• Wendell and Jeff
    December 04,2013

    Television brings us alternative visions of the world daily. For those who like that, Sunday was a special day.

    Waiting for the Patriots-Texans football matchup (watched out of loyalty to Belichick, Brady, Edelman & Co., but with the sound off to preserve my sanity) I was blessed with Bill Moyers interviewing Kentucky farmer and poet Wendell Berry, whose pure vision of an agricultural community would put people back to work and sideline giant agricultural machines of all kinds plus all those that scrape the tops off mountains in order to mine coal.

    After the game was over, I happened to be watching “60 Minutes” on CBS featuring Charlie Rose interviewing Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos about his company and his intentions for the future. Bezos wouldn’t talk about the possibility that Amazon, which already has a massive presence in “cloud computing,” could eventually dominate that field, as it already dominates the Internet sale of almost everything that can fit in a delivery truck.

    But Bezos was willing to talk about his latest innovation, which made the headlines on Monday: small flying drones that can deliver packages from distribution centers directly to your door. In other words, having first taken aim at local retailers and eventually replaced them with a fleet of package delivery services, Bezos is now taking aim at the package delivery services, their drivers and freight handlers. And he wishes to put local food stores out of business as well, by using those drones to fly food to your house in minutes. Goodbye, Domino’s Pizza and a lot of other stuff.

    Questioned by Rose about the practical and moral implications of such a plan, Bezos expressed supreme indifference. Business evolves, he said, and as it evolves, all businesses will fail eventually. Even Amazon. Bezos said he hopes Amazon’s demise comes after his own. I have to wonder if he has given any thought to the fact that, as principal owner of Amazon, he has a lot more control in the matter than most of those who may wind up unemployed.

    But this is not a rant against mechanization, technology or globalization. And while it is a song of praise for Wendell Berry, we do have to admit that family-run farms could not begin to feed the world’s population. And the water, food and delivery system that came to the rescue of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos recently is totally dependent on technology, mechanization and globalization. Without them, that system could not exist.

    What is the way forward? As inspiring or demoralizing as these competing visions may be, neither of them alone is the answer. And what is the effect on property taxes, which are essential to supporting local services such as roads and schools? The U.S. Supreme Court may have answered that one yesterday with a decision not to consider an appeal of a lower court ruling that held Amazon.com is liable for sales taxes everywhere it solicits business. Hooray. Is the Supreme Court at last showing signs of common sense?

    Brad Denny lives in Northfield.

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