In a private forum on the Authors Guild website, a contributor recently posted a link to a New York Times opinion piece bearing the provocative headline “New York Should Say No to Amazon.” The op-ed began by reminding readers, “This week, word leaked that Amazon may be close to finalizing a deal to set up a major operation in Long Island City, Queens” (the link is in the original), and it went on to subject Amazon itself as well as its possible New York expansion to withering criticism. The forum contributor said he had previously favored the deal but now wasn’t so sure, and he asked for other responses. Because the moves, literal and otherwise, of major tech companies are a pressing concern in New York and elsewhere, I’m reposting here the response I wrote for the forum:
First, it needs to be said that what Ron Kim and Zephyr Teachout propose in their opinion piece isn’t entirely captured by the headline. Rather than declaring flatly that New York City should say no, they propose this: “New York can and should say no, at least until we know a lot more. The public should see correspondences between the Cuomo administration and Amazon to learn what promises have been made. The State Senate should demand a full study to examine the impact of any proposed deal on transportation and the cost of housing. We should hold hearings on Amazon’s union-busting practices.” We ought to know what we’re getting into: I don’t disagree with that.
On the other hand, I’d like to know more about how these things are done in general. Wouldn’t it look bad for New York (where I reside) or any other city to bid for something, be accepted, and then back out? I wouldn’t think we’d agree in principle to subsidize a new sports stadium, a Super Bowl, an Olympics, a national political convention, or the like and then change our mind, and I wouldn’t think we’d do that in the case of a business that’s considering moving here. Surely the best time to consider the issues is before the offer is made—which is not to say we can’t do it now, only that we’ve probably gone about this the wrong way. But maybe I’m wrong; maybe it happens.
While Kim and Teachout lay out some of the areas of contention—namely Amazon’s effect on small businesses, workers, and the publishing industry—I’m not convinced by the evidence and arguments they muster. It’s one thing to say there are reasons to dislike Amazon’s way of doing business or its very existence in the marketplace; it’s another to say we don’t want it here. And, as a practical matter, I doubt very much that rejecting it would improve Amazon.
The monsters of the technology industry are monsters that we as consumers have created; reining them in, if indeed that needs to be done, isn’t likely to be very effective if we go about it piecemeal and purely on a local level. (It’s ironic that what George W. Bush once dismissed as “old Europe“ has gotten far ahead of the United States in this respect; the European Union’s Global Data Protection Regulation was years in the works and has already taken effect, while we’re still scratching our heads over what to do.) And where the local level does matter, as in the distortions of income and housing now faced by Seattle and San Francisco, it goes without saying that you can’t have much impact on a company that’s not based in your city at all.
Friday evening, a teaser on the NYT website front page said, “There Are Now Americans Who Have Lived Through Two Gun Massacres.” (The link, which I haven’t followed, goes here.) I know things that can top that. Until 2010 there was a man in Japan, named Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who had survived both atomic bomb blasts, first at Hiroshima and then at Nagasaki, and who lived to the age of 93. (You can find his Economist obituary here.) There was a woman who survived the sinking of Titanic, on which she worked as a stewardess, and then, working as a nurse on board its sister ship Britannic, which served as a hospital ship during World War I, she survived its sinking as well. (Her name was Violet Jessop, and her story can be found on Wikipedia and elsewhere.) These radical coincidences are fascinating because they’re incongruous; they invite various strange imaginings about the ways in which individual human lives can be whipped about by the hurricanes of history. But they’re not the kind of thing one wants to see more of. There’s something equally strange, but also more simply wrong because more easily preventable, about surviving two mass shootings in the United States.
The First World War ended 100 years ago today: after the signing of an armistice early in the morning, the guns fell silent—this seems to have become the standard way of expressing it—at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Apart from the American Civil War, that war was perhaps the first to bring about injuries and deaths on a scale so vast that, while we can grapple with them arithmetically, as mere numbers, we can’t really comprehend them in personal, human terms. Ah, industrialism. It was often the case that more people died in a single battle than we will ever meet over the course of a lifetime; though estimates have been made of the latter figure, it must be hard to pin down, but it seems unlikely to go beyond a few tens of thousands. While reading John Keegan’s study The Face of Battle, I copied out one set of figures: “By the time [the Battle of the Somme] ended, 419,654 British soldiers had become casualties on the Somme, and nearly 200,000 French.” Keegan does not, as I recall, report any figures for the war as a whole, though they can be found elsewhere, but he does tell us this: by the end of it, the British realized “that war could threaten with death the young manhood of a whole nation.”
Thereby hangs a tale—rather, a tale could hang on it, if I ever follow through on an idea. in the late 70s, when I heard that a Dallas theater company I was working for was going to do a vampire play, I was excited to think that it might be something new and different. Instead, it turned out to be only a stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The writer and the director, whom I still count as friends, were probably on the right side of that question, as the show turned out to be pretty popular. But I was looking for something a little more imaginative, and I thought, Why not do a play that treats the immense wasting effect of World War I as though it were the result of vampires? I still think it might fly, but someone’s going to have to write it to find out.