Amazon can’t realistically spread its offices and jobs across America’s most isolated and despairing counties. But instead of picking an obvious BosWash hub or creative-class boomtown, it could opt to plant itself in a medium-sized city in a conservative state — think Nashville or Indianapolis or Birmingham. Or it could look for a struggling East Coast alternative to the obvious Acelaland options — not Boston but Hartford, not D.C. but Baltimore, not New York but Bridgeport. Or it could pick a big, battered, declining city and offer its presence as an engine of revitalization, building Amazon Cleveland or Amazon Detroit.
A particularly compelling pick, according to my extremely nonscientific “what’s good for America” metric, might be St. Louis — a once-great metropolis fallen on hard times, the major urban center for a large spread of Trump country, the geographic center of the country and the historic bridge between East and West.
Of course, Amazon also needs its choice for a new headquarters to make financial sense. The company is not a charity, and making itself the prisoner of a disastrous investment won’t ultimately help anyone except its rivals.
But it’s hard to know with any real certainty what the best long-term geographic investment for the company would be. The fact that tech companies tend to cluster doesn’t mean that a uniquely rich and powerful company couldn’t benefit from having a city of its own. The fact that bright young singletons gravitate toward coastal urbs right now doesn’t mean that you couldn’t attract talent — especially married-with-kids talent — to a heartland city whose Amazon District took advantage of sprawling housing stock left over from a prosperous past. Depending on which elements on Amazon’s wish list you weight most heavily, you can make a great variety of cities score impressively — from Bridgeport to Provo, Utah; Detroit to Rochester, N.Y.
Ultimately, as Lyman Stone, a prolific Department of Agriculture cotton economist, points out in a piece on Amazon’s decision, there is no city that comes close to meeting all of the company’s requirements: “No matter where Amazon goes, they will have to build their own fundamentals.” And no matter where the company goes, what it builds will change that city radically — so a static analysis of any destination will only take you so far.
If Donald Trump were the deal making, industrial-policy president that he once promised to be, he would be on the phone with Jeff Bezos right now, making a case along these very lines — while hinting, broadly and of course nonthreateningly (har, har), at the political benefits of opening Amazon St. Louis or Amazon Detroit, of being seen as a company that renews cities and doesn’t just put brick and mortar out of business.
I don’t have a strong view — yet — on whether we should treat internet giants like utilities. But when you enjoy a monopoly’s powers, one way to avoid being regulated like one is to act with a kind pre-emptive patriotism, and behave as though what’s good for America is good for Amazon as well.
Continue reading the main story