Amazon was already an economic behemoth before the start of the coronavirus pandemic. But when many Americans ramped up their shopping from home, the company saw explosive growth. In short, ProPublica journalist Alec MacGillis writes in “Fulfillment,” its fortunes diverged from the nation’s economic fortunes.
The book looks at the American economy through the lens of Amazon — the forces that made it, the trends it accelerated, and the inequality that he argues has resulted from the growth of Big Tech. The NPR Politics Podcast spoke to him about America’s “winning” and “losing” cities, what Amazon has to do with former President Donald Trump’s election, and how much it matters when consumers decide to boycott huge companies like Amazon.
“Fulfillment” was the latest selection in the NPR Politics Podcast Book Club. Join in the book conversations at the podcast’s Facebook group. The next discussion, in late June, will be about Elizabeth Hinton’s America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s.
The following are excerpts from the full interview with MacGillis, with answers edited for clarity and length.
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN: Your book isn’t exactly what I was expecting. I sort of went into it thinking, “this is going to be a book that’s, ‘Amazon [is] bad — it has bad labor practices and it hurts small business, etc.’ ” And while Amazon doesn’t come off as quite a hero, the book is much more about the American economy and American economic history through an Amazon lens. How would you describe what you were trying to do?
ALEC MACGILLIS: Yes, I actually came to Amazon secondarily within the book. I wanted to write a book for years now about regional disparities in America — the sort of growing regional inequality between a small set of what I call sort of winner-take-all cities, cities like Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Boston, D.C., and a much larger set of cities and towns that have that have really been falling behind.
We’ve always had richer and poorer places, but the gap between them has gotten a lot bigger in recent years, and it’s really unhealthy for the country. I especially wanted to write about it after Trump got elected; it was so clear just what a big role these regional disparities had in Trump’s election.
I chose Amazon as the frame for two different reasons. One is that the company is so ubiquitous now in our life, just so omnipresent, that it’s a handy thread to kind of just take you around the country and show what we’re becoming as a country in kind of a metaphorical kind of way. But it’s also a very handy frame for the story of racial inequality, because the company is itself helping drive these disparities. The regional concentration of wealth in our country is very closely tied to the concentration of our economy in certain companies.
DK: I’m not sure what the timeline was of you working on this book, but when you saw the big HQ2 contest happen — it’s like your book’s thesis on steroids. What was your reaction to Amazon holding essentially a Bachelor competition for where its next headquarters would be?
AM: It was quite serendipitous in a way that they embarked on this process while I was working on the book. I actually chose Washington, D.C. as one of the two “winner” cities that I was going to focus on before it got chosen by Amazon to be the second headquarters. [Amazon chose the D.C. suburb of Arlington, Va., as a new headquarters site in 2018.]
I knew that I wanted to focus on Seattle because it already was the Amazon headquarters. And I wanted to focus on Washington because it was so clear that Washington was another winner-take-all city that had been completely transformed by this kind of hyper-prosperity. And then, lo and behold, they go ahead and pick Washington as their second headquarters.
Another reason I wanted to have Washington as a second winner-take-all city is that I found the contrast between Washington and Baltimore so compelling for me.
The sort of spiritual heart of the book is the contrast between Washington [and] Baltimore, these two cities that are just 40 miles apart. I’ve moved between these cities now for the last 20 years, working and living in both places. And it’s just been so striking to watch the gap growing between them, and to me, just really upsetting and disheartening to watch that happening.
You have one city that’s become just incredibly unaffordable for so many people, where it costs, you know, seven, eight, nine hundred thousand dollars to buy a row house, if not more. All these people, longtime residents, mostly longtime black residents, being displaced by the thousands. And then just up the road in Baltimore, you have such deep population decline that you have rowhouses, that are going for seven or eight hundred thousand dollars down the road, being demolished by the hundreds.
That just is not good for people in either sort of city, and Amazon is really at the core of that. They chose Washington as their headquarters. It’s going to get only richer or more expensive.
DK: There’s so much to get at here in terms of the economic forces at work — the way that city government works, NIMBYism in action, de-unionization, companies getting preferential tax treatment, that sort of thing. How did we get here? Is there an original sin that sort of led to where we are, or is it just that we went from a goods-based to a tech-based economy, and this just sort of inevitably happened?
AM: There are so many forces that flow into this, and the book really tries to describe a lot of them and to show that this is not just about Amazon.
But there’s no solutions chapter. It’s not an argument book or policy book, but it does leave one, I would I imagine, with the implicit sense that if there is an original sin, if there’s one thing that we need to now be focusing on, it is the fact that we have so allowed our approach to monopoly and antitrust in this country to wither as much as we have, that we essentially arrived at something like the moment we were at in 1910, 1915, in the years of the Gilded Age.
We recognized that at that time, belatedly, and we took it on and and and then for several decades had a fairly vigorous approach to monopoly and antitrust. And then over the second half of the last century, we allowed that to atrophy.
DK: You talked about this regional economic inequality contributing to how people vote, the rise of Donald Trump. I’m curious about your perspective on the whole ongoing economic-anxiety-versus-racial-resentment conversation that there always has been around Trumpism.
AM: I spent a lot of 2016 in Ohio — pretty early on about the rise of Trump and sort of how it was happening, trying to make sense of it. And I’ve always believed that the economic issues were closely tied together with his racist and xenophobic appeals, that the economic realities [and] decline made people more vulnerable to those appeals. As I put it in the book, the economic decline and resentment does not excuse racism and xenophobia, but rather weaponized it. It made it more powerful.
The fact is that it’s a big challenge for the Democratic Party that then a lot of these places that used to be real bastions of the party, as these communities have declined, as they’ve really seen their fortunes fall, [residents] look to the cities, the winner-take-all-cities that have become now the base of the Democratic Party — to San Francisco and Boston, to New York City and Seattle.
And they not only feel resentment of their extraordinary wealth and prosperity, but they also look to the Democrats in those cities and feel alienation. They feel this sense of, “That is not me. In no way am I those people. Those people cannot possibly be in the same party as me, because they’re utterly removed from my experience.” And that is sort of how you get to the Obama-Trump voter.
The Democratic Party is now increasingly becoming what I think of as sort of the Amazon Coalition. It’s a coalition of, on the one hand, the highly-educated middle and upper-middle class, big blue metro residents who do a lot of shopping on Amazon.
And then on the other hand, the party still has quite a lot of working-class black and brown voters, many of whom work at Amazon now as the warehouse workers, as the drivers. And so you have this coalition of the party that is essentially the people who are buying all this stuff online, highly educated, mostly white professionals buying all this stuff, and then the people packing and delivering it to them, which is a which is a pretty awkward coalition and and perhaps not the most sustainable one.
DK: I do know people, and I’m sure you do, too, who don’t buy from Amazon or who have stepped back in buying from Amazon for ethical or moral reasons. But your book is so much about systems and the effects of policies, these high-level things. So I’m curious about your take — how much can consumer choice make a difference?
AM: I think it actually can. I think that both levels of this matter, obviously the systemic and structural forces matter a lot. And it’s why, as citizens, we should be pushing for [and] thinking more seriously about antitrust and seeing how that seemingly abstract notion connects to all these parts of our life, and pushing our representatives to care about it and act on it.
But I also do believe that consumer choice matters. The fact is that it was our consumer choices this past year that drove this extraordinary growth of this company. Our choices do matter.
And I don’t advocate for a boycott or any kind of cold-turkey because, of course, the company provides convenience for some people who really kind of depend on it. But I do believe that we can moderate and because what we saw this past year was not moderate, it was an extraordinary embrace of the one-click kind of life with an alacrity that was just kind of off the charts.
I do believe that it’s going to be very important for us now going forward to return to the physical world around us, not just in our shopping, but in all aspects of life, just to try to re-engage with the physical world. Because if we don’t, then it will wither. And then you really are left with only Amazon as your only option, because everything else is kind of as has vanished.
DK: I want to end on a piece of news that happened after your book, which is the push to unionize at an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama. I’m curious, what were your thoughts on the fact that unionization didn’t end up panning out for organizers? Also, what could and couldn’t a union change for Amazon workers?
AM: I was following that whole fight with fascination. It was just incredible to have an actual election at a full warehouse, the first time that had happened in Amazon’s history.
And I was also not surprised by the outcome because the odds were so stacked against them. The laws right now make it really tough to organize workers.
Companies are so adept at fighting unions, and [Amazon] really pulled out all the stops down there to try to prevent the union from winning. But I think it’s too soon to say that it was a total loss from the kind of activism standpoint. It did bring a lot of scrutiny to Amazon warehouse conditions. And it really did, I think, spark a lot of ferment around the country at other warehouses.
The stakes are so great because this really, if you think of it, the grand historical terms in the context of the book, warehouse work, or working at an Amazon warehouse, really has become now the mass employment option in this country, with almost a half-million people hired just this past year alone. This is now increasingly the place to go to work if you don’t have a college degree, if you don’t have specialized training, you’re just looking for a job the way you used to go to the steel mill or the factory or the shopping mall. Now you go to the Amazon warehouse.
And so if we want to lift up working class existence in this country and make these jobs [and] that kind of existence into something more sustainable, more kind of family-supporting, middle-class-supporting, you have to lift up the warehouse work, because that’s where it’s at.
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