New England editorial roundup
The Portland (Maine) Press Herald, April 17, 2012
There's a tradition in the publishing industry of paying writers "by the word," but a group of the nation's largest book publishers, along with one of its major computer makers, is now accused of making readers pay excessive prices for their words.
The issue is the cost of "ebooks," electronic versions of literary works once only available on actual paper.
Now, virtual books that can be downloaded in seconds and called up on portable tablets with huge storage capacities are a billion-dollar market.
With sales expected to triple over the next three years, the publishers and Apple, Inc., whose iPad readers are a major competitor in the ebook market (along with the Barnes & Noble Nook and Amazon's various Kindle models), were feeling huge market pressures.
The competition was primarily coming from Amazon, which had offered electronic versions of books for an initial price of $9.99, far below the list price of new hardcovers, now approaching $30 or more. Amazon's customer base, which appreciated the lower cost of versions that, after all, did not have to be printed on paper or sold via physical stores, snapped up the electronic books by the millions.
So, the Justice Department alleges, publishers like Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and Penguin, along with others, conspired with Apple to seize control of the ebook market from Amazon and drive up prices on downloadable versions.
Some of the publishers have settled with Justice without admitting liability, while Apple and others are fighting the conspiracy charges.
The DOJ says the companies feared that Amazon's low prices would cause consumers to demand reductions on the cost of all books, and eventually lead Amazon to sell content directly to readers, bypassing traditional publishers and aiding Kindle sales.
The publishers and Apple argue that Amazon's market dominance was leading to it becoming a monopoly, driving competitors out of business by selling below cost.
But the DOJ says retailers were being denied the right to set their own prices by the conspiracy. That seems right: Consumers, not cartels, deserve to benefit from lower-cost methods.
It's not only the bottom line, it's the last word.
The Times Argus of Barre, Montpelier (Vt.), April 20, 2012
Ben Cohen is doing his bit.
A "Talk of the Town" piece in the latest issue of The New Yorker magazine described a visit by Cohen to Brooklyn for a tour of the city in a special van financed by Cohen called the Illuminator. The Ford van has a turret that rises up in the middle of the roof with a special light that shines a white circle with the black words "99%" onto the sides of buildings or other flat surfaces.
Cohen constitutes half of Ben & Jerry's, the socially aware ice cream maker that began in a gas station in Burlington. It made its name by combining ingredient-rich, curiously named ice cream pints with a social conscience. Eventually, the Ben & Jerry's ice cream plant in Waterbury became the state's most popular tourist destination, and Ben and his business partner, Jerry Greenfield, became rich. In fact, the company did so well it went public and then was acquired by the international conglomerate
Cohen maintains his social conscience and his unique way of putting it to work. During the Occupy movement last fall he traveled to New York City to bring ice cream to the protesters. According to The New Yorker, some of the activists at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan did not view Cohen as a benign counter-cultural figure; they objected to the fact that Ben & Jerry's was now part of the Unilever empire and so "part of the problem." And yet as Cohen noted, Ben & Jerry's never lacks for takers of free ice cream, even at Zuccotti Park.
Cohen is trying to enlist fellow rich guys on behalf of the Occupy movement, and he has set up an organization called the Movement Resource Group to channel money to protest activities. But the heart and soul of Ben & Jerry's remains ice cream, and Ben's visits to protest sites around the country continued.
The Occupy movement has yet to resurrect itself with anything like the force with which it hit the nation's consciousness last fall, when it popularized the notion of the 1 percent and the 99 percent. If anything, the movement ought to be growing as awareness increases about the spreading poverty that is degrading the economy of the nation. Definitions vary, but observers now estimate that anywhere from one-third to one-half of Americans are either poor, near poor or on the edge of becoming poor.
Given the vast extent of the hardship and the increased awareness of the toll that inequality is taking on the economy, the question is why millions of Americans aren't thronging to Zuccotti Park or similar venues to demand change. Political and economic trends have brought about the impoverishment of millions of Americans even as the wealthiest fraction have become vastly more wealthy. Why do we let it happen?
One reason is that many Americans skating on the edge of poverty are not willing to identify themselves as poor. It is likely that many people, struggling with unemployment, home foreclosures and lack of health care, think of themselves still as middle class people who have hit a temporary down time. Thus, politicians, even President Obama, key their economic message to the middle class, knowing that's where the great majority of voters are, even if they have temporarily joined what would be defined as the poor.
People struggling to regain their footing in the middle class may be reluctant to demand what they see as a handout from government and may be even more reluctant for government to distribute handouts to others whom they see as undeserving.
Thus, skepticism of government cripples the government's ability to address the problem of poverty because government is forced to curb, not just handouts, but useful programs such as job training, health care and education.
If the Occupy movement gets into gear again this year, it has a supporter in the emperor of ice cream, Ben Cohen, who, though he no longer runs Ben & Jerry's, remains committed to social justice. He may not be able to change the course of history, but he can still make history taste better.