Even as it’s influencing our behavior, Amazon is transforming our physical world. José Holguín-Veras, a logistics and urban freight expert at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, estimates that in 2009, there was one daily internet-derived delivery for every 25 people. By 2017, he calculates, this had tripled. “The number of deliveries to households is now larger than the number of deliveries to commercial establishments,” Holguín-Veras says. “In skyscrapers in New York City where 5,000 people live, it’s 750 deliveries a day.”
Think of the difference between one trip to the grocery store for the week, and five or ten trips from the warehouse to your house. Our streets are too narrow and our traffic too plentiful to handle that additional traffic without crippling congestion. Plus, every idling car, and every extra delivery truck on the road, spews more carbon into the atmosphere. Our cities are not designed for the level of freight that instant delivery demands.
More deliveries also means more people staying indoors. “One thing I think about is how much we overlook the community and democracy value of running errands,” says Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “These exchanges—chatting with someone in line, bumping into a neighbor on the street, talking with the store owner—may not be all that significant personally. But this kind of interaction pays off for us collectively in ways we don’t think about or measure or account for in policy-making.”
In These Times asked Frank McAndrew of Knox College, who has researched social isolation, whether Amazon’s perfect efficiency could be alienating. He wasn’t ready to make a definitive statement but did see some red flags. “I do think we’re sort of wired to interact with real people in face-to-face situations,” McAndrew says. “When most of our interactions take place virtually, or with Alexa, it’s not going to be satisfying.”
For most of our history, Americans didn’t require a personal digital assistant to answer our every whim. Why are we now reordering our social and economic lives, so one man can accumulate more money than anyone in the history of the planet?
One answer is that Amazon has paid as much attention to capturing government as it has to captivating customers. Amazon’s lobbying spending is among the highest of any company in America. After winning a nationwide procurement contract, over 1,500 cities and states can buy office items through the Amazon Business portal; a federal procurement platform is on the way. Amazon Web Services has the inside track on a $10 billion cloud contract to manage sensitive data for the Pentagon, something it already does for the CIA. That’s part of the reason why Amazon moved its second headquarters (after an absurd, game show-style bidding war that gave the company access to valuable data on hundreds of cities’ planning decisions) to a suburb of Washington, D.C., the seat of national power.
Making the directors of the regulatory state dependent on your services is a genius move. What political figure would dare crack down on the behavior of a trusted partner like Amazon?
In fact, Amazon has relied on government largesse since day one. No sales taxes for online purchases gave it a pricing advantage over other sellers (while a 2018 Supreme Court ruling changed that, the damage had been done). No carbon taxes helped Amazon build energy-intensive businesses dependent on fossil fuels for transportation and server farms. A lack of antitrust enforcement created a path for Amazon to super-size into an e-commerce monopoly. Weak federal labor rules let Amazon stamp out collective bargaining and rely on independent contractors. Mandatory arbitration locked third-party sellers inside Amazon’s private appeals process. Favorable tax law allowed Amazon to apply annual losses in previous years to its past two tax returns, paying no federal taxes on billions in income.
Of course, these rules helped all corporate giants and made executives filthy rich, often at the expense of workers. But Amazon tests the laissez-faire system in unique ways. In a future where Amazon broadens its control over our lives such that citizens have nowhere else to shop, businesses have nowhere else to sell, workers have nowhere else to toil, and governments have no other way to function, then who actually holds the power in our society? Avoiding that dark future requires leaders with the political will to stop it.
Elizabeth Warren’s plan to break up Amazon would rein in what she sees as unfair competition by preventing Amazon from selling products while hosting a website platform for other sellers. Warren also suggests splitting off Whole Foods and the online retailer Zappos, which Amazon bought in 2017 and 2009, respectively.
Fostering competition is a good start, but regulation must also prevent Amazon from bullying suppliers and partners. Lawmakers must force Amazon to pay for the externalities associated with its carbon-intensive delivery network. The company must pay a living wage to its workers, including its so-called independent contractors. It must be accountable to the legal system rather than a corporate-friendly arbitration process. It must not profit from spying on its customers.
If Amazon has caused this much upheaval today, when online shopping is still only 16 percent of retail sales, the future is limitless and grim. We have time to reverse this transfer of power and make it our world instead of Amazon’s. It’s an opportunity we cannot afford to squander.
David Dayen is the executive editor of The American Prospect. He was a 2018-2019 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting Fellow.
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