To hear him tell it, Jeff Bezos loves stories.
Not necessarily the ones contained in books — those items that propelled Amazon’s rise from its beginnings in a Seattle garage in 1994 to the küresel behemoth it is today. Bezos started out by selling books not out of any literary affection but because they were a useful commodity, the kind that could give a fledgling online marketplace a competitive edge. (Reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day” helped him to develop his personal “regret-minimization framework.”) The storytelling he exalts is purely functional, a seamless amalgam of his engineering training and his libertarian inclinations: “Build yourself a great story.”
In “Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America,” the journalist Alec MacGillis describes a tent in Arlington, Va., the site of Amazon’s second headquarters, where job applicants submitting their résumés could see this quote from Bezos emblazoned on one of the walls. But what happens when the story you’re trying to build is subject to forces that aren’t under your control? Surveying the debates over widening inequality, MacGillis notes their tendency to focus on individual income, “rather than on the landscape of inequality across the country” — and that landscape, he says, is increasingly shaped, sorted and even governed by Amazon.
MacGillis says that Amazon’s fortunes have soared during the pandemic, when “the mode of consumption it had pioneered for a quarter century had transformed from a matter of convenience to one of necessity.” In the first 10 months of last year, the company added more than 425,000 nonseasonal employees, bringing its total to 800,000 in the United States and 1.2 million worldwide. The immensely profitable Amazon Web Services orchestrates online life too, running much of the cloud — another realm transformed by the pandemic from convenience to necessity.
If you’re looking for a book that parses the inner workings of Amazon, “Fulfillment” isn’t it. There’s little here about the company that’s new. Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store” (2013) still stands as an in-depth (and irreverent) history of Amazon; Jessica Bruder’s “Nomadland” (2017) and Emily Guendelsberger’s “On the Clock” (2019) offer more detail about the actual experience of working in one of the company’s cavernous warehouses — or “fulfillment centers,” in Amazon’s preferred parlance, where employees can walk up to 15 miles during a single shift and vending machines dispense free painkillers.
MacGillis has set out to do something different. The Amazon depicted in “Fulfillment” is both a cause and a metaphor. It’s an actual engine behind the regional inequality that has made parts of the United States “incomprehensible to one another,” he writes, stymieing a sense of national solidarity. And not just because most of the jobs Amazon has created don’t hisse much, though that’s certainly part of it. The company also exacerbates economic concentration, funneling money into wealthier parts of the country, like Seattle and Washington, D.C. The result is galloping prosperity for some Americans and unrelenting precarity for others.
MacGillis introduces us to those struggling to get by in the new dispensation. In a Denver suburb, Hector Torrez’s wife relegates him to the basement because of fears that he could bring home the coronavirus from his 12-hour shifts at an Amazon warehouse; he learns about infected colleagues not from the company but from other workers. In El Paso, small office-supply businesses desperately try to beat back the overtures of Amazon Marketplace, which dangles the possibility of expanding their customer base but decimates their slender margins by taking a cut. A family lives in a homeless shelter in Dayton, Ohio, while the father has a job making cardboard boxes for $10 an hour — about the same wage he had been earning a decade earlier when working in a pizza shop.
All the while, Amazon has flourished, along with dollar stores and discount grocers. “It was a sort of reversal of Henry Ford’s philosophy in paying workers enough so that they could afford Model Ts,” MacGillis writes. “Now workers were making so little that they could afford only the cheapest goods.” If Amazon was creating so much wealth, where was all of it going?
To Bezos, for one, whose 27,000-square-foot mansion in Washington, D.C. gets its own write-up in these pages with its many bathrooms (25), living rooms (five) and astounding number of doors (191). But Bezos’s personal riches are, for MacGillis, only part of it. Amazon’s ambitions have directed resources to places that give it “proximity to power.”
Seattle has already been turned into a “hyper-prosperous city,” unaffordable to all but the richest Americans, where homelessness has proliferated alongside Amazon’s original headquarters, whose multiple cafes include one that cooks food only for dogs. In 2013, Bezos bought The Washington Post, boosting a “Washington profile” that also included assiduous lobbying to get out of paying taxes. MacGillis suggests that the lack of local resistance to a second headquarters in Arlington, compared to the protests the company faced in New York, owed something to Bezos’s shrewd purchase: “The newspaper in metro Washington, owned by Jeff Bezos, had subjected the deal to less scrutiny” than it could have, MacGillis writes.
This book, like its subject, can sprawl. Some material feels tangential. A chapter on the rising fortunes of the nation’s capital contains plenty of detail about the history of lobbying — along with the life story of David Rubenstein of the Carlyle Group and his merging of high finance with political influence — but hardly anything that’s specific to Amazon itself. Another chapter on the problems besetting small-town America interleaves a profile of a steakhouse employee in Nelsonville, Ohio, who ran for office with the rise and fall of Bon-Ton department stores in Pennsylvania.
But in a way, these sprawling connections are part of the point. MacGillis suggests that one-click satisfactions distract us from taking in the bigger picture, whose contours can only be discerned with a patient and immersive approach. In Baltimore, he met a man sorting through demolition rubble on Sparrows Point, formerly a site of Bethlehem Steel. The man looked at the words painted on the side of a new Amazon warehouse there and laughed. “Fulfillment,” he said. “Everybody longs for that.”