DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Ballots are being counted this week in what could be a watershed election in Bessemer, Ala., but it's not for a political office. The vote will determine whether nearly 6,000 employees of the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer will be represented by a union, something Amazon has forcefully resisted in its workplaces across the country.
Our guest today, veteran reporter Alec MacGillis, has a new book which explores Amazon's impact on American life. But it isn't just about Amazon. MacGillis looks at the growing disparities in wealth and prosperity, not just among American households, but among the regions where Americans live, places that are technology hubs, mainly on the east and west coasts, are seeing growth and jobs and income that spawns soaring housing prices and plenty of high-end restaurants while other regions stagnate, leaving once-prosperous families struggling, alienated and angry. We should note that Amazon is a financial supporter of NPR.
Alec MacGillis is a senior reporter for ProPublica and the recipient of a George Polk Award, among other honors. He worked previously at the Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun and The New Republic. He was last on FRESH AIR to talk about his book "The Cynic," a biography of Senator Mitch McConnell. The title of his new book borrows the term Amazon uses for its warehouses - fulfillment centers. The book is "Fulfillment: Winning And Losing In One-Click America." Alec MacGillis joins us from his home in Baltimore. Alec MacGillis, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Let's start for a moment talking about this union vote at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. It's gotten a lot of attention - you know, a video message from President Biden. Why is it such a big deal?
ALEC MACGILLIS: The stakes are just enormous here. I mean, this is really the first time that any union has gotten this far in trying to organize an Amazon warehouse. No warehouse has ever gotten to hold a full vote like this. And if you step back a little bit, I mean, this really is - this could help decide the question of what work is going to look like, what life is going to look like for the working class in America in years to come.
The Amazon warehouses have spread so much in the country, have become so huge, so ubiquitous, especially over this past year, when we all started buying so much more online that working in an Amazon warehouse has really kind of become the - a sort of mass labor option for Americans the way that going to work in the factory or at the mall used to be. Now, if you're sort of looking for work in a given place, you can go to the Amazon warehouse and get a job there. But those jobs are really difficult, really challenging with incredibly high pressure, high demand expectations inside these warehouses. And they're paid not that much.
DAVIES: Right. And we should note that this vote takes place in Alabama, which is not a union-friendly state. And Amazon says it pays $15 an hour, which is, I think, twice Alabama's minimum wage. There are health benefits. And yet this effort has managed to get some real momentum. Just help us understand why you think.
MACGILLIS: It's for a couple of reasons. One is that when we talk about the wage, it's important to think about what we're comparing it to. It's true that it's twice the minimum wage in Alabama. And it's more than one might make that, say, a fast-food job. But it's also less than what many other warehouse jobs have paid in the past, warehouse jobs that tend to be more kind of stable, longer tenure kind of warehouse jobs. You know, working at the local, you know, beer warehouse or mattress warehouse is something that a lot of places would actually still pay more than the Amazon job does. The Amazon job also does pay quite a bit less than the manufacturing jobs of yore that sustained so much of the American working class, working middle class, despite the fact that the jobs in these warehouses are often nearly as strenuous or physically taxing as those manufacturing jobs were. The jobs in these warehouses are just incredibly physically strenuous often, very repetitive, very isolating. They're hard jobs to do, which is one reason why these warehouses have such an enormous turnover.
DAVIES: Tell us a bit about the conditions of working in the Amazon warehouses.
MACGILLIS: It is such demanding work. And it's not only demanding, but it's incredibly repetitive. You know, I think a lot of us kind of hoped that as work got more automated in warehouses like this and you got more and more robots into there, that it would kind of free up people to do more sort of autonomous, kind of fulfilling kind of work. In fact, the opposite has happened. Bringing the robots in has actually made the work more repetitive and more essentially robotic. One main example of this is that you used to have to - the pickers - one of the main jobs in the warehouse are the pickers. And they used to have to roam the corridors looking for items. So you'd have to go up and down looking for X or Y item on your scanner. And there's a lot of walking involved in that, but there's also a little bit of autonomy. You were out there on your own looking for things.
Now, most warehouses, the robots bring the items to you. They're these - they have these tall stacks of shelves on them. The robots are like these little ottomans sort of that have these tall stacks of shelves on them. They zoom around, and they bring these - a robot will zoom a bunch of shelves over to you so that you can take out a given item that you need to fulfill an order. And so just standing there all day, just pulling the items out of the shelves as they come to you in the exact same spot in.
And essentially, your work has not yet been replaced by robot only because they're having a hard time teaching robots how to grab things. That's one of the tougher things that robots do - to grab things at different shapes and sizes. So much of the work at the warehouse has now become even more kind of rudimentary and essentially robotic-like. And it's also just so isolating. The work is so - that isolating quality of the work has gotten even worse during the pandemic because there's been an effort to separate people out more on the floor, so they don't give each other the virus. So work that used to be done maybe by two or three people in a given part of the floor is now done by just one person, which not only makes the jobs tougher, but also makes them more isolating.
The loss of community in these in these jobs is, you know, is one of the big parts of what's changed, the fact that you used to know all the people you worked with. You were maybe related to some of them. After you left work at the steel mill on Sparrows Point, you would often, of course, roll out of your shift and go to the bar, go to the diner, whatever it might be with your - the people you worked with.
Now you go and you do your shift, your 10-hour shift. It's very grueling, repetitive, demanding. And then you get the heck out of there. A former mill worker who lives nearby says that you can just see every shift change as people come screaming out of the warehouse is now driving at such high speeds that they've had to put speed bumps in because people are just desperate to get out of there.
DAVIES: There have been other organizing attempts at Amazon warehouses, and the company has resisted them. There have been some National Labor Relations Board complaints about deaths. There was a settlement in which the company agreed to post certain messages in one of its plants. Has the company been more constrained in its efforts to fight the union here in Bessemer?
MACGILLIS: They may have been somewhat more constrained because there was so much scrutiny on this particular election. They know that there are a lot of eyes on them. But they've still been quite aggressive in trying to head off the union. Just constant messages, you know, anti-union messages coming to the workers. They've, you know, as usual, hired firms - law firms that specialize in fending off unions. There's just been a very strong sense of just how displeased they would be if workers were to vote to organize to the point where there's some concern that Amazon might actually shut down this entire warehouse if there were, in fact, a vote to organize. So, you know, they've been very, very aggressive while being somewhat more aware of just the fact that the eyes of the country are on them in this case.
DAVIES: We'll see what happens. We should note that if the union wins this vote and they are the recognized bargaining agent for the factory, that doesn't mean they have a contract. Negotiating a contract is the next step, and that's a big one, right?
MACGILLIS: It is. And it's also worth noting that because Alabama is a so-called right-to-work state, that even if the union were to win this election and if there were then, you know, successful contract negotiations, workers would still have the right to opt out of paying dues for this union since the right-to-work states give workers that choice.
DAVIES: All right. Let's take a break here. I'm going to reintroduce you. We are speaking with Alec MacGillis. He is a senior reporter for ProPublica. His new book is "Fulfillment: Winning And Losing in One-Click America." We'll be back to talk more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with ProPublica senior reporter Alec MacGillis. He has a new book about Amazon and the impact of giant tech companies on the growing inequality and wealth and prosperity among regions in the United States. The book is "Fulfillment: Winning And Losing In One-Click America."
You write that, you know, if you go back a few decades, that the cities that had among the highest median incomes included places like Cleveland and Detroit. And it's very different now. Well, first of all, let's just take some of the areas that are really getting the lion's share of growth like Seattle, like San Francisco. Part of that is the tech industry. What is it about tech companies and their needs that tend to cause many of them to cluster in a particular location, even competitors? Why do they end up ganging up in places like Seattle and the San Francisco area?
MACGILLIS: One is the natural tendency of the tech economy to agglomerate. That's sort of the fancy word for it, that with tech, you want to be around the other people who are innovating and coming up with advances. It kind of harkens back to the role that cities have played throughout history, where they've become fonts of innovation, you know, Renaissance Florence or Glasgow in the 19th century, when you have people together who are bouncing ideas off each other, coming up with innovations in proximity with one another and also, of course, in proximity with capital, with the venture capitalists who can fund their ideas and help launch their companies. It helps to be in the same place to make that pitch at the cocktail party or in the elevator.
This differs from the way that the manufacturing economy used to work, where once you came up with an advance like, say, the steel-making process that fueled the Industrial Revolution, the Bessemer steel-making process, once you came up with something like that, you could take that process and set up a factory or plant anywhere where you had the basic manpower and natural resources and transportation to get your product to market so that you could just sort of go out around the country and set up a steel mill anywhere where it made sense.
With tech, we instead see this kind of agglomeration where it's all about the human capital. So once you come up with a big software innovation - say the cost of producing that thing, whatever it might be, is negligible - all the value lies in that initial innovation. It's all about getting that human capital together to make those advances. And so you have that agglomerating effect in a handful of winner-take-all cities.
DAVIES: So as you were writing about these great disparities in the United States among regions and tech companies' role in it, you thought Amazon would be a good lens for examining all this. Let's just start with, how big was Amazon before the pandemic? How big is it now?
MACGILLIS: I think it's really kind of hard for us to even comprehend just how big it's gotten. It was huge already before the pandemic, with several hundred thousand workers around the country, more than a hundred fulfillment centers as they call their primary warehouses, about, you know, 40% of the e-commerce market in the country was controlled by Amazon, just a huge share of it. The company, of course, has also been growing incredibly rapidly in a whole other realm, namely the so-called cloud, the world of online tech infrastructure that other companies rent - essentially rent from Amazon in all these data centers that have also sprung up around the country. That's a whole other part of Amazon that's been incredibly lucrative for them. So they were already very large before the pandemic.
But what has happened in this past year is really kind of hard to grasp. In the span of just a single year, they hired more than 400,000 additional employees. And that does not include all the delivery drivers that we see all around our cities that are actually not technically employed by Amazon, even though they wear Amazon jerseys and drive Amazon vans. The company has added roughly 50% more warehouse space in just the past year. Its sales have gone up about 40% year over year. Its stock price went up more than 80%. Jeff Bezos' personal wealth went up about $58 billion over the past year.
Perhaps because we're right in the middle of it, we can't really grasp just how much how it's gotten. We may be averting our eyes from the scale of the growth, partly because we all feel somewhat complicit in it. The fact is that the company grew so much over the past year because Americans, in much greater numbers than before, really embraced the sort of one-click approach to our daily life. And now we just see it. We see it everywhere around us. I mean, you see the vans just coming up and down your streets constantly. If you're out on the highway, the number of, you know - on tractor trailers is just stunning and almost kind of eerie when you start to count them over just a short stretch of highway. It's just an incredible growth in reach and in size and penetration in our economy and in our daily life.
DAVIES: Right. Now, of course, Amazon has been building, you know, scores of new warehouses and distribution centers, many of them in regions where, you know, good-paying manufacturing jobs had disappeared, you know, due to competition and automation. So when the company considers where to locate one of its facilities which will create a lot of jobs, they can bargain with the host community for financial incentives. There's nothing new about this. Companies have been doing this for decades. Does Amazon play the game differently from other firms?
MACGILLIS: Amazon is especially aggressive at this game. I mean, one of the things that really just astonished me was what I found in all my reporting and digging into these communications between the towns and cities and the company - I did a lot of public information requests and got a lot of the emails that went back and forth between them - and just to see the aggressiveness on Amazon's part, the obsequiousness on the part of the local officials who are willing to offer these tax subsidies and incentives and also the pledges of secrecy, that was one of the key things. Amazon is especially insistent on secrecy to the point of even giving a lot of its projects code names so that when they go into a given town, a lot of people won't even know who the company is that's trying to build the data center on the edge of town. It'll have some kind of code name that does not include the name Amazon.
DAVIES: Let me just explore that for a moment. When you say secrecy, I mean, a lot of these - in some cases, they're - you know, a government subsidy is a public contract. And there are rules of transparency. There are right to know laws that allow citizens and journalists to get information. What kind of secrecy can the company impose that affects that?
MACGILLIS: The company can impose or has managed to impose requirements that local governments not give up the identity of the company seeking to build this data center warehouse until the last possible moment. They also urged local officials not to take questions from the press.
DAVIES: Right. Right. Now, of course, we're dealing with often local officials who are desperate to develop some economic growth for their citizens who are sorely in need of it. When a deal is done, eventually the public subsidies do become public. What kind of deals does Amazon get? And what's its impact on those communities?
MACGILLIS: Typically, it's some form of a tax subsidy where the company will not have to pay all the taxes that would normally be due both on the property itself of the warehouse or the data center or payroll taxes on the workers that will be employed at them; so essentially just a great reduction in its tax bill in the community where it's setting up shop. And the effect of this is, of course, to erode the local tax base and to greatly reduce the amount of money that's coming into local coffers, to support local services, to support the roads and the police and fire and schools. And one reason this is a special problem is that Amazon, when it comes into a community, of course, brings much greater demands for public services.
There's all the - just the wear and tear on the roads that come with the incredible increased traffic of cars and trucks, delivery trucks. There are the frequent calls for emergency assistance at the warehouses. The Amazon warehouses tend to have their own in-house medical teams that are called AmCare, but they're not always on duty or they can't sometimes handle the severity of a given case, including some of the fatal accidents that I wrote about in the book. And so you have police and fire and EMS in the local community having to respond to the warehouses for lots of calls when Amazon is itself not supporting those services through the tax dollars that it has essentially been able to avoid paying.
DAVIES: Did you find communities that regretted making these deals?
MACGILLIS: They - absolutely. They see it as very much of a mixed bag. But in a lot of cases, they feel like they have no choice. You have communities that have been just really hollowed out by the loss of manufacturing jobs. Places that I focus on in the book, you know, in Ohio, especially southwest Ohio, that it was just crushed by the loss of auto manufacturing jobs and other manufacturing jobs in the first couple of decades - the last couple decades or places like Baltimore, another big focus in the book, where you had the largest steel mill in the world, 30,000 jobs that completely vanished in the last two decades and left this entire peninsula outside Baltimore just wiped clean of the massive employment base that used to be on offer there and left local officials just desperate to get anything in there. And so there they were a few years ago handing out subsidies to bring in an Amazon warehouse where jobs were then paying $13 or $14 an hour when at that very same location, you had a steel mill where jobs were paying $35 more an hour not so long ago.
DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me introduce you. We are speaking with Alec MacGillis. He is a senior reporter for ProPublica. His new book is "Fulfillment: Winning And Losing In One-Click America." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with ProPublica senior reporter Alec MacGillis. He has a new book about Amazon and the impact of giant tech companies on the growing inequality IN wealth and prosperity among metropolitan regions in the United States. The book is "Fulfillment: Winning And Losing In One-Click America."
Amazon has obviously had an impact on brick-and-mortar businesses that have to compete with online shopping. And this is not just Amazon. This is a phenomenon that we're seeing around the country where department stores and malls have closed. But you look at another aspect of this that was really interesting. Some companies like, you know, business supplies companies, office supplies companies, in El Paso, they were trying to supply their products to the local school districts and local governments and had to deal with competition from Amazon. What did you discover? This is interesting.
MACGILLIS: This is such a big part of Amazon's massive growth in recent years. And I think a lot of people probably aren't aware of this, that it used to be that Amazon mostly, you know, sold goods on the website that it had purchased wholesale from the manufacturer and then sold them on their site just the way that the company would sell goods in a store. But more and more of Amazon's - the goods that are available on the site and the company's profits come from, quote, what they call "third-party sellers." So these are companies that have goods that they want to sell. And instead of just setting up their storefront wherever they might be or selling their items online directly through e-commerce, they now put them on the Amazon website, what's called the marketplace. You sell your goods on the marketplace and it's good for you as a third-party seller in the sense that you have this enormous customer base that now goes to Amazon, all these people who go to Amazon to find whatever they want to buy. And so you want to be in that marketplace.
But the problem with that approach for a third-party seller is that Amazon extracts a very large cut of its own and, you know, basic commission and advertising fees and the fees for fulfilling the order and holding the item in the warehouse, all sorts of costs that can get up close to 25%, 30% in some cases. But more and more, a seller feels like they have no real option but to go to the marketplace because that's where everything now is happening.
DAVIES: And you describe a fascinating moment where one of these businesses is dealing with the fact that - I believe it was the school district that has, you know, talked to Amazon and they're going to offer this terrific program where you'll get Amazon products and they'll offer third - you know, other companies' products on their website. And then one of these local companies did some research about prices and about products and went to talk to the school district and said there are some things you should know. Tell us about that.
MACGILLIS: Yeah. So he was this very charismatic, kind of feisty office supply company owner called Sandy Grodin (ph). And while he was getting this sort of pressuring call from some very young Amazon salespeople urging him to come to the marketplace - you know, basically you better do this or else because everyone's doing it and this is where the world is heading - while he was actually on the phone with them, he had one of his employees check the prices of some basic office supply products on Amazon. And he was stunned to see just how low the price was, a price that he would never be able to make any money from. And he looked into it and discovered that, in fact, that product was a counterfeit product. This is a big problem on Amazon. A lot of products are that are offered at seemingly, you know, bargain prices are, in fact, counterfeits.
DAVIES: And it's a brand name. It presents itself to be a certain brand name, right? And it isn't.
MACGILLIS: It isn't. And what you're going to get in the mail, if you get it at all, is not what you were - what you thought you had bought.
DAVIES: Did Amazon say anything about the counterfeit products?
MACGILLIS: Amazon has acknowledged for a while now that this is a problem and that they are, you know, trying to deal with the counterfeit problem. But it just remains and it's become a huge issue for the website, just the growth of counterfeit products and also all the tricks that various third-party sellers use to try to hurt each other, in a sense. There's not only the sale of counterfeit products on the site, but then there's also the false claims lodged against other companies for having offered shoddy goods or otherwise broken the rules that then gets them kicked off of the website. It's just a real - it can be a real nightmare for a lot of companies trying to sell through Amazon, but they feel like they have no choice. And it's now - that now makes up a - the vast majority of Amazon sales on the website are from third-party sellers, not from the company itself. And it's one reason that the company is doing so well because they get a much larger cut of those third-party sales than they would of their own kind of direct selling of goods on the website.
DAVIES: Wow. So you have so many players that those who choose to exploit the rules can, you know, use Amazon's own rules, file complaints, create problems and chaos.
MACGILLIS: Right. It's a real morass.
DAVIES: You know, when Amazon has all of these third-party suppliers on their website and they can sell their goods, it gathers an enormous amount of information about consumer preferences for those products. And there have been accusations - and this was explored in one congressional hearing that you wrote about - accusations that Amazon can use that information to then tweak its own products and get a competitive edge over some of the more successful third-party suppliers. What have we learned about this?
MACGILLIS: Yes, this is one of the main complaints against Amazon and actually one of the main drivers of discussions in Washington now about somehow trying to break up the company's hold on so much of our economy. But what's been happening is that the company is able to collect so much data about what kind of products are doing well. And it then in many cases - and this is - there's no real dispute about this - it has then managed to come up with products of its own where it's actually selling products under its own labels. So it'll go out and get some manufacturer to make a given product that strongly resembles the one that was doing well on the site from some other seller and sell it under one of its own private label names. Amazon says this is hardly any different than retail companies that for years now have offered their goods under their own labels. You go into the grocery store and you see, you know, all manner of goods that that grocery store or other retailers selling under their own label. The difference is that - is the data that Amazon has been able to collect and the way it's been able to use the data it's collecting on sales on the site to inform its own decisions to go after a particular product. And there's just been all sorts of examples of it being able to essentially just knock out a product that was doing well on the site and then sell it under its own name.
DAVIES: We are speaking with Alec MacGillis. He's a senior reporter for ProPublica. His new book is "Fulfillment: Winning And Losing In One-Click America." We will continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with ProPublica senior reporter Alec MacGillis, whose book is about the impact of Amazon and giant tech companies on the growing inequality of wealth and prosperity in different regions of the country. It's called "Fulfillment: Winning And Losing In One-Click America." When we left off, MacGillis was talking about reporting that Amazon uses the data it collects from the sales of products from other companies on its website to create similar products which Amazon can then sell under its own label. Critics say this data collection gives Amazon a huge competitive edge.
You know, competition is a part of capitalism. It's a part of sales. And it benefits consumers if the competition is fair, right? I mean, but if somebody has the power to knock somebody else out and then raise prices, that's considered anti-competitive. And there are antitrust laws that deal with this kind of thing. Have Congress or regulators shown any interest in dealing with this in the case of Amazon?
MACGILLIS: This is the big question that's before us now in Washington. For decades now, we've allowed some of these companies to get so big and so powerful because we've taken a very lax approach to antitrust enforcement in this country. Back in the early 20th century, we worried a lot about monopoly. And there were all these efforts to rein in and break up various big companies. As the 20th century went on, there was an adoption of a much softer approach to antitrust where the basic argument was there's nothing to worry about as long as prices remain low. As long as the consumer is still paying low prices, it's OK if a company gets really big or if a company controls a huge share of a given market. It was called the consumer welfare test. That was the main test for whether we should go after a monopoly.
And so, you know, you could look at a company like Amazon, where there all these goods for sale at seemingly low prices and say, well, what's the problem with having a company that's so incredibly powerful and dominant if we, the American consumers, can still buy all sorts of stuff fairly cheap? And it's only been in recent years that a group of people of sort of thinkers have now come to identify the problem with this kind of approach, that there's all sorts of distorting effects that a company can have on the market and anti-competitive effects that it can have, even if it's seemingly keeping prices low for the moment. And now we're heading into this moment in Washington where there's going to be a very interesting fight over whether we're going to try to do something about this.
DAVIES: Yeah. We have a new president. Are there any signs that he's going to take a different approach? I mean, there are government regulators that affect all this - right? - the Federal Trade Commission and others. What are you seeing?
MACGILLIS: There are signs that we're actually going to - that we could actually have a new approach here. The Biden administration has brought in some very high-profile people who have been outspoken opponents of this softer approach to antitrust. One of them is a woman by the name of Lina Khan, who as a Yale law student not long ago wrote a really kind of groundbreaking piece explaining how Amazon was, in fact, having a distorting monopoly-like effect on the economy, even if it was seemingly still keeping prices low. The Biden administration has appointed her to the Federal Trade Commission and brought another very outspoken critic of the tech giants by the name of Tim Wu into the White House as an adviser.
And on top of that, we have lots of people in Congress who actually have been - Democrats in Congress who've been getting quite aggressive on this front and even some signs that Republicans are willing to consider taking this on as well. Republicans have their own reasons and motivations for being wary of the tech giants. But it really seems like this is one area where there is some potential for some kind of bipartisan consensus that we need to do something about the extraordinary dominance that this handful of companies have come to hold on our economy and our daily life.
DAVIES: Yeah. And I guess we should just note that Amazon and the other tech giants have some serious ammunition to battle, you know, in Congress and regulatory agencies.
MACGILLIS: Absolutely. They've vastly increased their spending on lobbying in recent years. They're now some of the very biggest spenders on the influence industry in Washington. Many people who used to be in government have now sort of cycled through the revolving door into these companies. The Obama administration, which was strikingly lax in its approach to the growth of the giants, sent a lot of people, you know, into these companies. So there are very strong ties between government and the companies. And then in the case of Amazon, there's even more kind of direct ammunition, namely the company's really remarkable growth in Washington itself.
The company has - clearly has set out to grow its presence and raise his profile in Washington, which will only help it in these fights to come. The company - of course, Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post. He bought the largest mansion in town, which he spent about $35 million on to sort of turn it into a great kind of salon for having, you know, local gatherings of the power elite. They're spending a lot more on lobbying. They're getting all sorts of large contracts from the government for their cloud services.
And then finally, they decided to put their second national headquarters just outside Washington - 25,000 high-paid jobs, billions in investment. So the company has greatly increased its profile in Washington, which makes sense if you think that for a company like Amazon, the main threat right now comes not from other corporate rivals, but really from the possibility of government intervention.
DAVIES: Yeah. You know, I found the Bezos house in Washington fascinating. I mean, you know, he was a Seattle guy. I think you report that this was his fourth additional home. What was the - what's the scale of this thing?
MACGILLIS: Oh, it's extraordinary. It's the former textile museum in Washington. It's two - actually two separate buildings, two very large adjacent gorgeous buildings, which is, you know, countless rooms and.
MACGILLIS: bathrooms. I think there are maybe - if I recall right two dozen bathrooms between the two - these two structures, vast ballroom. It's clearly the whole goal of this building, which is in the Kalorama neighborhood that's, you know, near where the Obamas live and all sorts of other sort of high-profile elite in town. The goal is to turn this building into something really kind of like what would Katharine Graham, the legendary owner of The Washington Post, used to have, a real sort of salon where everyone, you know, will gather and sort of hobnob. And it's not hard to see how having a kind of power center of that sort will help Bezos and Amazon in the years to come in Washington.
DAVIES: Right. And it's worth noting that he has interests not just in government policy about antitrust issues and issues of size, but he competes for an awful lot of government contracts. You know, you mentioned that he bought The Washington Post. And I think many, many people are - a lot of people there are excited at the resources that have been put into good, hard-nosed reporting by The Washington Post. Have they been as hard nosed in reporting on Amazon like the competition for the second headquarters?
MACGILLIS: The Washington Post has benefited greatly from the investment by Bezos, and I'm very happy for my former colleagues there who simply have more resources now to do their jobs. There is a fundamental awkwardness that comes with one of the richest men in the world, the founder of this enormous, powerful company owning the newspaper. The newspaper has done quite a good job of, you know, covering various aspects of Amazon. There's - they have a very good reporter based in Seattle who covers the company. They occasionally do, you know, tough stories about various aspects of the company, whether it's the counterfeit goods on the site or other things.
What the newspaper has been in an awkward position to cover is the whole scale of the takeover of Washington by Amazon. That is a huge story that has not yet really been covered by the paper. One can't help but think that if a different company had acquired as much influence and scale and presence in Washington that the local newspaper would have been writing about this in a big sort of way. That you haven't really seen yet in The Post. Of all my colleagues - former colleagues there assure me that there's no calls coming from Seattle telling them not to do this or that story. And I believe them. It's a more existential problem than that. It's just - it's really tricky for the paper to tell in a big way what is happening with the Amazon takeover of Washington.
DAVIES: You know, a lot of people will listen to this and think of all of the times that they have used Amazon in its many forms - I mean, online and, you know, videos and whatever. Should we feel guilty about our collaboration here?
MACGILLIS: It's a tough question. And I think a lot of people, you know, even friends of mine asked me about this. You know, do you use the Amazon? How should we approach this? There's no question that in the last year, a lot of the compunction that we used to feel about using Amazon kind of went out the window. We felt like we had permission and approval from the authorities to sort of go all-in on the kind of one-click approach to our daily life.
And now that we're coming out of this moment of the pandemic, it does seem important for us to re-engage with sort of the physical world in all its forms in the places we live, whether it's local businesses and, you know, local theater, all these places that make our towns and neighborhoods places that we want to be in, places that have character. I am not an absolutist on this. I use Amazon when I have to if there's no other option. So this is not about cold turkey approach. It's just about thinking about our purchases, thinking about the way we live and really thinking about what lies behind that one click.
DAVIES: Alec MacGillis, let me also thank you so much for speaking with us again.
MACGILLIS: Well, thank you for having me.
DAVIES: Alec MacGillis is a senior reporter for ProPublica. His new book is "Fulfillment: Winning And Losing In One-Click America." We should note that Amazon is a financial supporter of NPR.
Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead tells us about a very old-school jam session recorded with Chicago piano player Erwin Helfer. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. 2020's COVID lockdown was hard on Chicago pianist Erwin Helfer, a lifelong student and also a teacher of early jazz and blues piano styles. His early mentors included hometown pianist Clarence Lofton and Sunnyland Slim and New Orleans' Billie Pierce. Last year, just before the lockdown and the temporary depression it brought on for him, Helfer recorded a jam session with some Chicago pals. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it's very old school.
(SOUNDBITE OF ERWIN HELFER AND CHICAGO BOOGIE ENSEMBLE'S "BIG JOE")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Erwin Helfer at the piano in early March 2020 at age 84 - his keyboard touch, his economical phrasing, the whole feel of his music connect this white conservator of blues and older jazz styles with African American piano masters long gone. There aren't many left who do what Helfer does with such unshowy authority.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE CHICAGO BOOGIE ENSEMBLE AND ERWIN HELFER'S "BIG JOE")
WHITEHEAD: Erwin Helfer doesn't carry his knowledge like a burden. He has some fun with it, as on a jam session with some bluesy buddies heard on his album "Celebrate The Journey." Most selections pull him away from straight blues. His four helpers, billed as the Chicago Boogie Ensemble, play bass and drums and twin tenor saxophones. But you wouldn't mistake their jam for a modern jazz session, not when they call tunes so old they're mostly claimed by Dixielanders, like Irving Berlin's first hit from 1911, a syncopated song with a bare hint of the blues, "Alexander's Ragtime Band." That's John Brumbach on tenor sax.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE CHICAGO BOOGIE ENSEMBLE AND ERWIN HELFER PERFORMANCE OF IRVING BERLIN'S "ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND")
WHITEHEAD: A couple of other tunes Erwin Helfer and friends play come from the 1920s, "St. James Infirmary" and "'Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do." The youngest oldie on Helfer's new album is Sonny Rollins' "Doxy" from the early 1950s, and even that shares its chord sequence with the 1924 hit "How Come You Do Me Like You Do?"
"Doxy" shows how blues and jazz musicians may approach the same material rather differently. Helfer roots his solo in his own bluesy idiom. He doesn't improvise in long lines as modern jazzers typically do.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE CHICAGO BOOGIE ENSEMBLE AND ERWIN HELFER PERFORMANCE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "DOXY")
WHITEHEAD: Skinny Williams on tenor there with a little gospel saxophone rasp in his tone, backed by Lou Marini on bass and Davide Ilardi on drums. There are more gospel echoes from Erwin Helfer's crew when they play an evergreen spiritual recorded by blues musicians, Dixieland bands and some jazz modernists, "Down By The Riverside" - John Brumbach on saxophone again.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE CHICAGO BOOGIE ENSEMBLE AND ERWIN HELFER'S "DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE")
WHITEHEAD: Erwin Helfer quoting there from Thelonious Monk's "In Walked Bud," just as he sneaks bits of the same composer's "Blue Monk" and "Misterioso" into other solos here. Monk tunes aren't exactly new music, but they're a little more modern than the pre-World War II styles the leader favors. He may be old school, but it's not like he lives in a cave. For Erwin Helfer, vintage piano dialects are living traditions, not museum exhibits. Sincere thanks to him for helping to keep those traditions alive and for passing that knowledge on.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE CHICAGO BOOGIE ENSEMBLE AND ERWIN HELFER'S "POOCH PIDDLE")
DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "Celebrate The Journey" by Erwin Helfer and the Chicago Boogie Ensemble.
On tomorrow's show, we'll talk about the most far-reaching anti-poverty program enacted by Congress in decades. We'll speak with The New York Times' Jason DeParle. He says the expanded child tax credit included in the stimulus bill will provide monthly checks for millions of families and cut child poverty by 45%, though it's unclear whether the program will last beyond the pandemic. I hope you can join us.
Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE CHICAGO BOOGIE ENSEMBLE AND ERWIN HELFER'S "POOCH PIDDLE")
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