Can Amazon Be Stopped? The story of the e-commerce giant is the story of America's economic unraveling.

AuthorBlock, Daniel
PositionAlec MacGillis' "Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America"

Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America

by Alec MacGillis

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 402 pp.

About two and a half years ago, as media speculation about where Amazon would locate its second headquarters reached a fever pitch, The Onion, a satirical website, decided to make its own projection. "'You Are All Inside Amazon's Second Headquarters,' Jeff Bezos Announces to Horrified Americans as Massive Dome Envelops Nation," the site declared. The story described a world in which Amazon divided the United States into segments of its supply chain. "The entire state of Texas will be replaced with a 269,000-square-mile facility used exclusively to house cardboard boxes, tape, and inflatable packaging materials," the authors wrote. "A large swath of the Midwest will soon be razed to make way for a single enormous Amazon Fulfillment Center."

It was, of course, a joke. But based on reporting from the veteran ProPublica journalist Alec MacGillis, it's a joke with more than just a ring of truth. In Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America, MacGillis argues that Amazon's dramatic expansion is Exhibit A for America's economic unraveling. Armed with stark statistics and moving anecdotes, MacGillis illustrates how the retail giant pushes regional stores out of business. He shows how the company extracts tax incentives from desperate local governments in exchange for poor-paying warehouse jobs. Amazon has "segmented the country into different sorts of places, each with their assigned rank, income, and purpose," he writes. It has altered "the landscape of opportunity in America--the options that lay before people, what they could aspire to do with their lives."

It is a damning and powerful assessment. But Amazon isn't MacGillis's only, or even most fundamental, subject. Instead, he treats the company as both a cause and a symptom of a bigger problem: skyrocketing regional inequality in the United States.

Over the past 40 years, certain parts of America--mostly along the coasts--have become far more prosperous than others. This trend has not received as much attention as rising income disparities, but its political consequences have been similarly grave. Regional inequality has fueled authoritarian nationalism in the U.S. It has concentrated well-educated liberals in economically vibrant, overwhelmingly Democratic states. It has left white working-class voters elsewhere embittered and detached from mainstream politics. After decades of job losses and wage stagnation, it's not surprising that some people in struggling counties embraced a candidate who promised to restore a halcyon era ("Make America great again") and blamed their challenges on groups many were already prejudiced against (minorities). Donald Trump's path to the presidency was paved in part by declining economic opportunity in the Midwest.

MacGillis provides readers with a useful primer on how this happened. Beginning in the late 1970s, politicians gradually stopped enforcing fair competition policies: the many laws designed to create an even economic playing field for different businesses and different parts of the country. Regulators started neglecting anti-trust statutes, allowing a few companies in each sector to expand rapidly by purchasing or crushing their competitors. They loosened restrictions that had prevented chain stores, like CVS and Walmart, from dramatically underselling smaller rivals. And they eliminated regulations that made it equally easy to transport goods to and from all parts of America. "Profits and growth opportunities once spread across the country," MacGillis writes. Now, they cluster in places where the dominant companies are based.

These trends are all bigger than any one business. But it's easy to see why MacGillis chose to focus on Amazon specifically. The company owns a third of the country's data storage market. It controls somewhere between roughly 40 and 50 percent of America's e-commerce market, more than five...

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