Our Sunday Long Read this week is Scott Shane's look at just how pervasive Amazon is in American life, as the NY Times reporter examines the company's shipping, distribution, fulfillment, web services and delivery operations in Baltimore.
Another big Prime Air 767 takes off from Baltimore-Washington International Airport — where Amazon’s shipping last year eclipsed that of FedEx and U.P.S. put together — and wheels above the old industrial city. Below, the online giant seems to touch every niche of the economy, its ubiquity and range breathtaking.
To the city’s southeast stand two mammoth Amazon warehouses, built with heavy government subsidies, operating on the sites of shuttered General Motors and Bethlehem Steel plants. Computers monitor workers during grueling 10-hour shifts, identifying slow performers for firing. Those on the floor earn $15.40 to $18 an hour, less than half of what their unionized predecessors made. But in Baltimore’s postindustrial economy, the jobs are in demand.
Near the Inner Harbor are the side-by-side stadiums of the Ravens and the Orioles, where every move on the field is streamed to Amazon Web Services for analysis using artificial intelligence. Football players have a chip in each shoulder pad and baseball players are tracked by radar, producing flashy graphics for television and arcane stats for coaches.
Up in northwest Baltimore, a pastor has found funding to install Amazon Ring video cameras on homes in a high-crime neighborhood. Privacy advocates express alarm at proliferating surveillance; footage of suspects can be shared with the police at a click. But the number of interested residents has already outstripped the number of cameras available.
In City Hall downtown and at Johns Hopkins University a few miles away, procurement officers have begun buying from local suppliers via Amazon Business — and even starred in a national marketing video for the company. Buyers say the convenience more than justifies interposing a Seattle-based corporation between their institutions and nearby businesses. Critics denounce the retail giant’s incursion into long-established relationships. It is a very Amazon dispute.
As federal regulators and Congress assess whether Amazon’s market power should be curbed under antitrust laws — and whether, as some politicians argue, the company should be broken up — The New York Times has explored the company’s impact in one American community: greater Baltimore.
Baltimore’s pleading pitch last year to become an additional headquarters city for Amazon, promising a whopping $3.8 billion in subsidies, did not even make the second round of bidding. But Amazon’s presence here shows how the many-armed titan may now reach into Americans’ daily lives in more ways than any corporation in history. If antitrust investigators want to sample Amazon’s impact on the ground, they could well take a look here.
Anirban Basu, a Baltimore economist who has studied the region for years, is skeptical of apocalyptic claims about Amazon, saying Sears and Walmart were both once seen as all-powerful. But he called Amazon a “profit-margin killer” and said it should be scrutinized, particularly because technological trends that include artificial intelligence, driverless trucks, drones and new payment systems all play to its advantage.
“All these things are a threat to other industries,” Mr. Basu said. “But they’re all good for Amazon. As powerful as it is, Amazon is set to be much more powerful.”
Imagine a corporation so large and so powerful that it control every aspect of the items you buy from manufacture until it reaches your door, a company so large that its economy of scale can simply drive every other single competitor out of business. Imagine that everything you bought came from one company, especially the final mile to your home: groceries, home services, security cameras, clothing, flower seeds, books, curtains, that new TV and the streaming service to watch on it, and everything else.
How powerful would that company be once it outpriced its competitors out of business? How powerful would it be if it eliminated 90% of its workforce and automated the rest?
Amazon, Apple, Facebook, these companies need to be shattered.
Or they will own us all.