How did telling that story turn into a book that is largely about Amazon? Wasn’t the internet supposed to spread prosperity by making physical location less relevant than it used to be?
I wanted to write a book about regional inequality, and then I had to decide how to frame it. I settled on Amazon as the frame for the book for two reasons. One was that the company is simply so ubiquitous that it’s a very handy way to take you around the country, because it’s everywhere, but everywhere in different forms.
But more importantly, I chose it because it’s also a huge contributor and explanation for regional inequality, because while the internet was supposed to allow us to disperse and be anywhere, it has, in fact, done the opposite. There are well-documented agglomeration effects of the innovation economy—you want proximity 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 tied to market concentration. The business, commerce, and wealth that used to be spread all across the country, in various industries, are now increasingly dominated by a few companies that reside in certain places. It happens with media ad revenue, which used to be spread everywhere among newspapers and local TV and radio but is now increasingly hoovered up in the form of digital ad revenues to the two companies [Facebook and Google] that control 60 percent of that market, that both reside in the Bay Area. And retail that used to be spread all around the country, from mom-and-pops up to regional department stores, is now increasingly dominated by a company that resides in Seattle. And so, that was how I arrived at Amazon.
One thing that comes through in the book is how Amazon’s footprint—both its economic and its physical footprint—looks really different in different parts of the country. You spend some time on the divide between DC and Baltimore. I live in DC, you live in Baltimore. How does Amazon’s footprint differ between these two cities that are only 40 miles apart?
Yes, the Baltimore–Washington divide is really at the heart of the book, because it’s something that I’ve seen up close for 20 years now. I’ve bounced between Baltimore and Washington for the last two decades. Over that time, watching that gap grow has been really upsetting, and Amazon is very emblematic of it. On the one hand, you have Baltimore becoming, essentially, kind of a warehouse town. It now has three large Amazon warehouses within the city or just outside city limits. It’s symbolically resonant that the first of those warehouses went into a big former GM plant that closed back in the aughts. And then the second and third warehouses have now gone into Sparrows Point, which is the home of what had been the world’s largest steel works. To have these warehouses going into literally the exact same sites of Baltimore’s former industrial life, with people making less than half of what they would have been making at those plants, it’s very resonant.
Amazon names its warehouses by the nearby airports, and it’s so striking that some of the warehouses in Baltimore are named after terminals in National Airport in DC. The names were available because DC doesn’t have any warehouses. Instead, it is now getting a headquarters. So the fact that you have the second headquarters, with 25,000 high-paid, white-collar jobs, and all the massive investments that will come with HQ2, going into a metro area that was already arguably the wealthiest in the country—it’s the ultimate example of the winner-take-all, rich-get-richer economy.
And one theme of the book is that this winner-take-all economy makes life miserable not just for people in the losing cities but, to some degree, for the people in the winning cities as well.
This imbalance is not good for anyone. In the one set of places, you have stagnation and blight and abandonment and resentment and sadness. And then, in the other set, in winner-take-all cities, you have what we’re seeing in San Francisco and Seattle, which are the opposite problems. You have housing affordability crises, you have terrible traffic congestion. You have too much of a good thing. In the book, I call it “hyper prosperity.”