Alec MacGillis: “Amazon feeds the resentment that allowed Trump to come to power”

The American journalist Alec MacGillis has just published in Spain ‘United States of Amazon’ (Peninsula), a book that lays bare the miserable practices of the e-commerce giant and explains how their way of doing business Inequality is rising in the US. MacGillis, who spoke at the CCCB on the subject, says in this interview with EL PERIÓDICO that the rise of Amazon is related to Trump’s arrival in power. The book is also available in Catalan (‘A l’ombra d’Amazon’) in Periscopi.

-Tell me, what word would you use to describe the way Amazon does business, and why?

-I would use the adjective “extractive”. Amazon is like a coal mine: a coal mine puts its employees in a dangerous situation, takes out the coal and creates with it wealth that goes somewhere else, wealth that never comes back. I think something very similar happens with Amazon, the company reaches a community, builds its warehouse there, uses very cheap labor to do rudimentary work and the wealth goes elsewhere.

-Given the size of the company, I don’t think I’m exaggerating if I say that it’s an American tragedy.

-No, of course, because in a certain sense, with those warehouses Amazon squeezes the wealth of the entire country. Before there were small businesses everywhere, and commercial activity everywhere, but now everything goes through Amazon and the wealth it generates goes to a few cities: Seattle, now also Washington, which has been left with the second headquarters… And all this creates a profound imbalance, which is what I explain in the book. All the wealth that Amazon commerce generates goes to a few places.

“All the wealth that Amazon commerce generates is for a few places”

-So we can say that Amazon, and I suppose the other big technology companies, are deciding which is prosperous America and which is not.

– That’s right, they have a huge influence on the appearance of our country. Amazon’s decision on its second headquarters is an example of that, it is something that should not matter so much but it mattered a lot, after all it was about deciding where to put 50,000 jobs, 50,000!, and that is a decision that transforms a city. They could have done it in a city that needed it, and have had a big impact, Saint Louis, Cleveland, they had several options, but they decided to settle in Washington, which was already a rich city.

– Why do you care?

-It doesn’t matter to them, yes.

-Amazon, it says in the book, uses that power to blackmail municipalities and receive subsidies and incentives to install their logistics centers in this or that municipality. Is abuse of power part of Amazon’s DNA?

-What I think is in their DNA, and also from the beginning, is not paying taxes. Their big advantage over the corner bookseller was that they didn’t have to pay sales tax, and why did they settle in Seattle? To avoid paying taxes. And this has been maintained over the years, they don’t pay sales taxes, they don’t pay property taxes, they don’t pay income taxes. In 2018 they paid zero income taxes at the federal level. They even got a tax deduction! Walmart, which are not little angels, paid 36,000 million in taxes that year. They can’t afford that game.

“What Amazon has in its DNA, and also from the beginning, is not paying taxes”

-Surely there are many people in the US government who think that this type of behavior should be persecuted. Are there no laws in the US to stop Amazon? Or is it already too late to do it?

-No, it’s not too late, something is cooking in Washington. There is interest in seeing how these new monopolies can be curbed. Biden has surrounded himself with people who are very critical of these technology companies who hold high positions in the Government, so the possibility of regulations being made is there. It will not be easy because there is a lot of resistance, and also, the Democrats are divided: there are those who believe that these monopolies must be ended and those who are very comfortable with them.

-There is a quote in the book that says that Amazon puts democracy in danger. After having done this book, do you think it is so?

-I think so. In a general sense, yes. They are companies that have eroded the tax base of a country. They are companies that have helped weaken the press. They are companies that have fueled a brutal growth of inequality and resentment between regions. If you add all this up, yes, it is a weakening of the civil and social fabric, of democracy, and it makes it easier for a person like Trump to get where he did.

“Biden has surrounded himself with people who are very critical of these technology companies that hold high positions in the Government, so the possibility of making a regulation is there”

Are you telling me that there is a relationship between the business growth of Amazon and the political growth of Trump?

-Yes, yes, absolutely. I worked on that inequality as a reporter, I traveled the country for a long time and I saw that the gap was getting bigger and bigger. It worried me a lot and I thought I had to write about that regional disparity, explain it, and then Trump goes and wins. For me it was very clear that this victory came from there. It was the last push he needed to write the book.

-New York said ‘no’ to the second headquarters of Amazon. Is something changing or was it an isolated case?

-I think it is because things are changing and there is more political awareness about what Amazon is, especially in a part of the left with the ability to make itself heard. The subsidies that New York was giving Amazon were excessive, free, it was grotesque, really, but also, New York is already such a prosperous city, so rich that many people thought it would be too much.

“Things are changing and there is more political awareness about what Amazon is, especially in a part of the left”

-Did they go to Washington for that?

-Well, we must remember that despite the resistance Amazon wanted to stay. Why did they withdraw? Because New York state leaders, feeling the pressure, went to Amazon and said, “Look, this is tough. Can you promise us that if a large union is formed, for example in your Staten Island warehouse, can you promise us that you will be neutral?” And that’s so important to Amazon that they said no. The curious thing is that last week, a union was formed in that warehouse.

-Tell me, has the book been successful in the US?

I think so, but it was difficult. People did not want to buy it on Amazon, they believed that it was coherent to buy it in a bookstore, but it turns out that when the book was released, the bookstores in the US were closed.

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-That is, it is sold by Amazon.

-Oh yeah. Of course it’s for sale.

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