The Scramble for Amazon

Amazon, the online everything store with the arrow-headed smile in its logo, is ready to build its second headquarters (outside Seattle this time) in a post-industrial urban dreamscape.  And there’s barely an American city out there that isn’t begging to be It. Fifty thousand ultra-smart tech jobs in the 100K pay range are the prize.  What’ll win the nod from CEO Jeff Bezos is some combination of a smart local workforce, an affordable standard of living and tax breaks galore.  So we squint our eyes over this coast-to-coast bidding contest, to see the outline, if we can, of jobs and the workplace coming next.  A raging hunger for work itself drives a race that most contestants will lose; that a master of monopoly has already won.  

To get a sense of the spot cities are in we went north in the rain this week to Haverhill, Massachusetts. On the Merrimack River between Lowell and Lawrence, Haverhill was in on the first industrial boom in the US, making shoes. It was and is a working-class city, once governed by America’s first socialist mayor. Today’s mayor of Haverhill, Jim Fiorentini, made clear he wants in on a post-industrial boom with the new Amazon HQ, but there’s caution in his voice.

Conor Gillies and Chris Lydon with Jim Fiorentini in Haverhill, MA

Lester Spence teaches political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. In his newsletter, The Counterpublic Papers, Spence raised some concerns about the Amazon video pitch of this hometown, Detroit. 

This is what stands for political imagination. In fact, this is what stands in for radical political imagination. They can easily offer the state’s tax coffers for a pie in the sky corporate project. But extending that political imagination in another direction? That’s crazy talk. And they can easily imagine Amazon helping the entire city, when in each of these cases and many others, the benefits Amazon bestows are only directly felt by a thin slice of the city’s residents. There are two reasons why you only see one black man in the Detroit Amazon pitch video. One reason is because black men generate a very different type of affect than the one marketers intend. Another reason is because they are the population least likely to fit in the modern economy. It’s not black people that suburbanites don’t want to have access, it’s young black men.

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Shirley Kressel, a longtime Boston housing activist and BRA-gadfly, holds a skeptical glance at the prospect of what Amazon could do to Boston. She’s also analyzed the damage already done in Seattle. As she put it The New York Times, Boston should offer Amazon “no tax breaks, no free public land and no environmentally harmful zoning favors.”

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We’re also doping the larger story of Amazon’s global ambitions this hour. Franklin Foer, the former New Republic editor, joins us to discuss his remarkable book, World Without Mindon the existential risk  in tech billionaires schemes. At risk, he says, is nothing less than the fate of the civilization and the human species.

More than any previous coterie of corporations, the tech monopolies aspire to mold humanity into their desired image of it. They believe that they have the opportunity to complete the long merger between man and machine—to redirect the trajectory of human evolution. How do I know this? Such suggestions are fairly commonplace in Silicon Valley, even if much of the tech press is too obsessed with covering the latest product launch to take much notice of them. In annual addresses and town hall meetings, the founding fathers of these companies often make big, bold pronouncements about human nature—a view of human nature that they intend to impose on the rest of us.

Ben Tarnoff, a fresh eye on Silicon Valley and co-editor of the radical tech mag Logic, steers clear of both Foer’s dystopian vision and Bezos’s pie-in-the-sky proposals. The choice between humanism and techno-futurism offers a false dualism—”We can have Twitter and Turgenev,” he says—the real problem is the money. Big data is the new big oil: an extractive model of capitalism that needs to be brought under democratic control. The “new technologies of connectivity” may be critical tools for reigning them in.

Guest List
James J. Fiorentini
mayor of the city of Haverhill, Massachusetts
Lester Spence
associate professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University
Shirley Kressel
landscape architect, urban designer, and local housing activist
Franklin Foer
staff writer at The Atlantic, former editor of The New Republic, and author of World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech

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  • In 1988, I worked for Xerox, and at Xerox we had a black employees association who organized, among other things, an outreach program to local public schools. We visited these schools and had seminars as well as classes on computer programming. We had to do it this way because it was only private enterprise who owned properties and computers that could actually get computers in the hands of these kids. The bureaucracy of dealing with public school districts was impossible.

    We told those kids that you can learn to program. You can have the kinds of jobs we have. We told them that in the future, you would be able to work from home and more of the world would use computers. Everybody but the kids found that difficult to believe when we told them they wouldn’t have to buy cars, and that the neighborhood they came from wouldn’t make a difference. Now that this is a reality, it’s easy to blame Bezos among others who made this happen for a new ‘digital divide’.

    We are engaged in a battle for the attention of people, because what works and what will work in the future is as certain, especially in these scientific fields, as any human certainty. There can be no pretending that answers and expanding opportunities can’t be known by anyone who can read and listen. Even the idea that cities need to compete to get physical space for a set of Amazon jobs doesn’t cover the breadth of employment provided by the existence of this company. (I am writing this letter from a hotel in Bogota with my colleagues, all of whom work from home as well).

    There is some certainty that we will be talking about another set of haves and have nots ten years from now, when what is considered wild speculation now (cryptocurrencies) is established as a critical part of the new economy. All people need to do is study and participate. These markets are easier than ever to join. Everyone has a phone number.

  • Dave Walker

    The Scrmable for Amazon feels to me like a defining issue of our time. To my ear, the most piercing arguments came in the first segment with Jim Fiorentini, Mayor of Haverhill, MA.

    Telling this story from the hollowed-out carcass of the last industrial boom drives home the point. Haverhill is 45 minutes’ drive from Boston, but it may as well be on another planet. A chapter in Tom Frank’s “Listen, Liberal” makes the same comparison, southward instead of north, between Boston and Fall River, MA. “Inequality” is a hot-button word of now, and it’s clear not just between class and race, but between township and location as well.

    For me, the scariest thing is the far-reaching implications, that we don’t see them or choose not to see them. Whole communites projected towards decline as one place gets a luck short term hit of growth. We’ll have Amazon software engineers snapping up million dollar condos in Boston, and I bet we’ll have people boxing their Amazon Prime orders in Haverhill, or Fall River — until the engineers can figure out a way to get rid of ’em altogether.

  • The concentration of power brings with it the elimination of alternative futures.

  • Potter

    Especially listening to Shirley Kressel at the end, Lester Spence, and the conversation in between that I hope gets another round… I was dreading Amazon’s invasion of our state (Marty Walsh is a turn-off on this) all the more. I had heard a caller on another program that fixed my view after initially and naively thinking this could be wonderful. She was from Seattle and told a different story of how Amazon changed that city. No!
    I have to say, maybe this is extreme, but having heard the BSO/Dutoit “Damnation of Faust” (Berlioz) last night I am thinking of the lure, the temptation, the trickery, of Mephistopheles. No Bezos is not the Devil, but unknowingly in his pursuits, may bring us a kind of hell or something we won’t recognize as this fair and blessed state we have, in very short enough order….despite the need for bullet trains east-west and south-north and jobs jobs jobs.
    Fingers crossed.
    Thank you folks, excellent as always!

  • Rod

    Fuck Bezos.. he is a nazi and a cancer to communities… sitting on billions upon billions acquired through tax evasion, monopoly, poor wages, etc… And now the corporate whores politicians in Boston want to bend over backwards for Amazon? GTFOH !… they should be begging us to be here; best talent, thriving economy, etc.. I say dont give them anything and in fact make Amazon pay humane wages, guarantee full-time jobs, full benefits, etc… FUCK AMAZON !