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In Amazon's Shadow, An America Divided In Search Of 'Fulfillment'

<em>Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America,</em> by Alec MacGillis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America, by Alec MacGillis

America has been sorted. There are "winner-take-all" places and "left-behind" places — and the two are increasingly isolated, struggling to comprehend the divide.

This is the story that unfolds in Alec MacGillis' Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America. Ostensibly about Amazon, the book is instead an economic history of the country, shaped by an intimate introduction to people living and working in Amazon's shadow as their home cities and states transform around them.

That shadow of Amazon forms slowly. MacGillis, a reporter for ProPublica,devotes much of his writing to intricate portraits: a forklift driver and a salvaged-brick seller from Baltimore, a lawyer-turned-artist and a gospel-choir leader from Seattle, a young politician and a truck driver from Ohio. These personal stories are sweeping and in-depth, and not all connect directly to Amazon. But most bring to light some facet of the company or socioeconomic forces shaping the communities affected by it.

The narrative traces how hypergrowth and prosperity clustered in a few places — Seattle, Northern Virginia, Washington, D.C. — in parallel to the regression and often overwrought pursuit of revival by cities that corporate rainmakers bypassed. MacGillis lingers on several historic retrospectives about the decline of companies that once thrived in "left-behind" places: Bethlehem Steel in Baltimore, Md.; National Cash Register in Dayton, Ohio; Bon-Ton in York, Pa.; auto plants and other manufacturing across the states.

Over time, America's tech economy launched an era where the key to competitiveness became human rather than physical capital. New corporate giants concentrated workers and wealth around themselves, creating a feedback loop that continued to propel already prosperous cities even as they got more expensive. Since the 1970s, MacGillis writes, wages in the very largest cities have grown far faster than in the rest of the country — by 20 percentage points. And lower-wage workers relocating to the costly prosperous cities stood to gain much less than highly educated professionals.

"Regional inequality was making parts of the country incomprehensible to one another — one world wracked with painkillers, the other tainted by elite-college admission schemes," MacGillis writes. Amazon, he eventually posits, "was playing an outsized role in this zero-sum sorting."

At the heart of Amazon's sorting is its internal division. Now the second-largest private U.S. employer, Amazon is now a company with clout in both white-collar and blue-collar work. Employing some 1.3 million people worldwide, it's run — at least for a few more months — by one of the wealthiest people in modern history. MacGillis delivers a key insight:

"The company had, in a sense, segmented its workforce into classes and spread them across the map: there were its engineering and software-developer towns, there were the datacenter towns, and there were the warehouse towns."

Fulfillmentvisits each type of town, punctuating their many pain-points. The erosion of historic Black neighborhoods in Seattle. Anonymous, mass-recruiting fairs for warehouses in struggling suburbs. Deaths and injuries involving forklifts and trucks. A civic battle in Virginia over a power line to Amazon's data center — a plan that at first intended to seize land from residents of a century-old African-American enclave, but later took a different tack funded partly by new fees on local electric bills. (Amazon, MacGillis notes, sought a discounted rate.)

MacGillis lays out, with detail gathered through freedom of information requests, exactly how Amazon methodically built its presence in several communities: playing "the reluctant target rather than the suitor" to receive tax breaks and other financial perks, often demanding total secrecy. A recurrent spotlight falls on Amazon's tax-avoidance, which MacGillis calls out as contributing to "the unraveling of the civic fabric:" the company's facilities straining roadways, housing and utilities while eroding the governments' ability to support them.

A critic's business case against Amazon takes shape in the chapter about the company's push to become a top provider of office supplies to schools, governments and other organizations. A former pen salesman outlines, at a registered-guests-only expo MacGillis attended in Texas, how Amazon wins at the expense of small sellers: The company collects fees on every item that sells; it bears no cost for items that don't sell well, but can copycat hot sellers and drive even more demand by pushing prices down, eroding small sellers' profits while still collecting more fees.

Fulfillment is a functional term for work done inside Amazon's sprawling warehouses. It is also a promise advertised by Amazon on the buildings "to all who passed by, all who had a longing — for what, exactly, they might still be trying to decide — and now knew from whence it would be delivered to them." This promise, MacGillis points out, applies less obviously to workers inside. They and other people under Amazon's shadow are the main subjects of his book: finding and losing jobs, building families and grieving loved ones, growing roots and uprooting, quelling sore limbs with numbing creams and ice — performing and, or, searching for fulfillment.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.