Boycott frenzy, “discrimination,” and the tyranny of efficiency

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Image: Drain The NRA

In the wake of the school shooting in Florida and NRA president Wayne LaPierre’s statement that the right to bear arms is “granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright,” a slew of companies from Delta Airlines and Hertz to MetLife have ended discount programs with the NRA. Now people are calling for boycotts of Amazon and FedEx for retaining their NRA ties. Will these boycotts split America down the middle?

Delta pays for its decision to end an NRA discount

It’s instructive to look at the statements these companies made. Here’s what Delta said:

Delta informed the National Rifle Association Saturday that the airline will end its contract for discounted fares for travel to the association’s 2018 annual meeting. The company requested that the NRA remove Delta’s information from its meeting website.

Delta’s decision reflects the airline’s neutral status in the current national debate over gun control amid recent school shootings. Out of respect for our customers and employees on both sides, Delta has taken this action to refrain from entering this debate and focus on its business. Delta continues to support the 2nd Amendment.

This is not the first time Delta has withdrawn support over a politically and emotionally charged issue. Last year, Delta withdrew its sponsorship of a theater that staged a graphic interpretation of “Julius Caesar” depicting the assassination of President Trump. Delta supports all of its customers but will not support organizations on any side of any highly charged political issue that divides our nation.

The decision has consequences. The Lieutenant Governor of Georgia,Casey Cagle, said he would block a pending tax break for Delta, which has is big hub in Atlanta. Here’s how he responded on Twitter:

FedEx is paying for maintaining its NRA discounts

FedEx takes the position that as a “common carrier,” it is not able to discriminate on which organizations get discounts. Here’s its statement:

FedEx Corporation’s positions on the issues of gun policy and safety differ from those of the National Rifle Association (NRA).  FedEx opposes assault rifles being in the hands of civilians.  While we strongly support the constitutional right of U.S. citizens to own firearms subject to appropriate background checks, FedEx views assault rifles and large capacity magazines as an inherent potential danger to schools, workplaces, and communities when such weapons are misused.  We therefore support restricting them to the military.  Most important, FedEx believes urgent action is required at the local, state, and Federal level to protect schools and students from incidents such as the horrific tragedy in Florida on February 14th.

FedEx is a common carrier under Federal law and therefore does not and will not deny service or discriminate against any legal entity regardless of their policy positions or political views.  The NRA is one of hundreds of organizations in our alliances/association Marketing program whose members receive discounted rates for FedEx shipping.  FedEx has never set or changed rates for any of our millions of customers around the world in response to their politics, beliefs or positions on issues.

In response to this action, hundreds have posted on the #BoycottFedEx hashtag; my Facebook feed is full of people planning to dump FedEx for UPS.

Amazon and Google face criticism for carrying NRA TV

Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Google’s YouTube, and AT&T’s DirecTV include the NRA TV channel. Shannon Watts, founder of the advocacy group Moms Demand Action, said “We demand that Apple, Amazon, AT&T’s DIRECTV, Google and Roku all dump NRA TV once and for all.” The NRA TV channel is an advocacy channel.

We’re headed for madness

Let’s play this one out. Take Amazon, for example. I’m sure its streaming service has a contract with NRA TV. The company would be breaking that contract by taking the channel off the platform. Even so, some of my Facebook friends say they are tossing their Alexa and Kindle devices and cancelling their Amazon Prime subscriptions. But why stop there? If you are a true believer, you should never buy anything from Amazon.com. If you’re a startup, you have to port your online services off of Amazon Web Services to a competing cloud service. And you can never shop at Whole Foods.

As I pointed out to a friend of mine recently, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post. So hey, let’s dump the Washington Post, too. Surely the journalism there can’t possibly make up for the fact that some division of Amazon provides access to an NRA streaming service. After all, Donald Trump says it’s Fake News.

Wait a minute. How did we get from penalizing Amazon for streaming NRA TV to supporting Donald Trump?

If I oppose the NRA, which has a channel on YouTube, do I need to get rid of all the other Google stuff I use? Do I have to dump my Gmail account, use Bing for searches, and get rid of my Android phone?

And must I now switch carriers from AT&T, which owns DirecTV?

Come on, now. Boycotting FedEx might be easy. But ripping out Google, AT&T, and Amazon is a lot more painful. Are you ready to go that far?

And if you do, what’s your opinion on what the Georgia Senate is trying to do to Delta? The tax breaks they were contemplating are supposed to allow Delta to bring many more flights and jobs to Georgia. If you can dump Amazon, why can’t Georgia kill Delta’s tax break?

Discrimination is a dirty word

At the root of all of this madness is the word “discrimination.”

The programs at Hertz, Delta, and all the other travel companies discriminated in favor of NRA members. Those were economic deals — both the travel companies and the NRA benefited. But now they have a higher cost to the travel companies, as the NRA haters are ready to penalize the companies for their deals.

It’s the same at Amazon and DirecTV. The carriage deals are a form of discrimination — they make it easier to find and view NRA TV. It’s an age-old practice in TV — selling access.

It’s also the same at FedEx — sort of. They’ve clearly automated their member discount programs, to insulate themselves from charges of discrimination. But now the boycotters are asking them to discriminate against the NRA, denying it a program that they offer to any other membership program.

Discrimination for a price is the way America does business. You create a position of power and influence, often through distribution strength. You then invite others in, and charge them for the privilege. To be as efficient as possible, you do this through an automated program, since negotiating each deal separately is too inefficient.

The system works great until your discrimination puts you in the midst of a political firestorm, which is what has happened to Delta, FedEx, Amazon, and hundreds of other companies.

How to get out of this mess

As I’ve written before, once you follow these boycotts to their logical conclusion, you’ve divided American into warring camps. The only difference here is that one of the camps will have guns, and one won’t.

So here are three recommendations: one for individuals, one for companies, and one for governments.

As an individual, I support your desire to vote with your pocketbook. But I’d recommend limiting how far you take it. If shipping supplies company Uline explicitly endorses conservative politics and you’re against it, don’t buy from Uline. But when an airline or a shipping company offers a discount to NRA members, that’s not an endorsement. And while I’m sure that Amazon regrets its decision to carry NRA TV, I’m not ready to pillory everything Jeff Bezos touches as a result. I’m still going to shop at Whole Foods and read and pay for the Washington Post, which I consider to be excellent companies that are mostly improving the world. And I’m keeping my Amazon Prime, along with my domain hosted on Google, which works great.

As a company, you certainly need to have a template for dealmaking. But I’d recommend avoiding deals with political organizations, no matter how large and lucrative. Your alliance with the NRA, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the ACLU, or the Republican Party are going to put you in the free-fire zone. Put a political clause in all your agreements so you can cancel at any time when an organization gets too deep into political activity. That’s what Delta did, and it’s what FedEx should have done.

As a government official, please do what’s best for the city, state, or country you represent. The object is not to score points against the other side, the object is to make our lives better. Lt. Gov. Cagle, I understand that you passionately support gun rights. But if Delta’s expansion is best for Georgia, don’t hold that hostage because Delta cancelled a discount program for travel to a specific conference; that feels like an overreaction. If government officials take sides and will do business only with companies that take sides, we’ll divide the whole country into factions that can’t get along with each other. We’ve gone too far in that direction already. Let’s not make it worse.

6 responses to “Boycott frenzy, “discrimination,” and the tyranny of efficiency

  1. The issue is that political leaders will never work toward reasonable gun safety measures as long as the NRA’s corrosive practice of funneling massive amounts of money from arms makers to politicians remains viable. The only way I see to stop it is to make taking cash from the NRA a badge of shame akin to taking money from the KKK or white supremacists. As long as mainstream businesses like Amazon implicitly condone the NRA by streaming its hateful rhetoric — including giving voice to people who make death threats to children — that won’t happen.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful post Josh, as always. We’re not just “headed for madness”, we’re already there. The gun control debate has turned into nothing more than a mud slinging fest between the left and right. As William McGurn wrote in WSJ yesterday, this has become nothing short of a childish debate, driven by emotion, rather than reason: https://www.wsj.com/articles/our-childish-gun-debate-1519689341

    As a licensed gun owner in a state with some of the strictest gun laws in the country, I find the complete lack of a basic understanding of guns by those on the far left, coupled with the complete lack of willingness to listen among those on the far right, is proof that this debate will not result in meaningful solutions. We need a pragmatic discussion about solutions to root causes of the problem, not irrational outbursts driven by fear and emotion.

  3. As an Australian, If you, as an individual or a broader group, wish to stop using a product or service because you have an issue, fine. Stop using that organisation. As soon as you start demanding (eg, FedEx) what they must do, you are no better than the rootin’, tootin’ gun junkies. Vote with your pockets and pencils, not with your mouths.

    We watch from afar, mostly in disbelief, at the satire to which America has devolved. “You” are the nasty spoilt kid with the all the toys. Now someone is telling you to tidy up and it has dissolved into a hysterical tantrum.

    Leave it to the teens of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High to wield their implacable, millennial strength. For those of your that haven’t looked at who Ms Stoneman was and what she stood for, I highly recommend it. Seems salient that it is the students from this school leading the foment of change.

    Good luck to you, all. Sincerely.

  4. The thing that amazes me is that people are trying to punish the NRA for… doing what it is supposed to do, look out for the interests of its members. The gun haters might not want to hear it but US politics is supposed to be adversarial, the NRA and similar groups are as much a part of the democratic process as all the anti-gun groups.
    What these people seem to want is a one-sided “debate”.

    Most of us who don’t go along with today’s anti-gun hysteria (no I’m not a gun owner or an NRA member) like myself care as much about the people hurt or killed in horrible gun crimes as anyone — we just know more about guns, and current gun laws. A lot of these gun control people should take the time they spend screaming at the NRA and spend it learning more about the subject, we might all benefit from an actual debate among people who know what they are talking about.

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