NOT JUST BOOKS….By Roger Hutchinson
Even in normal times, I live a long way from a bookshop.
My local general stores stocks a small but excellent selection of local books or books written by local people (which are frequently the same thing).
I have however either read them or written them (which is not the same thing).
Under an island lockdown which would see me Bren gunned from a nest at the jetty, which is permanently manned by volunteers to a community council sub-committee, if I attempted to get home from a frivolous visit to Carmina Gadelica in Portree, I am therefore dependent on Kindle or mail order for the books which keep me almost sane.
And in 2020, buying books for Kindle or buying hard copy volumes by mail order means just one thing. It means Amazon.
I know that I am not alone.
For the most obvious of reasons, the west Highlands and Islands have a profound historical relationship with mail order.
Our predecessors and forebears bought almost everything out of catalogues.
During Sunday services way back in the day, the road for a quarter of a mile each side of St Peter’s Church in Daliburgh was bordered with identical sit-up-and-beg bicycles which had been ordered through the Royal Mail from A Smart of London.
These days, cycling Uibhistich need only turn to Amazon. I just did. Amazon stocks hundreds of them.
There are not many of us, but when in the 1990s a graduate in computer science from Princeton University started selling books, music CDs and videos in the USA and Europe via an online portal christened Amazon, we in the west Highlands and Islands were the consumers of the dreams of Jeff Bezos.
We were his captive market. We still are. I cannot support this with statistics, but I would guess that Amazon is patronised by a higher percentage of the Highland population than by the people of any other region in Europe, and possibly also in the USA.
We still don’t have many bike shops, you see.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Amazon and Jeff Bezos were astonishingly wealthy. We used to talk loosely of very rich people or companies having the assets of a small country.
Amazon is actually wealthier than some large countries.
If Amazon was a sovereign state it would probably qualify for membership of the G20. Jeff Bezos was described by Forbes magazine two years ago as “far richer than anyone else on the planet”.
If we tried to total up his savings we would fill the rest of this website with noughts.
Amazon itself is just behind Petro-China, the Chinese state-owned National Petroleum Corporation, as the richest corporation on earth.
That makes it, when Apple and Microsoft have a slow 12 months, the richest private company on the planet.
While, over the last two months, the economies of nations and people elsewhere on the planet have gone to hell in a handcart, Amazon has just got richer. Of course it has.
What else can we do during lockdown but buy books… and games, and clothes, and toiletries, and DIY tools, and pet supplies, and all of the scores of Amazon products?
That has led Amazon to recruit more staff to its international million-strong workforce everywhere but in France, where it has closed its warehouses during a dispute over conditions with trade unions.
Nobody can doubt that while French consumers may be slightly put out, their unions are in the right. Working in Amazonland is no joke.
Jeff Bezos cannot employ workers in India for tuppence an hour because, although they would package his products diligently, the inefficient postal service between India and his western customers would torpedo the delivery side of his business model.
So, obliged to use European and American labour within their own countries, he proceeds to pretend that they are impoverished non-unionised Asian 13-year-olds.
By way of consolation, his sweatshop, underpaid, vulnerable to coronavirus western workers can tell themselves that he treats their governments the same way.
Amazon makes a point of paying no taxes. In 2017 and 2018, while the company was coining trillions, through accountancy chicanery it paid no federal tax at all in the USA.
Taxes paid in such countries as the United Kingdom are derisory.
Those unpaid taxes would support the frontline workers to whom we pay daily tribute, almost all of whom, from nurses to bin men, to ferry crews and Amazon’s own essential postal workers, work in the public rather than the private sector.
If the invisible hand of the free market actually existed, it would realise that there will be no future for a retail company like Amazon if its customers are all sick or dead or penniless.
Jeff Bezos and his management team would invest a few of their trillions in fighting the virus and re-starting the global economy.
If they do not, it should not yet be beyond the capacity of combined western governments to impose massive windfall taxes on such super-companies as Amazon.
Jeff Bezos should pay up willingly.
His alternative is to be another Ozymandias, left alone in a boundless, bare desert while grimacing “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
I see a new Michael Connelly comes out next month. Must place my order.