America needs Amazon more than Amazon needs America

Everyone wants Amazon.
Everyone wants Amazon.
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been busy visiting the 50 US states this year, a tour designed to mitigate damage to his company’s image among typical Americans as it’s scrutinized for its alleged ties to Russian meddling in the 2016 US election. Google, under tremendous public pressure, fired James Damore, the employee who authored a viral screed against diversity. Uber has a new chief executive and is making long-requested changes to its ride-hailing platform and trying to mend its corporate culture after scandals that sparked months of bad press and three federal investigations.

You know who’s not apologizing? Jeff Bezos.

Quite the opposite from visiting all of America, Amazon’s CEO is making the states—plus Canada!—come to him. Many have done so enthusiastically since Amazon said on Sept. 7 it was taking applications for the site of HQ2, the second headquarters it’s planning for North America. Amazon is soliciting tax credits and other financial incentives, as well as a strong local labor force and talent pipeline, but some cities have made even more creative offerings. Gary, Indiana, took out an ad in the New York Times (an odd choice given that Bezos owns the Washington Post). Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, sent a staffer to Seattle to “ensure we really understand the Amazon culture.” Tucson, Arizona, gifted the company a 21-foot cactus (Amazon donated the plant to a local museum).

Meanwhile, Amazon’s $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods coasted through its regulatory review, another win for a company that has largely evaded antitrust scrutiny while inflicting pain on countless brick-and-mortar retailers. This year, those retailers are on track to close more stores combined than they did in 2008, during the depths of the recession. Amazon, on the other hand, is building out its physical presence, most recently announcing a partnership with American department store Kohl’s to sell Amazon hardware and let customers make Amazon.com returns at select Kohl’s locations.

There may be blood in the water in Silicon Valley, but it isn’t coming from Amazon. The company’s stock is up roughly 30% this year, unperturbed by tepid financial results and the angry tweets of US president Donald Trump. Its business practices remain unfettered by federal regulators and seem unlikely to be criticized at the local and state level so long as HQ2 is on the auction block. Even America’s most liberal public officials have yet to mention Amazon’s checkered history on labor and as a white-collar employer in their effusive tweets and statements. Amazon may not always be a good employer but it is one of the largest, with 382,000 employees on its payrolls. The economic prize for HQ2—namely, 50,000 high-paying jobs—is simply too big to risk.

As for the American public, why would they turn against Amazon? By one estimate, 85 million people, or roughly two-thirds of US households, are subscribers to Prime, Amazon’s $99-a-year membership program. They rely on it for everything from toilet paper to blenders to bluetooth speakers, spending an annual average of $1,300. Bezos wants Prime to be such a good deal “you’d be irresponsible not to be a member.” Put another way, that you’d be irresponsible not to like Amazon.