business news in context, analysis with attitude

As noted above, I got a lot of emails over the weekend about the censorship controversy - it was discovered that the site was selling a book defending pedophilia, and after initial resistance, the company decided to stop selling it.

My comment was that while I abhor the notion of censorship, it seemed to me that it was completely within Amazon’s rights not to sell the book, and that not selling books that advocate illegal behavior strikes me as an appropriate place to draw the line, and hardly qualifies as censorship.

One MNB user wrote:

In this situation as we often find, it is about the grey area and how we define it. While I don’t think there are many people other than the author who think this book should have been sold, written, or even conceived, the first amendment protected the right to do so.  If one of the world’s largest book sellers chooses not to present this, then where do they draw the line?  Ok, lets say we all agree teaching how to violate children is bad.  You mentioned bomb making, and I think most of us agree that is bad as well.  Amazon caries several examples of this, including the Anarchist’s Cookbook which is arguably one of the most famous repositories of explosive knowledge.  Now how about growing and distributing Pot?  While some states have “legalized” it to some extent it is still illegal at the federal level and in most states.  Now we get to where many people would be for or against Amazon choosing to carry or not carry the material.  So where does Amazon draw the line?  It is a hard question with no good answers for a business that wants to grow and prosper through new and loyal customers.

I am personally torn on this issue.  On one hand I don’t want that type of material out there helping those doing harm to the most vulnerable among us.  On the other hand I am uncomfortable with other people, companies, or (god help us) the government being the filter of what information I have access to.

MNB user Matt Mroczek wrote:

I'm certainly not in support of pedophilia.  However, blanket censoring of books that promote illegal behavior discourages positive social change.  Had you lived in the South in the early 1800's, would you have been opposed to a book that discussed how to participate in the Underground Railroad?

And MNB user Marianne Konvalinka wrote:

The book received way more attention through the uproar than it ever would have otherwise. As you pointed out, anyone who purchased the offending article could easily be tracked, which might have (for them) unintended consequences.

If the policy is not to carry books that promote illegal behavior, where does that leave Lolita, Electric Kool Aid Acid Test and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas (among others)?

Poor judgment, certainly, but I don’t think the answer is quite so easy.

It was interesting that in all the emails I got, none of them came out and said that Amazon had made the right decision on a black-and-white issue. Which I think is reassuring, because this certainly is a question where nuance matters.

I certainly don’t think that this is an easy problem to deal with. And you’re right - once Amazon decides to not carry books on one controversial subject, it opens the doors for other special interest groups to pressure the company not to carry books on other subjects, or not do business with third-party sellers that offer such books. (I can see it now - some group of radical vegans will call for Amazon to stop selling books about barbecue. Or some radical anti-cinema group will say that Amazon shouldn’t be selling books about the movies, especially that provocative tome, “The Big Picture: Essential Business Lessons from the Movies.” The dominos will fall, and the results could be scary ... especially if some politician who thinks that Sen. Joe McCarthy is a positive role model decides to build a political career on the notion that not all speech should be free and only certain kinds of speech are appropriate/patriotic.)

To be honest, I don’t know what the answer is, and I’m not sure there is one simple answer. This is a minefield of exposed nerves and loud special interests, and just venturing in is likely to cause Amazon some intestinal distress.

I know this. I’m a father, and the idea of selling books about pedophilia bothers me greatly. I’m also a pet owner, but the idea of selling books about dog fighting doesn’t bother me nearly so much.

But I do not know where to draw the line on what can be sold. (Not what can be written...because that’s a different issue. Anything can be written. But I’m not sure that deciding not to sell a certain book is the same as censorship. But again, maybe I’m just splitting hairs...)

I do know this. I think I would be far more likely to stop doing business with Amazon if it were to become aggressively censorious - or whatever the word is for a company not selling products on certain topics - than I would if Amazon simply takes the position that it is an open forum for the selling of books, and does not make editorial decisions on content.

On the subject of small stores, MNB fave Glen Terbeek sent the following email:

Small is going to be the long term trend, or reality, not just a recent fad.  The overall economic trends that weren't mentioned in the article are store saturation and the Internet/related technologies that together are driving prices down to the "lowest common denominator", making it unprofitable for retailers to carry many items, under the old store based, buy and resale model.

As a result, a retailer in the future will need to compete and make money by creating value above and beyond distribution value.  Today, it would be cheaper for the manufacturers to deliver directly to the shoppers using a common "agent" (think of  a local, specialized shopper's FedEx, UPS)  which makes all items available quickly. Compare this to having only their high volume items going through redundant stores at a high cost.  If you don't  believe me, just think of the gross margin and trade dollars that go to the retailers (probably 40% of the retail price) that can easily pay for the quick response delivery fee.  And that doesn't even consider the marketing productivity that would result.  Closing the gap between creating shopper demand and fulfilling that demand represents huge economic benefits for the manufacturers.  And the shoppers would be enjoying a logical, personalized shopping experience provided by the agent, that would be hard to beat in a real store environment.

Small stores will be the future.

Last week, MNB took note of a HealthDay News report on a new study from the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, saying that “obese teenagers are 16 times more likely to become severely obese adults than teens of normal weight.”

As the story notes, “Severe obesity -- defined as a body mass index above 40 -- heightens the risk for a number of health complications, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, asthma and arthritis. In addition, people who are severely obese can expect significant reductions in life expectancy.”

I commented:

And obese adults, I think we all can agree, are a drain on the nation’s economy and ability to be productive.

Which is why it makes sense, in my view, for schools to be more careful about they serve kids in school and be more comprehensive about nutrition education. And it makes sense for companies to incentivize employees to live healthier lifestyles, and make people accountable for when they do not.

MNB user Lisa Bosshard wrote:

First a question - Have You Ever Been Obese?

I have... and now I'm not, so I have a unique perspective to add to this...   In fact, I've lost over 160 lbs. when I was once over 300 lbs. in weight.   While these are staggering numbers, I seriously challenge your statement about being a drain on the economy and ability to be productive.   At 300+ pounds, could I have gone out and plowed a field by myself, No, but at 100'ish pounds I still can't; weight has nothing to do with, lifestyle however does.   I have a desk job and have all of my adult life.  Weight is not an issue in what I "do" to earn a living.  I pay my taxes which I earn by working - regardless of my weight.  I'm healthy and will tell you that I was also one of the healthiest "fat" people you would ever meet.   Being obese did not make me a lazy or less productive member of society.  What exactly is your definition of being productive?

So, your statement is not something I agree with and frankly that type of thinking is part of what leads to prejudice against obese people.   Something to consider... not all fat people get that way by eating!   And, in case you're wondering.... I worked out 2-3 times a week in a gym with a trainer as a fat person and still work out as a skinny person - so I did live a healthy lifestyle even then, but based on your thinking, would have been penalized simply due to BMI or weight.

I do however agree that more has to be done for children including a comprehensive nutritional education as obesity in kids is an epidemic.  I'm just not sure we can get there as a nation with a thought process that all "fat" people are there because they are unproductive...

MNB user Kelly Cox Semple took exception to my position:

I have been a regular MNB reader for years, so I know your position on obesity is plainly fat = bad. My usual reaction when you drive down that well-worn road is to mumble and be frustrated (though I have written to you on occasion in the past). But today, you crossed a line. How DARE you call me a “drain on the nation’s economy and ability to be productive.” And how presumptuous of you to say "we can all agree" about that.

I earned my Bachelor’s Degree while working as many as four jobs at once to pay for it -- carrying a full course load, participating in numerous extracurricular activities, and volunteering. Sure, lots of college kids juggle huge workloads, but I did it while morbidly obese. What's that you say about productivity? Since graduation, I have been full-time in the work force with no unexplained gaps. I have worked in my current industry for 17 years, in a succession of roles o! f increasing responsibility. I work 50+ hours a week in my job, plus I work part-time at the business my husband and I own. We have one full-time employee and one part-time employee (not including ourselves), and we regularly employ the services of numerous local contractors. We pay our taxes religiously. We contribute to our community. My husband works 80-90 hours per week, and has had 5 days off in 3 years (3 of those were Christmases -- the only day of the year that our business is not open). I have been volunteering for various charitable organizations since I was 14 years old, and have served on the Board of Directors for the regional branch of one nation-wide organization. Together, my husband and I are a hard-working gear in the engine of the American economy. And we're both fatter than anyone you know.

Moreover, we are healthy -- and we have the blood tests and satisfied doctors to prove it. We contribute more money to my company-sponsored health program than we get out of it during the year. We are NOT more expensive because of our size.

Do you know who the true drain is? SICK people. Sick people are the ones who lose time at work due to illness, thereby reducing productivity. Sick people are the ones whose medical expenses are high, causing them to take far more out of the system than what they put into it, thereby driving up the cost to everyone. Sometimes, sick people are so sick that they don't work at all and collect disability benefits from the government. More of a drain on the economy. But efforts to address health issues in this country cannot simply target sick people because it's not acceptable to BLAME sick people for being sick. However, in our diet-obsessed culture, it is not only acceptable to blame fat people, it's expected.

If all the hype about diet and exercise were genuinely about health, body size would be irrelevant. Shouldn't thin people also strive for health? So please, stop speaking as if you are an expert on the relationship between body size and health.

First of all, thanks for your email. I feel bad if you viewed my commentary as being a personal attack on you; that certainly was not my intention, though I completely understand why you feel that way.

To be clear about my perspective...I have wrestled with weight issues all of my life. I have been as much as 40 pounds overweight at certain times of my life, which I think technically means that I have, in fact, been obese. Maintaining what I view as a healthy weight - through portion control, the intelligent consumption of healthy food, and a consistent exercise schedule - is a constant struggle...but because I always feel better and perform better when I am lighter, I view it as a worthy struggle. (I lost more than 30 pounds a couple of years ago by eating smart. jogging 30 miles a week and boxing three days a week...but then hurt my knees, got depressed, stopped exercising, ate more, and put all the weight back on. These days I’m trying to eat smarter, am biking five days a week, and have lost 15 pounds in the past few months. The struggle continues...but it would be a mistake to suggest that I have no personal experience with it. On the other hand, I remember someone once telling me that that most conservative Catholics tend to be converted maybe that explains what appears to be a certain edge to my attitude.)

Now...let’s be clear. Your description of your schedule and productivity made me tired just to read it. And I accept your position that you are healthy, regardless of your weight.

But I’m not sure your experience reflects the greater reality - that a large percentage of people in this country who are obese tend to suffer from other, resultant health problems, which are expensive to treat and affect the nation’s overall productivity.

I applaud you for being the exception. But based on what I have read - and I cheerfully concede that I am not an expert - it is hard for me to accept that the obesity epidemic is not having both a health and economic impact on the country.

On a related subject, we had a story last week about a professor who went on a junk food diet and lost weight - because he limited his daily caloric intake, and didn’t worry about nutrition. This raises questions that further study needs to answer...but the questions certainly are interesting.

One MNB user responded:

One man’s experiment for two months doesn’t exactly rise to the level of scientific study that would move me to abandon all the actual clinical research that has been done. As much as I like donuts, Doritos and Oreos, they do not constitute a nutritionally balanced diet that will help me ward off aging and disease in my golden years!

Nor was he suggesting that his experiment did mean that all the other evidence should be thrown out. All he was suggesting was that his experiment revealed an unexpected result, and that more study is required.

From another MNB user:

Doesn't it make you want to see if it's also the food that makes you unhealthy?   What if  Supersize Me, arguably the most disgusting documentary that I've ever watched, was redone but on the same premise of the Twinkie Diet? That could be interesting...

MNB user Jill Hedin wrote:

With all the eating disorders our teens our faced with, and American obesity levels at an all time high, a professor putting across a message that implies a steady diet of Twinkies, sugary cereals and saturated fatty chips even has potential health benefits is pretty irresponsible. Finding a diet that allows you to keep your weight and body healthy is challenging enough. Putting messages like this out there, especially for our youth, is only making healthy eating decisions, choices and habits harder to achieve. There had to be body fatigue and energy level issues with this sort of diet along with other side effects not mentioned.

Those of us with years of healthy eating choices under our belts find this sort of study full of holes. Maybe there is more to it, but I sure hope there is more clarification to come. Besides, to maintain a healthy body, a crash diet is not the way to go. Learning portion control while continuing to make healthy, nutritional food choices and listening to the body has kept me heart, body and mind healthy for almost 10 years.
Keep writing, Coupe! Your articles are exhilarating!


Another MNB user wrote, about the entire subject:

You are right…what is the definition of health and how do we achieve health?  Americans tend to want a silver bullet when it comes to health, a quick and easy answer to resolving years of neglect – usually in the form of a pill or a fad diet. Well, there are no silver bullets and health is not defined by weight. Health is not defined through a lack of symptoms, but the harmonious symbiosis of our seven bodily systems leading to a quality of life throughout longevity. It takes a lifetime to accomplish.

And, we continue to get emails about Michael Sansolo’s column about the Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert rally, and the broader topic of civility in our discourse.

One MNB user wrote:

 I am all for a good discussion around ideology – but the information being shared around about what the Republicans want to do now that they have power is a bit repulsive to me and, if taken forward, will backfire just like what happened to the other side over health care.

Full disclosure – I lean a bit to the right and have voted the conservative side of most tickets over the past 30 years.  I am more about fiscal restraint and an end to entitlements while still being in favor of free choice for all (whether health care, sexual orientation or whatever).

If this country wants to continue to be the greatest country in the world, we will stop moving our elections to the third world space of mud slinging and fringe politics.  The US is like the Titanic – very difficult to turn and a bit cumbersome to operate.  What we need are dedicated citizens (not politicians) that want something better for everyone in a 10 year window – not pork for their constituents in the next six weeks.

I find Colbert and Stewart funny – sometimes very funny and sometimes only mildly amusing.  The only time I turn them off (and I turn off O’Reilly or Fox News in the same fashion) is when they have found the horse, beat it into submission and then begin to beat it into the ground.  Raise the issue, have civil discussion about what is possible, define a few possible solutions and MOVE ON.

Speaking as someone who has beaten his share of dead horses, I agree with you.

MNB user Bernie Ellis wrote:

I have to agree with your assessment of the current incivility in this's getting scary. What your unnamed MNB reader misses in his comments on Colbert and Stewart is that they are entertainers, just like Beck, Limbaugh and all the others on TV and radio spewing hate and anger. They will all continue to preach these things as long as people listen. Progress is made when people have civil conversations about serious issues. We have big issues facing us and as Mr David Stockman, Ronald Reagan's Budget Director,  pointed out on 60 Minutes right before the election...... neither the Republicans, Libertarians or Democrats are telling the truth about what we need to do to move forward and solve our budget problems. We need to increase taxes, reduce entitlements and cut defense spending to solve the problem. The Presidential Commission on the deficit is a great first step if people would just listen, think and then discuss these very difficult subjects we might be able to solve our issues..

Everyone needs to compromise. I guess that's a dirty word today...... unfortunately.

It was amazing, annoying and more than a little distressing last week when the deficit commission started talking about the tough choices that will need to be made, and people on both sides of the aisle started coming up with reasons why certain things could not be done.

“Everything is on the table” has to mean that everything actually is on the table.

But in this case, the table may be rigged. And progress may be elusive.

MNB user Bruce Christiansen wrote:

My final thoughts on this....the fact that some of your readers found this effort to be patently liberal while pundits like Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow were offended that they felt Stewart/Colbert lumped liberal pundits as being as bad the the conservative pundits proves three things to me:  Stewart/Colbert made their point perfectly, they appear to have struck exactly the right balance, and self examination is a painful exercise, because I may learn I am wrong.

And finally, MNB user Tad Mancini wrote:

In  response  to  yesterday’s “I  will  not  be  civil  to  Democrats”  rant,   I  am  reminded  of  a  quote  from  Aristotle - “It  is  the  mark  of  an  educated  mind  to  be  able  to  entertain  a  thought  without  accepting  it.”

KC's View: