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The Caesar Of The Amazon Jungle

Jeff Bezos and the triumph of politically connected capitalism


Man, this Amazon deal makes me angry. Matt in VA gets it just right in this comment from an earlier thread:

[Quoting someone else:] I saw [big name pastor redacted] on some panel recently. What struck me is how irrelevant just about everything he said was… I’m re-reading The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann’s work about pre-1914 Europe, and one of the points he makes is that life can go on for years, decades even, with little change, and then one day something happens, so that last week seems like 50 years in the past. At some point in the last few years, that happened here. Suddenly everything was different and the old ways no longer suffice. Trump is an obvious clue, but it is far deeper than that.

[Matt:] Yes, I feel this all the time. I feel it very strongly. There are all these people walking around and saying things, saying the “right” kinds of things, and it just seems to have absolutely nothing to do with what is actually going on in the world around us. There really does seem to be a point at which people just *cannot* change their operating system. It’s like how in Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions he says that these revolutions don’t actually happen because a creative minority convince the majority that they were wrong about what they believed to be true; the revolutions happen when the young no longer believe what the old believe, and the old eventually die off.

The Amazon deal strikes me as a perfect example of this. Literally billions of dollars in public funding for the richest man on the planet to build even more headquarters (seems like a company big enough to have three massive headquarters could use a heaping dose of antitrust legislation). The whole thing, the whole selection process, a giant performance of obeisance to the second largest company in the world, already with effective monopoly power on the written word/publishing industry, with various cities clobbered by postindustrialism and globalization prostituting themselves for this monster, and then of course Amazon goes with the two cities that already have the most power in the world. (The cities not chosen should be grateful, frankly.) The intertwining tentacles of Big Tech and Big Government growing ever more strangling. This is our elite — the establishment of both parties, note well. This is the kind of thing our elite does. Imagine believing in *this* kind of America. My understanding is that Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Tucker Carlson are on the same page about this whole absolutely revolting spectacle. I have no hope that the actual left and actual right can work together on these issues; I think it would be very silly to imagine that. But I at least hope pressure from *anybody* left or right can put this ruling class down one way or another. I just wonder — who can believe this, believe in this, anymore?

Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world.  Jeff Bezos is worth $166 billion. This year, his net worth has been increasing at roughly $260 million per day.  And yet, New York City and northern Virginia fell all over themselves to win Amazon’s two new headquarters buildings. It was too much even for the Ur-capitalists at the Wall Street Journal editorial board, who said today:

We rarely agree with socialist Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but she’s right to call billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies for Amazon “extremely concerning.” These handouts to one of the richest companies in the history of the world, with an essentially zero cost of capital, is crony capitalism at its worst.

The editorial provides details of state and local giveaways, and concedes that Bezos would have been stupid to refuse all that free money from politicians, “but it still amounts to a company with a market capitalization of nearly $800 billon getting paid to create jobs it would have created somewhere anyway.”

Take a look at this short segment from Tucker Carlson’s show, in which he says that Ocasio-Cortez is right. “The last thing we need is more money in Washington. It’s rich enough,” Carlson says, and asks the economist he has on why Bezos would locate these new HQs in DC and NYC. Because, says the economist, that’s where the power is:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQ7dRT5rtvY]

It’s true. DC is the political capital of the country, and NYC is the cultural capital. The richest man in the world wants influence. They’ve just given him $2 billion in subsidies to be close enough to lobby them.

Consider too that these jobs will be created in two of the most expensive areas in the US to live, in the two cities — New York and Washington — where cultural and political capital is most highly concentrated. What kind of workers will be able to labor in those Amazon sites? Not middle class people with families. Think of how much good could have been done had Amazon put one or both of those facilities elsewhere in the nation.

Strictly speaking, it’s not Amazon’s job to be a good corporate citizen, but make no mistake: Jeff Bezos is contributing to the hollowing out of America. And so are the politicians of both parties who allow corporations to exercise so much power. They’re undermining the strength and stability of our political order.

I’m reading a new book titled Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny by the historian Edward J. Watts. I’ve praised him in this space before for his illuminating book The Final Pagan Generation, about fifth-century Roman elites. In this new volume, Watts says the growing wealth and power of the Roman Republic, and the concentration of that wealth and power in fewer hands, led to elites losing the older republican virtues of public service and restraint. A chasm erupted between the new super-rich and the masses of people who had to live with the realization that they were going to be worse off than their parents’ generation. Watts writes that “some of the established families who were falling behind economically became increasingly concerned that they could not compete effectively in this new environment.” More:

The new economy produced great wealth for a few winners, but the frustration of the newly poor and the fear that some of the old elites were losing their grip on power created conditions in which a fierce populist reaction could occur.

The men who governed Rome for much of the half century following Hannibal’s defeat generally avoided cultivating this sort of populism. The Republic remained stable despite massive economic and social changes in large part because of their relative restraint. But the generation of politicians coming of age at the end of the 140s (B.C.) took notice of the growing inequality in Roman and Italian society and, unlike their elders, they did not refrain from exploiting the anxiety it produced as they competed for Rome’s highest offices. Their choices would set the Republic on a very different, very dangerous course.

Things got so bad that the citizens of Rome eventually embraced the idea of autocratic rule by Caesar over the instability brought about by the Republic, whose ruling elites they took to be corrupt, self-serving, and ineffective.

Matt in VA, observing how politicians rewarded the world’s richest man with taxpayer subsidies, and how that same man is planting his businesses where they can be even more entwined with power, asks of America’s ruling class: “Who can believe this, believe in this, anymore?”

Look at what happened this week with the US Catholic bishops. They gathered in Baltimore amid another round of scandal — this one sparked by this past summer’s revelation that Cardinal McCarrick was secretly a sex fiend, and rose in the Church’s ranks despite this being known in elite circles. With their credibility at an all-time low, the bishops had hoped to do something, anything, to send a signal to their people that they can be trusted to reform and govern themselves. The pope, who prefers to downplay the seriousness of the crisis, perhaps because the most corrupt are his allies, tied their hands on Day One. By the end of the meeting, the bishops voted down a proposal simply to ask Pope Francis to make public results of the Vatican’s investigation of McCarrick. From CNA’s report:

Cardinal William Levada, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said he did not support the resolution because it would only further the divide between the USCCB and the Vatican.

The inability of bishops to speak the truth about sex abuse, in part out of fear of seeming divisive, is by now a terrible joke. Who can believe in this, in these bishops, anymore? Some will leave the Catholic faith in disgust. Others will persist in the faith, in spite of the Catholic Church’s ruling class. The point is, this is an entirely self-inflicted wound, one that is causing severe damage, from which the Roman church, at least in this country, will not soon recover.

On the political front, this could easily happen to the American republic. Matt in VA says:

The intertwining tentacles of Big Tech and Big Government growing ever more strangling. This is our elite — the establishment of both parties, note well. This is the kind of thing our elite does. Imagine believing in *this* kind of America.

Who can? All it will take is one or more talented politicians to focus the inchoate anger of people and regions left behind by crony capitalism. Donald Trump has shown what is possible, for better and for worse. His own personal corruption and incompetence has prevented constructive change, but we now know that the norms of the old Republic are not nearly as durable as we thought them to be.

Assuming economic stability, the politician who figures out how to be truly populist on economics while being more federalist on culture war issues (i.e., credibly advocating for letting Blue America be blue, and Red America be red), will crack the code. I’m not sure how that figure could emerge. As it stands now, the Republicans can’t imagine ever doing anything that offends against pro-corporate fundamentalism, and as long as a corporation is sufficiently woke, the Democrats don’t have a problem with it.

But if we have another economic crash like 2008, anything could happen.

There may be a regional aspect to this future populism too. Ross Douthat gets at it in this comment:


Here’s a link to Douthat’s piece from 2017. Excerpt:

Yes, for many of their inhabitants, particularly the young and the wealthy, our liberal cities are pleasant places in which to work and play. But if they are diverse in certain ways they are segregated in others, from “whiteopias” like Portland to balkanized cities like D.C. or Chicago. If they are dynamic, they are also so rich — and so rigidly zoned — that the middle class can’t afford to live there and fewer and fewer kids are born inside their gates. If they are fast-growing it’s often a growth intertwined with subsidies and “too big to fail” protection; if they are innovation capitals it’s a form of innovation that generates fewer jobs than past technological advance. If they produce some intellectual ferment they have also cloistered our liberal intelligentsia and actually weakened liberalism politically by concentrating its votes.

So has the heyday of these meritocratic agglomerations actually made America greater? I think not. In the age of the liberal city — dating, one might argue, to the urban recovery of the 1990s — economic growth has been slack, political dysfunction worse, and technological progress slow outside the online sector. Liberalism has become more smug and out-of-touch; conservatism more anti-intellectual and buffoonish. The hive-mind genius supposedly generated by concentrating all the best and the brightest has given us great apps and some fun TV shows to binge-watch, but the 2000s and 2010s haven’t exactly been the Florentine Renaissance.

Thus this week’s installment in my series of implausible, perhaps even ridiculous proposals: We should treat liberal cities the way liberals treat corporate monopolies — not as growth-enhancing assets, but as trusts that concentrate wealth and power and conspire against the public good. And instead of trying to make them a little more egalitarian with looser zoning rules and more affordable housing, we should make like Teddy Roosevelt and try to break them up.


Meanwhile new business tax credits would encourage regional diversification, while the state and local tax deduction would be capped, making it more expensive for the upper class to live in and around high-cost, high-tax metropolitan areas. And the F.T.C.’s mandate would be creatively rewritten to include an industry’s geographic concentration as a monopolistic indicator, letting it approve mergers and acquisitions and trustbust with an eye toward more dispersed employment.

Read the whole thing.

Finally, if you haven’t yet read Daniel Kishi’s essay about Amazon’s great swindle from TAC this week, please do. Excerpt:

Indeed, under the guise of a multi-billion dollar development contest, Amazon successfully convinced the mayors and governors of 238 North American cities and regions to voluntarily surrender a treasure trove of information ranging from future infrastructure projects to land use patterns and everything else in between—all without being charged a dime.

Armed with this detailed data, Amazon will not only have a competitive advantage over its rivals in retail and cloud computing, it will also have a serious upper hand at the negotiating table with state and local governments, as it will know precisely how much taxpayer money it will be able to extract from public funds.

Amazon has emerged in recent years as the leading beneficiary of corporate welfare, pocketing more than $1.6 billion in state and local tax breaks and subsidies (including more than $230 million this year alone) for construction of its data centers and warehouses since 2000. As it seeks to grow its cloud computing market share, expand its physical retail footprint, and optimize its supply chain, Amazon will use the information it’s gathered to extract as many financial resources as it can. With many government officials operating as if economic development is a zero sum game, Amazon will continue to foment localized bidding wars that pit city against city, county against county, town against town.

“This is not about 1 city or 2 cities,” Mitchell says. “It’s about a corporation that’s extending its tentacles in every direction—to extract wealth, insert itself, dominate.”

Who is the trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt of our time? Come quickly, while there is still a Republic left to save.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

I work for Amazon… in “HQ1” here in Seattle. It is interesting to see the reaction on the inside. In one word: excitement.

The thing that makes Amazon so successful and powerful is the same thing that makes it scary and blind to the damage it does: a self-righteous sense of “customer obsession”.

Customer obsession is our primary mantra at Amazon. It has an obvious upside for the business as Bezos continually preaches: the company can’t settle because the customer is never happy. But this obsession has a dark side which doesn’t seem to be acknowledged internally: If we think that we are serving the customer, then we can do no wrong. You see Amazon got all those tax incentives “for the customer”. Amazon conducted a year long public search “for the customer”. Amazon is locating itself in powerful political hubs “for the customer”!

Amazon employees don’t just think this. We are converted to it and that conversion powers the massive, world-consuming engine that is Amazon.com.

I say all of this not just to criticize the company, but kind of to defend it too. Bezos and Amazon are not nefarious plotters out to become our tech overlords. Bezos himself is best understood not as any sort of villain but as the richest geek in history. Amazon itself will suffer the same fate as Sears in 50-100 years.

But intentional or not, Amazon is a monster that feeds off obsessing over every possible whim of a hedonistic culture. That should be everyone’s true concern about Amazon.



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