There is a ritual familiar to fans of the Bachelor franchise, always in the opening episode, that I like to call Parade of the Bleached-Toothed Supplicants. Dozens of sleek contestants, hoping to catch the eye of the Bachelor (or Bachelorette) resort to more and more extreme gimmicks. They dress as sharks. They arrive on horseback. They warble love songs – and play ukuleles, just to make it worse.
Imagine this grovelling happening on a much more consequential scale, with tax breaks in place of ukuleles, and you have the North America-wide rush to win Amazon's hand. A total of 238 cities, including several in Canada, have launched bids to house the vast retailing giant's second headquarters, HQ2, which will bring with it (possibly) tens of thousands of jobs and billions in investment.
It's simple to win the heart of "the ruthless corporate juggernaut that people love," as the technology website The Verge calls Amazon. A city must have a population of a million, a good transit system, an educated work force. Oh, yeah, and maybe add a little gravy for flavour: "Incentives offered by the state/province and local communities to offset initial capital outlay and ongoing operational costs will be significant factors in the decision-making process," Amazon's bidding guidelines say.
New Jersey's Governor Chris Christie is in there like a dirty shirt, offering $7-billion (U.S.) in incentives to the corporate behemoth owned by Jeff Bezos (who has nosed to the lead of the Plutocrat Derby, overtaking Bill Gates as the world's richest man). Chicago got William Shatner to narrate its bid video, knowing that Mr. Bezos is a Star Trek fan. Calgary offered to fight a bear. Detroit offered to build gondolas over the Detroit River.
My hometown, Toronto, was not so pathetic in its seduction, though its glossy pitch chose to highlight happy university graduates instead of, say, a cyclist and driver beating each other senseless on King Street. Toronto's bid opened with a letter from Justin Trudeau, extolling the virtues of Canadian cities. "Dear Jeff …" the letter began, as if our Prime Minister were at a barbecue with the world's richest man while hot dog buns dropped gently from the belly of an Amazon drone high above.
What was missing from this frenzy of woo was any sense that Amazon was anything other than Mr. Rogers in a slightly nicer cardigan, handing out apples to neighbourhood kids. We had all chosen to forget Amazon's role in devastating the retail landscape. No one particularly wants to be reminded that the company "has helped damage or destroy competitors small and large, many of whose brands were once world renowned," as Brad Stone wrote in his 2013 history of the company, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.
"Bezos's long-term goal is to sell everything, everywhere," Mr. Stone writes, and hey – it's good to have ambitions. It's also good to recognize the consequences of those ambitions, for the people and communities that corporations should serve. To that end, it's interesting that no one is talking about Amazon's history of shutting down unionization drives. (Time Magazine in 2014 detailed these efforts under the headline "How Amazon Crushed the Union Movement.")
Neither is anyone talking about the quality of the 50,000 or so jobs HQ2 will bring. These will be well-paid, white-collar jobs, so not the punishingly hard work offered in Amazon's daintily named "fulfilment centres," which in one infamous case required ambulances to wait outside in case workers overheated.
The jobs in Amazon's headquarters are gruelling in another fashion, as The New York Times revealed in a 2015 investigation: It described a culture of "purposeful Darwinism," including spying on other employees and burnout hours, which some employees found invigorating and challenging, but drove many others to the door. So, yes, perhaps winning the HQ2 bid would be a marvellous thing for a city; but we should at least acknowledge and talk about the ways that it wouldn't. Unfortunately, tech triumphalism doesn't work that way.
A most useful analysis of Amazon's jaw-dropping ascent and market dominance is provided in the new book The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, by Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business. It details the way Amazon has been able to control a sparkly narrative about a consumerist utopia – your juicer will one day arrive within minutes from a warehouse floating in the sky! – while ignoring the hollowing-out of jobs and wealth that will accompany it.
"We have a perception of these large companies that they must be creating a lot of jobs," Prof. Galloway writes, "but in fact they have a small number of high-paying jobs, and everybody else is fighting over the scraps. America is on pace to be home to 3 million lords and 350 million serfs." You could add "Canada" to that sentence.
By the way, I read Prof. Galloway's edifying and alarming book on my Kindle app, downloaded in seconds from Amazon. We're all part of this cult. When you're in it, it's hard to see the walls – or the door.