(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:
Hey there. It is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture. And today we're coming to you with another special episode. This is our latest book club installment, one that may hit close to home for a lot of you because, if you're like a lot of Americans, your Amazon spending has picked up during the pandemic - or, relatedly, maybe you or someone you know works at Amazon and has seen all of this buying firsthand. Either way, the company has boomed while Americans have done much more of their shopping from home.
So in this special episode, we are talking the Amazon economy with Alec MacGillis, reporter at ProPublica and author of "Fulfillment: Winning And Losing In One-Click America." Alec, welcome.
ALEC MACGILLIS: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
KURTZLEBEN: Of course. Just to let our listeners know - many listeners have been reading this book along with some of us at the podcast, and we've been discussing it in our podcast Facebook group. You can check that out at n.pr/politicsgroup.
So, Alec, your book is not perhaps as our readers are expecting and, to be honest, it's not exactly what I was expecting. You know, I sort of went into it thinking this is going to be a book that's - Amazon bad. It has bad labor practices, and it hurts small business, et cetera, which is something that we've heard a lot about in past years. And while Amazon doesn't come off as quite a hero in it, it's much more about the American economy and American economic history through an Amazon lens. And I'm curious, for listeners who might just be learning about your book or deciding whether or not to read it, how would you describe what you were trying to do in this?
MACGILLIS: For years now, I've wanted to write a book 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 really been falling behind. We've always had richer and poorer places, but the gap between them has got a lot bigger in recent years. And it's really unhealthy for the country. It's not good for either sort of city, and it's distorted our politics. It's just had a really, really unhealthy effect on the country.
And I wanted to write about this, and 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. And I decided to come at this whole story of regional disparity through Amazon, and 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 which - 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 regional inequality because the company is itself driving - helping drive these disparities.
This regional concentration of wealth in our country is very closely tied to the concentration of our economy and certain companies - put simply, as more and more commerce and activity in all these different sectors of the economy is kind of dominated by a handful of companies, all that commerce and activity kind of gets sucked, Hoover'd (ph) into the cities where those companies are based, leaving whole swaths of the country sort of bereft and creating this really kind of off-kilter imbalance.
KURTZLEBEN: Yes, that whole topic of regional inequality, of winning and losing cities is very key to your book. It's clearly at the center of it. And you write about Dayton, Ohio, for example, Baltimore, Md. - cities that have lost some of their former economic cachet, perhaps as goods-producing places, while tech hubs like San Francisco, Washington, Seattle, New York have boomed. This is so much the core of your book. So tell us a little more - why can't those cities like Dayton or Baltimore quite catch the breaks or regain some of their old steam?
MACGILLIS: It has a lot to do with the way the tech economy works. You know, it used to be when you came up with some manufacturing innovation - like, say, the steel-making process that was invented by Henry Bessemer - you could then go and build a steel mill anywhere where you had the natural resources, you know, the coal and the iron, the basic manpower to work it, the transportation to get your product to market. And so you could go to, you know, to Gary, Ind., or Weirton, W.V., or Baltimore or Chicago and build a steel mill.
Now with the tech economy, things work differently. It's all about - the value lies so completely in the initial innovation, the initial software or app or whatever it might be, and so it's all about getting people together, getting sort of the innovators, the engineers, the programmers in one place where innovation happens. Innovation happens in proximity. And once you come up with that, that innovation, where the product then gets manufactured is somewhat - is much less relevant. And so you end up with this kind of agglomerating effect where tech hubs kind of build on themselves, becomes kind of winner-take-all, so where Silicon Valley becomes the place where you have to feel like you have to be in order to be around the other innovators, around the venture capital that's going to seed your startup. And so tech is naturally kind of clustering in that sense.
But then it's gotten worse for us. Now that dynamic has gotten worse because we've let these giants get so big. And so the fact that where this one company, like an Amazon, happens to choose to go to Seattle becomes much more consequential in the long run because the company then becomes so large and dominant that, years later, you end up with a city like Seattle that's been completely transformed, and then you end up with the process for the company's next headquarters, to search for its next headquarters, having such an incredibly outsized importance because that one company is so huge, and where it decides to go will matter so much.
And lo and behold, it ends up going to a city - Washington, D.C. - that is already the wealthiest metro area in the country because, again, they want - it wants to be around the tech workforce that a city like Washington already has. So it's all about - it becomes completely winner-take-all, rich-get-richer. That's the dynamic that dominates now, and it makes it so hard for places like Baltimore, Dayton and countless others to catch up.
KURTZLEBEN: You know, when you talk about the way that Amazon tried to find a new place to have a headquarters - it was shorthanded as HQ2 - and yeah, that it ended up in northern Virginia, the suburbs of Washington, D.C. I'm not sure what the timeline was of you working on this book, but when you saw this happen, that - it's like your thesis on steroids, sort of. What was your reaction to Amazon seeming to hold, essentially, a "Bachelor" competition (laughter) for who is going to be its next - where its headquarters would be?
MACGILLIS: Yes, I - it was quite serendipitous, in a way, that they embarked on this process while I was working on the book. I conceived of the book before the whole process really got going, and 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.
For me, the - really, the core of the book, the sort of spiritual heart of the book, is the contrast between Washington and Baltimore, these two cities that are just 40 miles apart, less than an hour on the train. 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, to have a situation where you have one city that's becomes just incredibly unaffordable for so many people, where it costs, you know, $7-, $8-, $900,000 to buy a row house, if not more. All these people, longtime residents - mostly, you know, longtime Black residents - being displaced by the thousands. And then just up the road in Baltimore, you have such depopulation and decline that you have row houses that are going for $7- or $800,000 down the road being demolished by the hundreds.
There's just something completely out of whack about that, completely off-kilter. It's not healthy to have that kind of a contrast. That's - it 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 and more expensive. And then up the road in Baltimore, that city where I now live, a city I love deeply, is essentially becoming kind of the warehouse town.
KURTZLEBEN: All right. We're going to take a quick break, and when we get back - the politics of it all.
And we're back. And before we get back into it, we should acknowledge Amazon is one of NPR's financial sponsors.
OK, so, Alec, you know, I want to make sure - this being a politics podcast, I want to make sure to come back to something you said earlier on in this conversation. You talked about this regional economic inequality contributing to how people vote, the rise of Donald Trump. And in the book, you talk about Donald Trump visiting Dayton in 2016, where he got both positive and negative welcomes, as he did and does many places. But I'm curious about your perspective on the whole ongoing, constant economic-anxiety-versus-racial-resentment conversation that there always has been around Trumpism because you do write about some of these places that have heavy Trump support as being places where people do have a lot of economic problems. So I'm curious about what you think about that.
MACGILLIS: I was - I spent a lot of 2016 in Ohio - reporting elsewhere, too, but especially Ohio - and I, you know, wrote 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 decline made people more vulnerable to those appeals. As I put it in the book, that the economic decline and resentment does - did not excuse racism and xenophobia, but rather it weaponized it; it made it more powerful.
It's a big challenge for the Democratic Party that a lot of these places that used to be real bastions of the party, you know, heavily Democratic towns and cities across, say, the Midwest, that as these communities have declined, they look to the cities, the winner-take-all cities, that have become now the base of the Democratic Party - the San Franciscos and Bostons, New Yorks and D.C.s - 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, like, that is not me. No way am I - those people cannot possibly be in the same party as me because they're utterly removed from my experience. And so that is sort of how you get to the - over time, to the Obama-Trump voter, of which there were many.
The other part of this, that's - the politics of this that we have to - I think that needs more attention, though, is that 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, highly educated, middle-, upper-middle class, big blue metro residents who do a lot of shopping on Amazon. Amazon's universal in its appeal, market appeal, but its strongest demographics really are in the big blue metros.
And so you have a lot of those consumers, highly educated liberal consumers in those cities, buying a whole lot of Amazon. And then on the other hand, you have still - 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 pretty awkward coalition and perhaps not the most sustainable one.
KURTZLEBEN: Right. Well, and it's not just about the people working at Amazon and people buying from Amazon. You had Jay Carney, who was a press secretary for President Obama, who went and worked for Amazon, and you had other Obama alums who went and worked for Big Tech firms. I'm wondering - tell me more about why you say that coalition is not sustainable for the Democratic Party
MACGILLIS: Because it's sort of - it's a very starkly kind of upstairs-downstairs kind of coalition, where it's one thing - the Democratic Party is increasingly becoming sort of bifurcated in its class nature. But that bifurcation, that kind of - that contrast becomes especially stark when it's really kind of represented in a direct kind of service sense of people - you order stuff, and then these other people pack it and bring it to you. And the fact also that the actual contact is so limited, that the - it's one thing when you would actually go out into the world to kind of fulfill your needs, and you'd actually come across people unlike yourself, and you would have some kind of a social contact.
And now when it's really just one click on the one hand, and then people - and then the entire process line that provides behind that click is basically invisible to you until that one guy shows up in his black-and-blue jersey, in his black-and-blue van, and drops it off at your step. And you may not even acknowledge him as you sit at your laptop and he brings it up to your door, and that is the extent of the relationship. At some point, the worker packing and bringing that stuff to you might not feel so closely allied with you and your interests...
MACGILLIS: ...And that might start to fray.
KURTZLEBEN: Right, that makes sense. I do know people - I'm sure you do, too; I bet we have listeners who are in this camp - who don't buy from Amazon or who have sort of stepped back in buying from Amazon for ethical or moral reasons, related to some things you lay out in your book - their labor practices, their effect on small businesses. But your book is so much about systems and about the effects of policies, these high-level things. So I'm curious about your take on consumer choices' effect on a company like Amazon. I mean, how much can consumer choice make a difference?
MACGILLIS: I think it actually can. I think that both sort of levels of this matter, that obviously the systemic and structural forces matter a lot, and it's why, as citizens, we should be, you know, pushing for - thinking more seriously about antitrust and seeing how that seemingly abstract notion connects to all these parts of our life. 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, to actually - to go back into the places we live, whether it's the theater or the movies, instead of Netflix and Amazon Prime, and just to reengage 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 has kind of - has vanished.
KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, we're going to leave that there because, Alec, I know you have some reporting you have to get to today. But folks watching, folks listening, the book is "Fulfillment: Winning And Losing In One-Click America." You can get it at Bookshop, your local bookstore, your local library or even Amazon. So, Alec, thank you so much. We really appreciate it.
MACGILLIS: Thanks. This was great.
KURTZLEBEN: Our next book club choice will be "America On Fire" by Elizabeth Hinton. We will be discussing it in July. You can hop on to n.pr/politicsgroup. That is our Facebook group - again, n.pr/politicsgroup. Please join us for it. You won't want to miss it. And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
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