These are some of the often-decried ways that Amazon has reshaped America. But what if this is what we really want?
That’s the question threaded into “Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America,” a ground-level tour of the United States of Amazon by journalist Alec MacGillis. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Each chapter provides a different perspective on the impact that the Seattle-based behemoth has had on American society. Together, they show how the transformation of shopping has rippled upstream, changing the experience of working, the relationships between companies and their customers, the management of information, and ultimately the distribution of wealth between winners and losers in the new economy.
MacGillis takes us from the distribution centers on Sparrows Point in Maryland, once the site of Bethlehem Steel’s largest steelworks, to office supply businesses in El Paso, now forced to sell to their best customers through Amazon’s marketplace, to the cardboard factories in Ohio that feed the voracious appetite of American consumers, and to many points in between.
“Our core philosophy is firmly rooted in working backwards from what customers want,” Nate Sutton, Amazon’s associate general counsel, responded when a congressional committee questioned the company’s unrivaled economic might. While the individual stories in “Fulfillment” are chilling, perhaps they are the natural consequence of working backward from — fulfilling — consumers’ desires. After all, we live in a capitalist society, and market capitalism is all about using customer preferences to govern economic activity.
Here’s one example. More than half of all U.S. households want two-day (or faster) shipping on an unlimited number of items for only $119 per year. To make that happen, Amazon needs to squeeze maximum efficiency out of its workers. Hence the limited bathroom breaks and the productivity algorithm. Businesses have always sought lower costs. What’s changed is that Amazon is really good at using technology to increase efficiency. Walmart has been punishing employees for “time theft” for decades. Amazon is just better at it.
One can infer from MacGillis’s reporting that Amazon is not making the world a better place in general. It could be using its enormous stock of talent and capital to create safer workplaces. But, as MacGillis writes, “a  study of twenty-three Amazon warehouses by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that serious injuries were reported at a rate more than double the national average for the warehousing industry.” Amazon claimed “that it was simply more responsible about reporting injuries than other companies” and that it had increased its investment in safety. But additional research in 2020 by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that Amazon’s safety record was getting worse. A center reporter, Will Evans, speaking on the “PBS NewsHour,” said: “Internal records show that its injury rate has increased every single year between 2016 and 2019.” Amazon also could be making package delivery safer, yet its drivers get less training than UPS drivers, MacGillis notes, and Amazon avoids liability for their accidents because many drivers are independent contractors. Amazon could be using its market power to help ensure product quality, yet sales of counterfeit masks and fraudulent products flourished on its site in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, despite the company’s efforts to crack down.
In MacGillis’s portrait, Amazon could be following Henry Ford’s example by using some of its tens of billions of dollars in profit to increase its workers’ buying power and shore up the middle class. Instead, the company’s sole focus is enabling its customers to buy stuff cheaply and get it fast — and make money for its shareholders along the way.
Criticizing Amazon is easy. But a lot of politicians and people in high positions have helped the company as it has blossomed. “Fulfillment” is also the story of a political system captivated by the idea that what is good for Amazon is good for America. State and local governments have given away millions of dollars in tax breaks to attract fulfillment centers offering low-wage, high-turnover jobs. Local governments and federal agencies have abandoned some of their longtime local suppliers to comparison-shop in Amazon’s marketplace. An Occupational Safety and Health Administration state director, eager for his state to remain in Amazon’s good graces, advised the company on how to minimize punishment for a workplace fatality, MacGillis reports. Decades of limitations on the right to organize make it easy for Amazon to keep its workplaces union-free. And the Justice Department’s hands-off approach to antitrust enforcement lets the company mine its sellers’ data to design copycat products and sell them under its own brand. A congressional subcommittee looking into “online platforms and market power” found, as MacGillis writes, that “Amazon had in fact referred to third-party sellers on the site as ‘internal competitors,’ rather than as the ‘partners’ it publicly proclaimed them to be.”
We have seen this story before. Beginning in the 1990s, Democrats and Republicans showered benefits on the financial sector, paving the way for an orgy of subprime lending and financial engineering that inflated housing prices to dizzying heights. Politicians claimed that freeing the flow of capital would generate prosperity for all. Regulators competed to be as lax as possible to curry favor with financial institutions. We know how that ended.
Since the financial crisis and the Great Recession, Amazon has deftly co-opted politicians everywhere to minimize taxes and maximize profits. This time, however, there is no bubble. Instead, there is just an ever-widening chasm: between the poor, rural communities that supply the labor needed by Amazon’s supply chain and the rich coastal cities where members of the capitalist class can have all of their desires fulfilled in two hours or less.
In Seattle, rising rents fueled by technology wealth have thrown thousands of people onto the streets. In 2018, the City Council proposed a new tax on businesses to address the homelessness crisis. Amazon went to war against the tax, funding the opposition and pausing construction on its next office tower.
That’s just what companies do, but MacGillis is particularly critical of the affluent Seattle progressives who sided with Amazon, forcing the City Council to backtrack. He quotes law professor Sara Rankin: “Seattle has a lot of folks who fancy themselves to be progressive, but they’re also immersed in this bubble of extraordinary wealth, so you can’t help but start to develop a sense of entitlement.” When push came to shove, they decided they liked poverty in the midst of plenty just fine — more than they wanted to incur the wrath of Amazon, anyway.
Seattle politics are perhaps an apt metaphor for our society. After years of journalistic exposés, we know how Amazon treats its workers, how it squeezes its sellers, how it devastates small businesses, and how it extorts money out of state and local governments (and let’s not even start talking about privacy). We know that our elected officials play along. We aren’t happy about it, yet we keep on buying. What does that say about us?
Winning and Losing in One-Click America
By Alec MacGillis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 384 pp. $28