I Smelled A Scam: Amazon Gave Me Dynamic Pricing

For those of a certain age-say, over 55- postmodern life is like living in an earthquake zone. The ground under one’s feet keeps shifting in ways one simply isn’t conditioned to expect. My shrink and I call it “Sync Shock”: the realization that one is entirely alienated by age, education, values and experience from the times in which one finds oneself living.

For example, four columns ago I commented on (what seemed to me) the sorry irony that the dumbing-down of America seems to be largely orchestrated by people who went to Harvard University. Then it occurred to me that a graduate of Yale University-the institution that gave the world David (“Dickhead”) Gergen, fleshly embodiment of everything I find ethically and intellectually repulsive about the way we live now-is hardly in a position (glass houses, etc.) to attack Harvard, so I half-apologized. Now, thanks to an e-mail from a far-flung correspondent, I learn that Mr. Gergen not only has an appointment at Harvard-Public Service (sic) Professor of Public Leadership at the Kennedy School-but has lectured to a Harvard forum on “character,” a subject on which he seems almost uniquely ill-equipped to preach, if personal career-history is anything to go by, or if you think it takes one to know one.

Two weeks ago, I cited “anecdotal” evidence-personal experience-that Amazon seems to be raising prices as a possible leading indicator of inflationary pressures at the consumer level. I realized at the time that it is always dangerous to extrapolate general rules from personal experience, but here I thought the ground seemed solid underfoot. Now, thanks first to another far-flung correspondent (who alerted me to Jeffrey Davis’ Oct. 4 “The Price Is (Not) Right” on Business2.Com Daily Insight), and also to Paul Krugman’s Op-Ed piece in The New York Times of the same date, I learn that I may be a “victim” (there seems no other word) of so-called “dynamic pricing.” Here’s how Mr. Krugman describes it: “Dynamic pricing … uses a potential buyer’s electronic fingerprint … to size up how likely he is to balk if the price is high. If the customer looks price-sensitive, he gets a bargain; if he doesn’t, he pays a premium.”

According to Mr. Davis, the scam (there seems no other word) was discovered this way: “After reading on a message board assertions that Amazon.com was selling DVDs at varying prices to different customers, one customer … stripped out his PC’s cookies and shopped as an anonymous first-time customer … the price of one DVD dropped two bucks.”

Leave aside that I’m going to look further into this, with a view to launching the mother of all class-action suits if the allegation holds up. What I find fascinating is the sheer topsy-turviness of “dynamic” or (there seems no other word) prejudicial pricing. It’s inside-out! It’s upside-down, back-to-front! Throughout every business era with which I’m acquainted, discounts have gone to customers who buy a lot, or regularly, and pay on time. Customers who enter into a relationship. It’s why another kind of business called one type of discount program ” frequent flyer.” Based on my account history with AMZN, I’m the sort of customer who should get a discount. Instead, what the online bookseller seems to be saying is, “You trust us-therefore you pay.” What do we call this? The “trust premium”? It’s sort of a commercial version of the “marriage tax,” and it definitely does not square with my notion of moral (there seems no other word) reality, let alone equity. I wonder how it squares with David Boies’ view-or, for that matter, Uncle Sam’s. Well, we shall see.

You can understand why it is that geezers of my vintage feel obliged to make more and more frequent excursions into that other country, the past, where they do things differently. But even that can be confusing.

Take a recent night. Hearts here in Dumbo leapt with pleasure at the information that Turner Classic Movies would be broadcasting Mad Love , a 1935 film that connoisseurs of cinema camp regard as one of the all-time greats, a classic of the “mad scientist” genre. The picture stars Peter Lorre, in a “fright pate” that has to be seen to be believed, as a surgeon whose vocation consists of splicing body parts. Thus a great concert pianist whose hands are irreparably maimed in an accident awakes to find they’ve been replaced with the paws of Rollo the Knife-thrower, a homicidal circus geek guillotined early on. Needless to say, Rollo himself turns up a bit into the picture, his head magically re-united to his body by the Rogaine-challenged Dr. Lorre, but with a new set of mechanical hands, since his own are now attached to the wrists of the Great Orlac, who-instead of running off a brisk set of Moments Musicaux when the fancy seizes him-is displaying a disturbing (there seems no other word) tendency to pinion friends and family to the nearest parquet with a deftly thrown penknife. That S.J. Perelman failed to get around to Mad Love for one of his Cloud Cuckooland casuals is (t.s.n.o.w.) tragic.

Suffice it to say there are also waxworks that seem to come alive, at least in the sight of a bonne à tout faire given to nipping at the absinthe while dusting off the passementerie . As for the rest … well, I think most experienced readers can take it from there.

Somewhere toward the middle of the film, I rose and left the room to answer a call of nature. When I returned, the plot of Mad Love had progressed to the point where a full-length waxwork of the Tussaud school was talking and gesticulating in the jerky, metronomic manner affected by live actors impersonating waxworks that have come alive.

The sight caused me to scream! Not because of what was taking place on screen, but because some Beta-minded wretch at Turner Broadcasting had apparently caused Mad Love to be colorized halfway through its length. “At long last,” I howled, paraphrasing the late Joseph Welch for perhaps the 1,000th time since the turn of the millennium, “is there no decency?”

And then I saw my mistake. My life’s partner had simply taken advantage of a more-than-usually-torpid longueur in the unfolding of Mad Love to switch channels. There had been no colorization, Beta or otherwise. What I took to be a nauseously tinted movie waxwork was merely the Vice President of the United States outlining his grand plan for a “Federal Home Heating Oil Reserve.”

As we hastily switched back to Mad Love , it was again borne upon me how I truly, deeply, irredeemably cannot stand Al Gore. For many reasons. His smug projection of an elitist, Harvard entitlement that is a living reproof to any notion of democratic politics. The fact that, on my TV, at least, he appears to have stepped out of one of those spreads in Hello that make everyone look as if molded in a strange, inhuman plasticene material. Above all, the way he speaks: the condescending tone, the silly rhythm, the sheer fatuousness and pomposity.

Does anyone here remember Mr. Arbuthnot, the “Cliché Expert” created in the old Harold Ross New Yorker by Frank Sullivan? Here he is:

“Q-Describe your candidate, Mr. Arbuthnot.

“A-My candidate is a man four-square, a true representative of the people, a leader worthy of the trust which has been placed in him.…

“Q- … What do you, as a campaign orator, propose to do in this grave hour?

“A-I shall demand, and denounce, and dedicate. I shall take stock. I shall challenge, pledge, stress, fulfill, indict, exercise, accuse, call upon, affirm and reaffirm.”

Al Gore reminds me of Arbuthnot. The difference is that, while the latter spoke in clichés, Mr. Gore speaks in programs . Everything is institutionalized; it takes little imagination to visualize the bureaus rising out of the Beltway soil like mushrooms after rain, sense their impending busyness, hear the ominous riffle-riffle of giant thunderheads of paperwork gathering beyond the horizon.

There is much that is wrong with America today, but much that is right, too. Al Gore incarnates a disproportionate percentage of the former, very little of the latter. Before I will vote for him, I will go and live in Addis Ababa.