Economist causes controversy: 'Replace public libraries with Amazon bookstores'

A controversial article from Forbes argues that libraries, once an important public resource, are outdated, costly and should be replaced by Amazon book stores.

UPDATE: According to Quartz, Forbes deleted the "deeply misinformed" op-ed on July 23, 2018, citing that it was written outside of the contributor's area of expertise.

Libraries, once an important public resource, are outdated, costly and should be replaced by Amazon book stores. That's the controversial argument from economist Panos Mourdoukoutas published in a recent Forbes article.


“At the core, Amazon has provided something better than a local library without the tax fees," Mourdoukoutas, a professor of economics at LIU Post in New York, wrote. “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."

Mourdoukoutas argued that libraries were once a comfortable place to read, but now readers can just take their books to Starbucks. He also wrote that technology has turned physical books into “collector's items, effectively eliminating the need for library borrowing services."

Unsurprisingly, librarians and public library supporters took him to task on Twitter.


Public library funding

Most libraries are funded by local governments, typically through property taxes, and also from state and federal funds. The average taxpayer pays about $4.50 per month to fund local libraries, according to some estimates, though this figure varies by local tax rates.

In recent years, some libraries have had to seek funding from other sources, like philanthropy, renting out space for money, offering for-profit services like processing passport applications, and selling goods like USB drives and coffee.

It's hard to measure the exact monetary benefits of public libraries, but estimates provide an idea. The St. Johns County Public Library System in Florida, for example, estimates that taxpayers receive about $10 for every $1 they spend on libraries. These benefits come in the form of free (or low-cost) access to:

  • Books and reference materials for private or professional study
  • Expensive market research databases
  • Computers and printers low-income residents can use to apply for jobs
  • Classes and workshops
  • Resources for U.S. veterans
  • Spaces for community meetings
  • Librarians, many of whom have specialized master's degrees
  • Jobs provided to the community

Amazon, a giant for-profit company that got its start as a bookseller, would have little incentive to provide these resources, many of which are intangible.

“Libraries are community spaces where children come in order to learn to read and get a head start on learning," reads a recent piece from EveryLibrary, a nonprofit organization that helps libraries secure funding. “They are places where adults can get the help they need to explore an increasingly complex digital and information driven work environment. Veterans returning from overseas can attend programs to help them gain access to critical services. Small business owners and entrepreneurs can access global market databases like Gale Business Insights and use ReferenceUSA and AtoZ Databases to find new leads. Children can play with stem toys to learn how to engage with the latest technologies and gain the skills they'll need in the workforce. They do all of this and whole lot more, for a lot less than Amazon or any other organization in the country."
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.