating and your worries are gone.

Jeff Bezos does not like the mulish tactics taken by Hachette Book Group, which is not going along with the program as written by Bezos. He wants deeper discounts so he can make more money. The publisher wants smaller discounts so they can stay in business. Their authors would like the publisher to get a little more so they can wet their beaks as well. Everyone knows that if Amazon gets its way, every other publisher will have to yield and the loss of profit to the publishers will lead to an even greater tendency to only publish blockbusters and celebrity drivel that sells. No chances will be taken on literary fiction, new authors showing promise, or non-fiction that targets a niche audience.

So if you think it's a coincidence that the Department of Justice is re-visiting an ongoing anti-trust case involving Amazon and the publishers, you are naive to the ways of Chicago politics.

Amazon instigated the anti-trust suit against the publishers who were fighting back against Amazon's demand to offer all ebooks at a set price, whether the publisher made money or not. The Department of Justice took the publishers to court and they all backed down from the so-called agency model. Only Apple continues to fight, which is moving on to the appeals court where Amazon's latest shenanigans may or may not open up the eyes of the judges.

Anti-trust is about more than fixing prices. Predatory pricing, designed to drive a competitor bankrupt, is also illegal.

The building inspector will keep coming back to your four-flat is you don't pacify the alderman. Your garbage won't get picked up, or the streets department will tear up the road in front of your place and make things miserable for you. If you're a publisher taking on Jeff Bezos, the DOJ will come knocking at your door and ask questions that are less interrogatory and more threatening of further legal action that costs money and valuable time to tackle.

The publishers can either roll over, buy themselves some clout, or gather enough public support to force those controlling the DOJ to rein the agency in.

It is no coincidence that the Justice Department is letting the publishers know that they are being watched. The Chicago Way is how Washington runs these days.

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