Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America

Alec MacGillis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 pages

What’s happening to Baltimore, Maryland? To St. Louis, Missouri? To Dayton, Ohio? To Newark, New Jersey? To Dubuque, Iowa, and Fort Worth, Texas? Investigative reporter Alec MacGillis says that we’re seeing more than just two generations of deindustrialization, offshoring and general inequality. Not all these cities were industrial powerhouses, but they were regional magnets for enterprise and centers of creativity, often with noteworthy academic institutions. Many have had at least one Fortune-500 company headquarters, and their local excellence was reflected in their churches, banks, libraries and museums. Now many of those institutions are struggling.

Maybe the Sunbelt cities have grown more. The coasts are doing more trade; some parts of the West Coast still ride high on technology. But virtually all have suffered erosion of tax bases, struggles over public services (including policing), continued public health crises of addiction and declining birthrates — even before COVID-19 lockdowns. The presence of homeless people testifies to urban governments’ inability to care for all citizens. And shortening life expectancy, especially among Blacks and Hispanics and in Appalachia, extends beyond cities.

If cities in general are doing reasonably well, why did more than 225 (according to Quartz) go through the humiliating self-prostitution of trying to attract Amazon’s second headquarters? Halfway through “Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America,” we suspect how rigged Amazon’s game was, how well it was designed to collect competitive information on all contestants and how it tested public officials’ (confidential) willingness to sell out neighbors with tax breaks and favors. MacGillis quotes conservative Christian columnist Ross Douthat, who urged Amazon to pick a place that needed transformative investment “instead of picking an obvious BosWash hub or creative-class boomtown.” MacGillis explains how Amazon’s domination of e-commerce, antipathy to taxes of any kind, use of former regulators as lobbyists and pitiless regimentation of its workforce deny any hint of corporate citizenship or patriotism. Amazon went precisely for that BosWash corridor in trying to expand in both the Washington, D.C., metro area and New York City.

Only very progressive city government leaders could say no to the ostensible and real benefits of being chosen by Amazon. New York had the advocacy of leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, local activists and determined remnants of unions. But the District of Columbia metro area – already bloated by the lobbying industry and the post-9/11 national security industry on top of the military-industrial-intelligence complex – could hardly say no to applying. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos had already bought off some liberals by buying and funding the Washington Post in a skilled (and relatively inexpensive) public relations gesture. MacGillis quotes Nick Hanauer, an investor who helped Bezos found Amazon in Seattle: “Jeff’s perspective is the canonical neoliberal perspective: that the only purpose of corporations, the only purpose of shareholders, is to enrich themselves to the exclusion of everything else.” Though MacGillis points to Bezos’s great wealth, exhibited in his mansion in Washington, ProPublica investigators have revealed that Bezos pays no personal taxes. He is a parasite whose true homeland is the anonymous tax haven.

MacGillis completed “Fulfillment” amid the coronavirus pandemic, which greatly enriched not only Amazon but other Internet quasi-monopolies. The author frames his subject knowingly: “The country had always had richer and poorer places, but the gaps were growing wider than they had ever been.” Before 1980, poorer regions appeared to be catching up, if gradually. Between 1980 and 2013, however, the Northeast corridor and the Northern California coastline came to have average incomes over 20 percent above the national average, even as large sections of the country’s interior had incomes more than 20 percent below. The political consequences of regional inequality were becoming obvious before President Donald Trump harnessed “rising resentment,” MacGillis says: “Economic decline did not excuse racism and xenophobia — rather, it weaponized it.”

Inequality in that period grew, not simply between regions but within them, especially in cities like San Francisco or New York. MacGillis shows how this pervasive division – “between a handful of winner-take-all metropolises and a much larger number of left-behind rivals” – was “throwing the whole country off-kilter.” Economic concentration, particularly in technology, was drawing disproportionate profit to places that offered opportunities for highly educated couples to find work for both partners. Walmart had already sucked commercial life out countless town squares and flooded the United States with goods made by defenseless workers overseas. Google and Facebook had “hoovered most of the country’s digital advertising revenue into the Bay Area,” gutting local journalism and opening the door to truly fake news and government by ideological posturing. But for MacGillis, Amazon provides the “ultimate lens” to see the country’s divides and America’s weakened post-COVID future.

What distinguishes MacGillis’s book from a progressive screed is not only the quality of his economic analysis but his clear yet matter-of-fact sympathy for underdog loser-heroes. He introduces us to people who kept fighting even after they lost: for example, a former union steelmaker in Baltimore who now works at an Amazon warehouse on the same site as his former factory and whose day is now so controlled by intense monitoring that he does not have enough time to use the bathroom. One click on “buy now” covers a multitude of sins.

MacGillis is enough of a traditional reporter to know the phrase “if it bleeds, it leads.” Yet his coverage of tragedies – workers crushed while trying to fix equipment or families hammered by zero control over shifts and no childcare – makes us feel a steady moral empowerment, not a complicit, fatalistic voyeurism. Accidents illuminate the way the warehouses and data centers work. Amazon pushes punishing schedules and sucks up megawatts of discounted power for its cloud computing operations, which often seek to provide the platform for others’ commerce. But the deck is never even, and Amazon is always sucking in information to put its client “partners” at competitive disadvantage. Reflexively antitax in relation to community needs, Amazon finds countless insidious ways to levy its own form of taxes on all who think they must ally with it.

“Fulfillment” is not all about inequality in cities; MacGillis also looks at the impact of contemporary capitalism on rural areas and towns. He is also not antibusiness. Indeed, he waxes almost elegiac about the last shoe factory in Ohio and a chain of mid-level department stores in smaller cities and now-emptied downtowns. He writes parallel narrative very well.

MacGillis’s book is a profound warning about letting creatures like Bezos and his legions of henchpeople get too much power. As pastor of a middle-class church in Baltimore where the middle class is still being hammered – despite President Joe Biden’s remarkably progressive efforts to restore economic opportunity – I appreciate that MacGillis includes local cultural analysis. But the final chapters generalize well the lessons from Seattle, Dayton, Ohio, El Paso, Texas, and Washington. He touches on the deregulatory delusions of courts which seem to believe that concentrated economic power will not have political consequences. He quotes Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance: “These companies have created a form of private government — autocratic regimes that are tightening their control over our main arteries of commerce and information.” He reveals that internal Amazon emails have referred to third-party sellers on the website as “internal competitors,” not “partners,” and developed copycat products to undercut them.

From a public policy perspective, one finds it hard to believe that any self-respecting branch of government would do business with an enterprise so committed to tax avoidance and likely tax evasion. But Amazon is more powerful than most senators and most state governments.

In fact, the power that Amazon has built is enough to divide our country. This is a central argument that MacGillis makes: based on their connections to the company, there are “winner and loser” cities and regions that are being driven further and further apart with every click. What are the implications of this analysis for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and other denominations with national offices in small cities? Since the 1989 relocation of Presbyterian national offices from Atlanta and New York City to Louisville, Kentucky, we have effectively moved further to the margins: a fairly segregated city with limited air traffic and no passenger rail in one of the poorest and most conservative states in the country. The PC(USA) remains connected to large cultural hubs through our Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C., the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations and our membership in the National Council of Churches, who still have offices in Washington and serve as the main arena for cooperation between the Orthodox churches, historic Black churches and White Protestantism. Yet, Louisville remains the central hub of our operations. The landscape of contemporary capitalism sketched by MacGillis begs the question: Is the position of our national offices effective? What statement does this make?

In the final chapter, MacGillis updates many of the human stories from the book. In an economy of abandonment, he is not about to abandon the people who have given him insights and shared hopes, struggles and suffering. This is a lesson to us pastors. He takes note of Biden’s victory, buoyed by his margins in the wealthier suburbs and wonders whether Democrats can connect with the vast numbers of unorganized, exploited workers. MacGillis doesn’t sound like an organizer. But he is more than an observer. He is a witness.