Seattle hypocrisy: We talk idealism while catering to corporate bullies
by Knute Berger
Amazon's logo on a company building Credit: Flickr user simone.brunozzi
Seattle always falls in love with bullies.
Like Boeing, which threatens us like an abusive spouse over jobs and subsidies.
And Starbucks, the scourge of the independent coffee house.
Or Microsoft, once the poster-child for anti-trust laws.
Now Amazon, wielder of saps to the skull of publishers, authors, booksellers.
Corporations, our Supreme Court says, are people too. Just not very nice ones.
It's funny that many of the things that we've come to identify as quintessentially Seattle — aerospace innovation, online retailing, software, coffee houses, a city of readers — are largely brand images shaped by brutally competitive ethics and tactics.
Welcome to Seattle, the city that carries an Emerald Sledge-hammer. Meet Boeing the extortionist, Starbucks the litigator, Microsoft the would-be monopolist.
And Amazon, the latest perp. The company is fighting with publishing giant Hachette, blocking customers from pre-ordering the publisher's titles — such as J.K. Rowling's latest — in a fight over the pricing of eBooks and the split the retailer will receive. They've also apparently slowed down deliveries of Hachette titles that people have already ordered, making folks wait extra long for books by authors like Sherman Alexie. "How is this not extortion? You know, the thing that is illegal when the Mafia does it," asks Dennis Loy Johnson of Hachette's Melville House, in The New York Times.
And they say Seattle isn’t a mafia town.
To add to the picture, consider that Jeff Bezos is obsessed with space ships. He's exploring building an air force of drones. He's assembling an army of robots. What’s next, a private super-villain lair atop of the Space Needle like Dr. Evil?
Seattleites, good liberals that we are, look askance at red state conservatives who support the business folk who exploit them. Why do those miners in West Virginia work for guys who endanger their lives and rot their landscape? What's wrong with the people of Kansas who have forgotten their prairie populism? Why do those Alaskans want to devastate their fish runs? Those who wonder such things should take a glance in the mirror. We, too, are enamored by bosses who aren't looking out for us.
Boeing's feasting on tax breaks effectively raises taxes on the rest of us and makes solving our problems — like funding education — even harder. Starbucks has inured us to the idea of the $4 coffee and poisoned the global atmosphere with too much Kenny G. Microsoft has made thousands of local millionaires, and spun off a billionaire or two, yet it has helped render the city nearly unaffordable for most of us. Amazon has helped to shutter your neighborhood bookstore and is slowly tearing the pages out of that thing Guttenberg first popularized. They are all boon and bane.
These corporations, er, people, are everything Seattle isn't supposed to be. They provide the warm-and-fuzzy self-image of Seattle as a coffee-fueled bastion of the creative class, but their "success" is often won by corrosive behavior at someone else's expense.
You can say it was ever thus. We stole land from the Indians, we cut the timber, we dug the coal, we polluted the Duwamish and Puget Sound, we erased the hills and forests, all to build New York Alki. Yet, while doing all that, we burbled that we lived in "God's Country." We might have shifted from a "resource" economy to a "knowledge" economy, but coal trains and oil trains and pipelines and tankers aren’t the only things around here that come at great cost.
Our current self-image is wrapped around the idea that we're better than other people, that we're more idealistic, more humane, more fair. Some of that is pure snobbery.
Some of it is idealism, a genuine desire to do good and do better. Mayor Ed Murray has said that he wants Seattle to be a role model for progressivism in the world, and the mayors before him, Mike McGinn and Greg Nickels, were largely on board with a similar agenda. But to accomplish that, we’d have to get a whole lot better at looking at the real costs and true values of all those economic engines we embrace. It’s time to reconsider our corporate heroes in a fresh light.
(Disclosure: The writer's life is heavily entwined with all of the companies he disparages above. He often rides Boeing jets, patronizes the Madison Park Starbucks, wrote this piece using Microsoft Word, and his new eBook, "Roots of Tomorrow" is now available on Amazon.)