Capitalism and Lying to Amazon

amazon boxesEconomic blogger Matthew Yglesias recently caused a stir when he authored a piece detailing how anyone can fool online retailer Amazon.com by claiming to have a fake baby. The program, Amazon Baby, is designed specifically to help young families afford necessities when raising their child. If you are an Amazon Prime member – basically a premium paid for free shipping by frequent shoppers – you can save an extra 5% on your at-home delivery by claiming to raise the next generation. There is no verification required. All Amazon asks for is a brief description of the non-existent kid. If you are feeling extra witty, you could plausibly claim to have given birth to crack-loving mayor Rob Ford, and get a discount on dried pasta in the process.

To his credit, Yglesias discovered quite the loophole here. It essentially amounts to defrauding the system. As he writes, “[I]t turns out you don’t need to be a mom to sign up. You don’t need to be a dad, either. You just need to be a liar.” The contrast here is actually giddying. Yglesias has a penchant both for misspelling and writing in a purposefully provocative manner. The conning of an internet retailer is a topic that rests gently in his wheelhouse.

But that’s not where the irony ends. As a former Think Progress writer, Yglesias has made his unabashed support for government regulation of private industry well-known. In a recent diatribe, he lamented on the fact that too many microbanks exist in the United States. Without any real evidence to back up his claim, Yglesias chirps that smaller, community-based banks “can’t be regulated” properly. Presumably, Mr. Moneybox is worried another financial crisis will occur should state financial regulators be lax in vigilance. It’s not a terrible apprehension to have considering the amount of fraud swirling around the run-up to the bursting of the housing bubble (predominantly caused and encouraged by the Federal Reserve’s easy money policy).

But here’s the catch: if Yglesias sees fraud as a bad thing – and rightfully so I might add – why does he encourage the same behavior? If banks are houses of impropriety drafting illicit contracts, what makes him any different from a mortgage broker working under Jamie Dimon?

Any moral plateau Yglesias thinks he’s perched on while attacking the inequities and unfairness of capitalism disintegrates under his personal practices. The Amazon Baby trick is the equivalent of decrying theft while sneaking cash out of your father’s wallet. And the worst part is, the practice is spreading.

Josh Barro, son of economist Robert Barro, upped the ante by writing in Business Insider that it’s “totally fine” to dupe Amazon for a small discount. Unlike Yglesias, Barro had the foresight to contact the company to make sure it was okay with a bunch of make-believe parents receiving their targeted discount. The retailer ended up giving the thumbs up to “parents with imaginary children” who only wish to save a few bucks on basic toiletries.

From an economic viewpoint, it makes perfect sense to trash the truth in order to save money. Economics is not about ethics, but rather describing the choices people to make to satisfy ends. As long as they can get away with it, most will opt for dishonesty if it means more material possessions. It’s an end justifies the means argument. And it resides perfectly within the realm of base human tendencies.

On ethical grounds, the practice of lying about progeny doesn’t sit well. Honesty really is the best policy – especially if you wish to maintain good character. What Yglesias and Barro, both of whom advocate government involvement to remedy the heartlessness of the free market, concede in their desperate attempt for a news story is their own integrity. Just as there are markets in commodities, there is a vetting mechanism in reputation. From here on out, any critique they heap upon the rat race known as capitalism is tainted with a mark of incongruity.

This was present in a roundtable discussion Barro participated in on MSNBC’s “The Cycle.” The hosts, all outspoken liberals ‘cept for one, came off as slightly wary over the dishonesty involved with the Amazon Baby swindle. But after some discussion on the inherent evils of corporations, it was concluded that lies were fine to deploy against such an evil entity. Touré, the mononymous residen economic ignoramus of a network owned by the General Electric corporation, rationalizes the dishonesty by declaring “if a lie is told to a corporation, it’s not really a lie.”

You don’t say?

Mr. Barro matches this byzantine logic by noting that while faking a veteran status to get a discount is wrong, pretending to be a parent is a-ok. Why exactly? It isn’t said, outside of veteran discounts are reserved for those who serve. For Barro, price discrimination is fine in one case but not another. It’s a flawed distinction if he is trying to make the case that special treatment for individuals is wrong. Parenting, while it doesn’t involve dodging bullets or no-knock midnight raids, isn’t exactly a walk in the park. Numerous studies confirm that strong nuclear families are key in shaping productive citizens. And no soldier can invade, or liberate, a foreign country without someone first working to pay the bills.

That’s all beside the point, however. It’s apparent the bleeding heart liberal crowd is fine with screwing over a business as long as they see it pursuing a profit.

It’s very well true that no one is technically harmed in a white lie over parental status. That is, no one is suffering any tangible pain. But the case against free enterprise suffers when leftists gather and scheme to rip off their would-be oppressors. Tossing around phrases like “if a lie is told to a corporation, it’s not really a lie” unmasks the marching ideology behind smothering laissez faire. At least for an MSNBC personality like Touré, the ethos of forcing the marketplace to be fair and true is not really the agenda. He simply wants to bend the rules to erect his egalitarian paradise.

In a statement to Barro, Amazon admitted that it is relying on the honor system to administer the infant premium program. In the era of food stamp fraud and government-provided cellphones, such a policy is expected to be abused. Economic law says that if you lower the price of something, you get more demand other things being equal. Amazon is leaving money on the table by not requiring a more vigorous assessment of parenting claims. But that’s their choice, just as it was Matt Yglesias’s and Josh Barro’s choice to sacrifice their virtue to save pennies on paper towels.

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One Response to “Capitalism and Lying to Amazon”

  1. James Johnson says:

    Hi James,

    Amazon is full of some of the smartest marketers on the planet. It's entirely possible the Amazon Baby promotion has been designed to attract a certain market segment under the 'guise' of Amazon Baby.

    Only Amazon knows the lifetime value of their customers and it makes perfect sense (economically) to use such a system to gain market share. Once you've had the Amazon experience, what else are you going to buy until the day you die! Many more times than the 5% discount I bet!

    Ignorance is bliss! :)

    Happy New Year…

    JJ

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