Q & A
In the November issue, Franklin Foer wrote about Jeff Bezos’s master plan, and what it means for the rest of us. Here, Foer answers questions sent in by readers.
Q: What would failure look like for Bezos at this point? Or is he too big to fail?
A: The prospect of failure haunts Jeff Bezos and motivates his relentless pursuit of growth. In fact, the word that seems to best capture his anxieties is stagnation. At this stage, he fears standing still. He worries that if his mind stops moving or his company fails to find the next new thing, a competitor will overtake him. His ambitions keep swelling, because the alternative is too terrifying for him.
Q: Given Bezos’s preoccupation with space, why hasn’t he gone there already? And what are his personal plans?
A: Over the years, Bezos has gone from being a doughy engineer to a chiseled mogul. Why has he beasted out? According to one friend, he is preparing for the day when he’ll journey into space. But space travel is hard. There are reasons that this is a pursuit left to governments. It takes the resources of the state—at least it has in the past. The engineering challenges are mind-bending. My guess is that it will happen eventually, but not as quickly as Bezos would like.
Q: Is Amazon really that powerful? Retail is, after all, a low-margin business. Sears, Roebuck looked like a tenacious powerhouse too, once upon a time.
A: Standard Oil was that powerful; so were U.S. Steel, IBM, and Microsoft. There’s nothing new about Amazon’s size and strength. But in the past, government loomed over these companies. The Department of Justice broke up these Goliaths, or at least threatened to smash them to pieces. It seems like we’re in the early days of a resurgence of anti-monopoly sentiment. And that resurgence will pose a serious challenge to Amazon.
What we learned fact-checking this issue
In this issue, John Hendrickson sat down with Joe Biden to discuss the former vice president’s experiences with stuttering. In the article, Hendrickson dispels a common myth: that stuttering is caused by anxiety or fear.
This idea has not gone unexamined over the years. In a particularly radical experiment, the influential speech pathologist Wendell Johnson attempted to induce stuttering in a group of orphans by criticizing their speech. (The late University of Iowa professor, who stammered himself, believed that stuttering must be the result of parents disparaging kids for small speech mistakes.)
The 1939 inquiry, dubbed the “Monster Study,” didn’t confirm Johnson’s hypothesis, nor was it ever published, but it did result in a lawsuit. After a 2001 San Jose Mercury News investigation thrust the decades-old experiment into the spotlight, a few of the study’s subjects sued. In 2007, the state of Iowa settled for $925,000.
Researchers still aren’t sure what causes people to stutter. Despite Johnson’s belief that the neurological disorder was not hereditary, it has since been found to have a strong genetic component.
Will Gordon, Assistant Editor