Tech giants can put the public first
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.