Would you shut up about the harm Amazon is doing to the business of books if the company offered to buy you a $3.7 million streetcar? How about if it also paid to operate that streetcar for you for the next 10 years? No? Okay, well what if Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also threw in $10 million for a sparkling new Museum of History & Industry that does honor to your city's heritage? Plus your very own urban cycle track, high-paying jobs for about 15,000 people, and plans for three new high-rises in a redeveloping urban neighborhood? What then?
And what if Amazon was responsible for 100,000 hotel stays every year in your city? What if it occupied 3.2 million square feet of local office space (with 4.7 million more square feet on its wish list)? What if the company was projected to more than double its highly paid local workforce of engineers and executives in the coming years? And what if, as Seattle's Office of Economic Development put it in a recent report, Bezos and Amazon were spending all of this cash, and making all of these plans, and ordering up all of these new buildings "during times of economic hardship, when the employment and taxes generated through construction helped soften the blow of two recessions"?
Over the years that Amazon has been relentlessly unsteadying the way books are created and sold, Seattle—aspiring UNESCO City of Literature, alleged booktopia—has largely looked at these questions and answered: Yes, we will shut up now, and thank you for the trolley!
Sure, there have been demonstrations at the annual Amazon shareholders' meetings (which are held in rented venues like the Seattle Art Museum and the Seattle Repertory Theatre). True, local booksellers have voiced outrage over what the company is doing to their business model. But on the whole, this city seems, consciously or unconsciously, to have absorbed the idea that Amazon's impressive local spending is a big part of what helped Seattle weather the Great Recession much better than other American cities and then emerge, this year, as the fastest-growing large city in the nation (according to a recent Seattle Times analysis of US Census data).
In keeping with this relative silence, there have been no WTO-style interventions into Amazon's plans for world domination. There is no "Books Now!" analogue to the "$15 Now!" demand that recently galvanized the city's voters and led, within a year, to Seattle making a historic jump toward a higher minimum wage. Instead, Seattle seems to be pretty much taking the Amazon bribe. We will snap up every last available ticket when David Sedaris comes to give a reading in the nearly 2,500-seat auditorium at Benaroya Hall. But when Amazon takes aim at Hachette, the publisher of Sedaris's books, you will not see 2,500 Seattleites marching on the burgeoning Amazon campus that's about a mile away from Benaroya. (Maybe they're slowed down by the fact that Sedaris could get gay-married in Washington State if he wanted to, thanks in part to the $2.5 million Bezos donated to support marriage equality?)
As Knute Berger wrote recently at the local website Crosscut, Seattle is used to this type of cognitive dissonance. We talk a good game about our values, but give a pass to "Boeing the extortionist, Starbucks the litigator, Microsoft the would-be monopolist." And now, Amazon. Berger gets at one aspect of the problem in the full-disclosure statement attached to his piece: "The writer's life is heavily entwined with all of the companies he disparages above. He often rides Boeing jets, patronized the Madison Park Starbucks, wrote this piece using Microsoft Word"—uh, me too—"and his new eBook, Roots of Tomorrow, is now available on Amazon."
But you don't have to be a Starbucks-sipping writer who can afford airfare and has a new eBook out to feel that in Seattle, it's hard to avoid somehow or other being in bed with Amazon. You just have to be a person who enjoys the benefits of public goods that are paid for with tax revenue. State law prohibits the sharing of Amazon's exact state and local tax payments, but it is legal to talk about tax payments by category of company, and in a report this year from the Downtown Seattle Association, it was revealed that online retailers in downtown Seattle—of which Amazon is presumably the largest, by many orders of magnitude—"delivered more than $670 million in taxable retail sales within the state of Washington in 2012." (Amazon, no surprise, did not respond to a request for information on its local economic impact.) The report also estimated Amazon's annual revenue at more than $60 billion in 2012, which means the company had plenty of resources with which to pay any other state and local taxes that would apply to its sprawling operations. Every time the city and state turn around and use that Amazon tax money—however much it might be—to our benefit, the bribe continues.
Seattleites can, and should, talk about how Amazon and its employees should be paying more in taxes (Bezos spent $100,000 to help defeat a 2010 statewide initiative that would have stabilized Washington's broken revenue system by levying an income tax on high earners). But in Seattle, at this point, we can't very easily get all the way out of bed with the company, much less strike back at Amazon over what it's doing to the book industry, without hurting our own cushy position as book-lovers who also like what Amazon has done for our local standard of living. That, ultimately, is the question Seattle now faces in this fight: Are we willing to actually suffer for our love of literature?