For those who have remained blissfully off of Twitter, a site that remains uncomfortably popular with sociopaths and morons like me, the “ratio” is when a tweet is so bad that the number of retweets and favorites it accrues becomes greatly outnumbered by hostile replies. It is one of the few beautiful things about the site, a poisonous rose growing on polluted soil, or at least an injoke that hasn’t been completely run into the ground yet.
This weekend in ratios we have a jaw-droppingly bad op-ed in Forbes explaining that the age of the crusty old library is dead, and instead of them, we should all get Amazon. Not some kind of Amazon-like digital public library, or even Amazon Prime itself, mind you, but physical Amazon Books retail locations. Titled “Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money,” it is written by Long Island University Post economics professor and seemingly prolific Forbes contributor section writer Panos Mourdoukoutas.
Mourdoukoutas writes that the government should stop funding libraries in part to save taxpayers a vague (and within the article, never quantified) amount of money and also to jack up Amazon’s stock price for some reason:
Amazon should open their own bookstores in all local communities. They can replace local libraries and save taxpayers lots of money, while enhancing the value of their stock.
Then, over the course of several pained paragraphs, Mourdoukoutas belaboredly explains that there “was a time local libraries offered the local community lots of services in exchange for their tax money,” including allowing book-borrowing, providing “a comfortable place they could enjoy their books,” “friendly librarians,” and hosting events. The professor continues to explain that Starbucks, an overpriced coffee chain notable mostly for its ruthless expansion and correlation to gentrification, fills most of the dual roles of a library:
Libraries slowly began to service the local community more. Libraries introduced video rentals and free internet access. The modern local library still provides these services, but they don’t have the same value they used to. The reasons why are obvious.
One such reason is the rise of “third places” such as Starbucks. They provide residents with a comfortable place to read, surf the web, meet their friends and associates, and enjoy a great drink. This is why some people have started using their loyalty card at Starbucks more than they use their library card.
One might use their loyalty card at Starbucks so often because they’re buying coffee, but hey.
Mourdoukoutas then makes another astonishing logical leap, claiming that because Amazon Books offers both books and coffee, it is a replacement for both libraries and Starbucks:
Of course, there’s Amazon Books to consider. Amazon have created their own online library that has made it easy for the masses to access both physical and digital copies of books. Amazon Books is a chain of bookstores that does what Amazon originally intended to do; replace the local bookstore. It improves on the bookstore model by adding online searches and coffee shops. Amazon Go basically combines a library with a Starbucks.
Amazon does not have an “online library.” It has an store. These are entirely different ways of providing access to things. As the New Yorker noted, Amazon Books retail offerings are seemingly determined by algorithm to push content already selling well on Amazon, not variety or access to information. As for its “online searches,” they are for searching Amazon’s catalog of things for sale, not for the general searching of the internet by the public or accessing library-linked projects like Overdrive, Kanopy, and Hoopla that allow free digital borrowing.
Additionally, what the professor is describing—a digital catalog and coffee—could apply to almost any modern book store chain. So it’s unclear why Amazon is uniquely more suited to replace the library than any other book store, other than that it has gutted those stores’ business model so thoroughly that it faces no real obstacles just replacing them with the equivalent of giant Amazon advertising kiosks.
Finally, Mourdoukoutas reiterates that ending libraries and their “tax fees” (???) would save taxpayers money. Again, this completely disregards that if libraries were not much cheaper for a large slice of the public, particularly those who are financially disadvantaged, than buying individual copies of their own books, they would not exist. He also hammers home that it would “enhance the stockholder value of Amazon,” which is already among the richest companies on the planet, rapidly getting richer, and is not going to offer any of the numerous additional services that libraries offer for free because that would cut into its gluttonous profits:
At the core, Amazon has provided something better than a local library without the tax fees. This is why Amazon should replace local libraries. The move would save taxpayers money and enhance the stockholder value of Amazon all in one fell swoop.
Everything in this op-ed—from its apparent cluelessness as to what libraries actually do to its clunky, five paragraphs format-esque writing—is a priceless gift to the Ratio Gods. Mourdoukoutas has spent the last day being continually clowned on by hundreds, if not thousands, of users on Twitter.
Even libraries began yelling at the professor:
Here’s what is actually going on here. While public libraries do often get state and federal funding or grants, they are usually funded out of local taxes, of which the biggest slice is usually property taxes. The richer you are, the more likely you are to own a big property subject to higher taxes. As Mourdoukoutas made clear on Sunday evening in yet more tweets that are receiving the ratio treatment at this very moment, his gripe is that he pays $495 a year to fund his local library out of his property taxes. In his estimation, it is better that no one have access to the rich range of services offered by local libraries than he and others with properties roughly as valuable as his pay roughly $40 a month.
Do any of us really want to pay taxes? Duh, no. Do most reasonable people agree that to fund communal services that benefit the entire public, the government should pool a slice of their income and wealth every year? Yes. For example, we have generally agreed that fires should be put out by government-provisioned and -trained professional and volunteer firefighters instead of whoever happened to be standing nearby with a bucket.
What is not amusing about this article is that, despite being a very bad idea, in an era defined by government at all levels largely curtailing to the demands of corporations and the rich by slashing public services, an Amazon kiosk replacing your local library is at least somewhat plausible. The president called for zero federal funding for libraries in his budget proposal, state and local funding has been precarious in many states, and the number of school libraries has been plummeting. That’s despite the fact that most people who actually use them are in complete agreement on their value.
Update, July 23rd, 2018: In response to a request for comment about his op-ed and the response to it from Gizmodo via email, Mourdoukoutas wrote:
Times have changed. Whether we like it or not, hard cover books are turning into collectors’ items. That undermines one of the “core” functions of the local libraries. Starbucks and other “third places” undermine their “non-core” functions. And Amazon Books undermines both.
While Amazon charges for its books and subscription services, it isn’t financed by taxpayer money as is the case with local libraries.
That’s something that some people do not understand. And I want to repeat it: Local libraries aren’t free. In my community, they are financed by a fee. It is added to school taxes. I paid $495 last year
Is that fee too high? Does it have better uses in the community? Are local libraries duplicating school libraries? Should local libraries come up with a new business model to compete with Amazon Books or end up being replaced by them? I’m asking questions as an economist and taxpayer.