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How economic anxiety underpins the opposition to Amazon in Seattle

The recent discussion on the “head tax” in Seattle opened up cultural fault lines in a region that is changing as rapidly as any in America.  This manifested in multiple ways.

There was a general antagonism to Amazon specifically from a region dealing with the rate of its growth.  There was some specific opposition to Jeff Bezos, now the world’s richest person.  And, there was some general anti-corporate verve that came out.

These took different shapes, but I think they all share a core element which drives their concern:  for as strong as the Washington State economy is, it feels precarious.  And, the safety net below us all doesn’t look strong enough to catch us if we all fall.

Let’s look at how this anxiety has manifested, and what it might say about the state of things today.

 

General anti-corporate sentiment

Anti-corporate sentiment isn’t a new trend.  It didn’t arrive with avocado toast.  It is a deeply held strain of Washington State culture.

In the eastern part of the state, it takes the form of a libertarian individualism, part of the frontier culture that comes through in our farming communities and small towns.  In the western part of the state, it’s a little different.  Large corporations, from Weyerhauser to Kaiser Aluminum, are also part of the history here, which were all embraced in their own way.  But that embrace began to feel one sided a generation ago, a sentiment yet to subside.

Knute Berger connected today’s frustration with Amazon to the left-at-the-alter feeling of past corporate break ups with Seattle.

“This also echoes another time when Seattle was dependent on one large employer that let us down.

In 1971, Boeing was in a down cycle and had laid off some 60,000 employees, causing the so-called Boeing “Lights Out” recession. That’s like losing Amazon overnight.

In recovering from the early 1970s downturn, many in Seattle swore we would never again let the city be so reliant on a single company. Boeing rebuilt into a still-robust if less dominant player, but in the 1990s it came under local criticism for its impact on sprawl, the environment and quality of life. In 2001, the company announced it planned to move its headquarters. That damaged a symbiotic commitment that had lasted for over half a century.”

If Seattle is a spurned lover, slow to forgive the Boeing and dot-com busts of years past, it may have found a new corporate soul mate in Amazon.  But it hates itself for it.

 

Anti-Jeff Bezos sentiment

Jeff Bezos is a prominent international figure.  His local persona is, however, somewhat less elevated.  By that I mean Bezos has very rarely engaged publicly in civic affairs or public discussions.  When he has engaged, it is largely through contributions to initiatives or similar causes.  In 2016, Bezos gave $1m to Mary’s Place to address homelessness.  In 2012, he gave $2.5m to support the gay marriage initiative.  Both of these gifts are examples progressives would probably support.

However, Bezos’s past support against an income tax is being heralded as an example of why the state doesn’t have the mechanism today for funding.  From Eli Sanders at The Stranger:

A major reason we’re now scrapping over a Seattle head tax to fund affordable housing and homelessness services is that Washington State’s tax system is badly broken, and has been for a very long time. This state has regularly been declared to have the most regressive tax system in America, and that’s largely because Washington State has no income tax.

Why don’t we have an income tax?

In part, it’s because Jeff Bezos didn’t want us to have one.

Sanders highlights the $100,000 contribution Bezos made in 2010 to the opposition of the I-1098 campaign.

Now, $2.5m for gay marriage is more than $100k against an income tax.  Moreover, the income tax likely fails regardless of Bezos’s contribution, as it had repeatedly before.  It’s not as clear that the gay marriage initiative would have passed absent the shot-in-the-arm that Bezos gave that campaign in 2012.  In other words, one of these is not like the other.

But, in a time of deepening income inequality, job losses through disruption, and a world where regular folks are increasingly unable to afford the basics in life, Bezos is becoming a figurehead for some of the broader socio-economic issues at work in today’s America.

 

Antagonism to Amazon specifically

Like Bezos is becoming a symbol for some of the pressures manifesting in today’s America, Amazon itself is becoming a manifestation of some of the economic disruption taking place.  In the case of South Lake Union, for example, the number of cranes in the city over the last few years is a direct product of Amazon’s rapid growth.  From a recent Seattle Times op-ed:

While the rich get richer, Amazon and its stakeholders are building a new cityscape but only for those who can afford to live in the shadow of their enormous profits. Even many of Amazon’s own employees, like warehouse workers and Prime drivers, are struggling to stay housed in the area.

The widening economic crisis and the fact that rental rates in this city have increased by 65 percent since 2010 have hit home for my business and the friends and neighbors that walk through our doors each day. More than 10,000 people are homeless in King County, far more are struggling to keep their housing, pay their taxes and keep food on the table.

Some perspectives are less emotional but still recognize that Amazon is acting in pursuit of its own interests, which may not necessarily be the interests of the Puget Sound community.  From a Seattle P-I op-ed titled “Amazon, stop threatening Seattle:”

It wasn’t lefty politicians that led Amazon to launch HQ2. The company knew before us that Seattle could no longer keep pace with its corporate growth. It launched HQ2 as a necessity driven by the reality of its business. And just as they’ve done in Seattle, they’ve set up communities around the country to fight each other to see who can give away the most of their future to the company.

This is what Amazon does, it plays communities against each other.

Frankly, I can’t think of anything better for Seattle right now than moderating our growth and allowing time for our region to catch up with the services and infrastructure needed to address this past decade’s expansion.

The idea of slowing down Amazon’s growth to address the implications of these rapid changes is gaining steam.  This isn’t because folks are trying to kill the “goose that lays the golden egg,” so to speak.  It’s because the rate of change has been so dramatic in recent years, that Puget Sound residents are fatigued from the stress and anxiety of this time of economic disruption.  Amazon has played a role in that, certainly.

 

Putting it all together

The discussion about the “head tax” has elevated the voices of the anxious, and has manifest into an anti-Amazon rhetoric.  This has also included an anti-Bezos flavor, but has fit within a historical anti-corporate thread in Washington State.

However, while this conversation is specific to Amazon, I think there are elements that underpin this conversation that relate to a broader economic anxiety that is felt across most income levels in Seattle today.