How did telling that story become a book that is largely about Amazon? Wasn’t the internet supposed to spread wealth by making physical location less relevant than before?
I wanted to write a book on regional inequality, and then I had to decide how to frame it. I settled on Amazon for two reasons as the framework for the book. One was that the business is simply so ubiquitous that it is a very convenient way to take you nationwide because it is everywhere, but everywhere in different forms.
But more importantly, I chose it because it is also a great contribution and explanation for regional inequality, because even though the internet was supposed to spread us and be everywhere, it actually did the opposite. There are well-documented agglomeration effects of the innovation economy – you want closeness to the other engineers and programmers and, not to mention the venture capitalists, but the bigger reason for Big Tech’s role in regional inequality is more about economic policy . So much of our geographic concentration is linked to market concentration. The business, trade and prosperity that used to be spread all over the country, in various industries, are now increasingly dominated by a few companies residing in certain places. This is happening with media advertising revenue, which used to be distributed throughout newspapers and local TV and radio, but is now increasingly being phased out in the form of digital advertising revenue to the two companies. [Facebook and Google] which controls 60 percent of the market, both of which are located in the Bay. And retail that once spread across the country, from mom-and-pop to regional stores, is now increasingly dominated by a company based in Seattle. And so, so I came to Amazon.
One thing that comes through in the book is how Amazon’s footprint – both its economic and its physical footprint – really looks different in different parts of the country. You spend time on the separation between DC and Baltimore. I live in DC, you live in Baltimore. How does Amazon’s footprint differ between these two cities, which are only 40 miles[40 km]apart?
Yes, the separation between Baltimore and Washington is really the core of the book, because it’s something I’ve seen up close for 20 years now. I’ve been jumping between Baltimore and Washington for the past two decades. At the time, it was very upsetting to see the gap grow, and Amazon is very indicative of that. On the one hand, you have Baltimore a warehouse town. It now has three large Amazon warehouses within the city or just outside the city limits. It is symbolically resonant that the first of the warehouses went into a large former GM plant that closes in the evening. And then the second and third warehouses now go into Sparrows Point, which is home to some of the largest steelworks in the world. To let these warehouses go literally in exactly the same areas of Baltimore’s former industrial life, with people making less than half of what they would make at those plants, is very resonant.
Amazon names its warehouses at nearby airports, and it’s so striking that some warehouses in Baltimore are named after terminals at DC National Airport. The names were available because DC had no warehouses. Instead, it now gets a headquarters. The fact that you have the second headquarters, with 25,000 high-paid white-collar workers, and all the huge investments associated with HQ2, which goes into a metro area, which was probably the richest in the country – this is the best example of the winner-takes-all-get-rich-get-richer-economy.
And one of the themes of the book is that this economy that is winners makes life miserable, not only for people in the lost cities, but also to some extent for the people in the lost cities.
This imbalance is not good for anyone. In the one set of places you have stagnation and rust, desolation and resentment and sadness. And then, in the other series, instead of winners, you have what we see in San Francisco and Seattle, which are the opposite problems. You have affordable crises for housing, you have terrible traffic jams You have too much of a good thing. In the book, I call it ‘hyper prosperity’.