Tech gi­ants can put the pub­lic first

Bangkok Post - - OPINION - Ross Douthat is a colum­nist with The New York Times.

Acou­ple of in­ter­est­ing things are hap­pen­ing with the mas­sive com­pa­nies that rule our on­line lives. First, the lords of Sil­i­con Val­ley face po­lit­i­cal head­winds. There is tech-com­pany scep­ti­cism on the pop­ulist right, the an­ti­cor­po­rate left and the good-gov­ern­ment cen­tre. There is talk of trust­bust­ing and util­ity-style reg­u­la­tion from Steve Ban­non as well as Bernie San­ders. There is a pal­pa­ble feel­ing, as Ben Smith of Buz­zfeed wrote last week, that the on­line gi­ants’ “golden age” of po­lit­i­cal im­mu­nity is end­ing, and that it might be “nor­mal pol­i­tics, nor­mal reg­u­la­tion” from here on out.

Sec­ond, one of these gi­ants — Ama­zon — is in the mar­ket for a sec­ond head­quar­ters, where it in­tends to park some 50,000 em­ploy­ees and an aw­ful lot of tech-in­dus­try dol­lars over the years and decades ahead. The Ama­zon hunt has in­spired data whizzes to ar­gue about which US me­trop­o­lis best fits the com­pany’s de­mand­ing spec­i­fi­ca­tions. The New York Times, for in­stance, used in­di­ca­tors like job growth, an ed­u­cated labour pool, qual­ity of life and ease of trans­porta­tion to win­now the list to Port­land, Ore­gon; Den­ver; Bos­ton; and DC — and then gave the edge to Den­ver for its space and lower cost of liv­ing.

The com­pany will prob­a­bly ul­ti­mately make a choice along these lines. But the po­lit­i­cal back­drop, the grow­ing sus­pi­cion on the right and left about whether big tech serves the com­mon good, raises an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion: What if Ama­zon treated their head­quar­ter­ing de­ci­sion as an act of cor­po­rate cit­i­zen­ship, part pub­lic re­la­tions stunt and part gen­uinely pa­tri­otic ges­ture? What if it ap­proached the de­ci­sion as an op­por­tu­nity to push back against trends driv­ing pop­ulist sus­pi­cion of big busi­ness — ed­u­ca­tional and ge­o­graphic po­lar­i­sa­tion, coastal growth and heart­land de­cay, the sense that the New Econ­omy cre­ates wealth but not jobs and that its ty­coons are loyal to glob­al­i­sa­tion rather than their coun­try?

Ama­zon can’t re­al­is­ti­cally spread its of­fices and jobs across Amer­ica’s most iso­lated and de­spair­ing coun­ties. But in­stead of pick­ing an ob­vi­ous BosWash hub or cre­ative-class boom­town, it could opt to plant it­self in a medium-sized city in a con­ser­va­tive state — think Nashville or In­di­anapo­lis or Birm­ing­ham. Or it could look for a strug­gling East Coast al­ter­na­tive to the ob­vi­ous Ace­la­land op­tions — not Bos­ton but Hart­ford, Con­necti­cut, not DC but Bal­ti­more, not New York but Bridgeport, Con­necti­cut. Or it could pick a big, bat­tered, de­clin­ing city and of­fer its pres­ence as an en­gine of re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion, build­ing Ama­zon Cleve­land or Ama­zon Detroit.

A par­tic­u­larly com­pelling pick, ac­cord­ing to my ex­tremely non­sci­en­tific “what’s good for Amer­ica” met­ric, might be St Louis — a once-great me­trop­o­lis fallen on hard times, the ma­jor ur­ban cen­tre for a large spread of Trump coun­try, the ge­o­graphic cen­tre of the coun­try and the his­toric bridge be­tween East and West.

Of course, Ama­zon also needs its choice for a new head­quar­ters to make fi­nan­cial sense. The com­pany is not a char­ity, and mak­ing it­self the pris­oner of a dis­as­trous in­vest­ment won’t ul­ti­mately help any­one ex­cept its ri­vals. But it’s hard to know with any real cer­tainty what the best long-term ge­o­graphic in­vest­ment for the com­pany would be. The fact that tech com­pa­nies tend to clus­ter doesn’t mean that a uniquely rich and pow­er­ful com­pany couldn’t ben­e­fit from hav­ing a city of its own. The fact that bright young sin­gle­tons grav­i­tate to­ward coastal urbs right now doesn’t mean that you couldn’t at­tract tal­ent — espe­cially mar­ried-with­kids tal­ent — to a heart­land city whose Ama­zon Dis­trict took ad­van­tage of sprawl­ing hous­ing stock left over from a pros­per­ous past.

You could make a great va­ri­ety of cities score im­pres­sively — from Bridgeport to Provo, Utah; Detroit to Rochester, New York.

Ul­ti­mately, as Lyman Stone, a pro­lific Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture cot­ton econ­o­mist, points out, there is no city that comes close to meet­ing all of the com­pany’s re­quire­ments: “No mat­ter where Ama­zon goes, they will have to build their own fun­da­men­tals.” And what it builds will change that city rad­i­cally — so a static anal­y­sis of any des­ti­na­tion will only take you so far.

If Don­ald Trump were the deal mak­ing, in­dus­trial-pol­icy pres­i­dent that he once promised to be, he would be on the phone with Jeff Be­zos right now, mak­ing a case along these very lines. I don’t have a strong view on whether we should treat in­ter­net gi­ants like util­i­ties. But when you en­joy a mo­nop­oly’s pow­ers, one way to avoid be­ing reg­u­lated like one is to act with a kind of pre-emp­tive pa­tri­o­tism, and be­have as if what’s good for Amer­ica is good for Ama­zon as well.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Thailand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.