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Saturday, June 25, 2022

What Is Amazon Doing to Our Country?

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We visit the city of Dayton, Ohio, multiple times, and follow along with a young couple, Todd and Sara, who grew up middle class but now find themselves, with children in tow, in a homeless shelter, an institution that MacGillis points out did not even exist in Dayton until the mid-1980s. In the book, Dayton, formerly seen as a birthplace of innovation and aviation, is now a symbol of postwar boom and bust, a city fallen from grace. Todd and Sara struggle to keep it together between domestic violence and job losses. Todd works at the local cardboard box factory, one of the few growing industries left, thanks to Amazon’s ascendance.

In MacGillis’s account, Amazon’s power centers on its willingness to influence politics on any scale, whether local or national. We spend time in Amazon’s corporate home in Seattle, where its rise has resulted in urban inequality, creating sharp contrasts between the haves and have-nots. In spite of tech’s supposed progressive intentions, Amazon is perversely willing to throw $1.5 million into a Seattle City Council race against progressive candidates, in order to evade taxation, arguing its money is better spent on philanthropy.

This ruthless strong-arming happens in other places as well. In rural Northern Virginia, Amazon encountered protests from residents opposed to an electricity easement the company wanted for its ever-expanding data center infrastructure. Amazon temporarily retreated, only for the energy company to strike a deal with the state to impose a monthly fee on all ratepayers to make up the cost, while Amazon secretly secured a discounted rate for itself.

When it comes to national politics, Amazon has hired dozens of former government officials, including the Obama administration’s head of federal procurement, to work for Amazon Business. This leads to millions of dollars in government contracts, and also explicit changes in national defense bills that shift more than $50 billion in routine government purchasing into online marketplaces.

Jeff Bezos’ oligarchic tendencies emerge through other scenes, as when MacGillis describes the C.E.O.’s “pharaonic” new house in Washington, D.C., and the military guard present at his arrival to a dinner at the Washington Hilton. Even Bezos’ ownership of The Washington Post comes across here as an effort to manufacture and control political discourse rather than to support the paper’s stated aim of saving democracy. By the end of the book, you might be convinced the situation is bleak, with Amazon fated to rule all facets of social and economic life. Unlike the immediate, visible crises of natural disaster and war, the uncertainty and harsh economic conditions created by this one company are a simmering, slow death.

During the pandemic, there has been talk on social media of boycotting Amazon to counter its corporate power. The careful, investigative work of this book shows that the only way individual fulfillment can happen is through collective fulfillment and solidarity across different regions — the kind of solidarity imagined by the current Amazon warehouse workers of Bessemer, Ala., in their drive to unionize.

In one of the more hopeful, unexpected parables in the book, Taylor Sappington, a young man from Nelsonville, Ohio, wins a full ride to George Washington University and heads back home with the fervor of a New Deal Democrat inspired to make government work and counter his hometown’s drive toward Trumpism — flying in the face of his friends and family, the opioid crisis and rural poverty. He bounces between jobs at a Texas Roadhouse and as a City Council member, as a Kroger’s checkout clerk and as the Nelsonville city auditor, remaining passionate about ways his local government and community could not only fill the gaps left by private industry, but build infrastructures outside of it. Despite all the bleakness, true fulfillment might still be out there.

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