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Tim Wistrom’s Apocalyptic Vision of Seattle

Guest Commentary: When I arrived in Seattle in 1991, Tim Wistrom’s art playfully epitomized post-apocalyptic Seattle. But increasingly, the city’s likely doom appears much less fantastic and closer: an unaffordable traffic-filled metropolis dominated by white males and devoid of independent culture — fueled by Amazon.

In May, I calculated that Amazon’s planned office space would employ five percent of the city of Seattle — but that was before it inked deals to build or lease an additional 1.37 million square feet; it’s now on track to employ 45,000 locally or seven percent of the city.

Columnist Danny Westneat recently wrote that locals are openly asking in jest, “Do you think they’ll let us stay?” Assuming they do, what values do our city’s most populous neighbors share?

During my time at Microsoft during the ’90s, people spoke of “drinking the Microsoft Kool Aid”. For me, that included turning a blind eye towards Microsoft’s domineering, monopolistic practices; to employees spending their day on the company’s isolated suburban campus, the company couldn’t do much wrong. That changed for me in the years after I left and got psychic distance from the company and ultimately when I reported on the hypocrisy of its executives’ education advocacy in the shadow of its billion-dollar Nevada tax dodge.

If Amazon employees are similarly absorbing the values of the company and its founder, Jeff Bezos, just what are those values and what might Seattle look like a decade from now?

First, some facts about where Amazon’s led us already.

Seattle Today

Seattle is the fastest-growing city in the country; now larger than Boston. We have the fourth worst traffic in the country. We rank twelfth of major cities for public transportation with less than half the trips per capita of San Francisco. Puget Sound Business Journal reports, “there are more than 100 construction projects in Downtown Seattle,” a third more than the previous high from 2007. “Over the past year, the amount of office space under construction has nearly doubled … to 3.2 million square feet.”

Seattle rents are rising faster than anywhere in the country; rents on Capitol Hill increased 12% last year alone.

car2go-slu
Car2Go’s Clustered at Amazon After the Morning Rush Hour

In May, my post about the impact of Amazon’s male-dominated hiring on the Seattle dating scene went viral. At the time, I estimated there were 130 single men per 100 single women ages 25-45. But, as I go around town, I typically see 2:1, 3:1 and even 4:1 male to female ratios. Journalist Tricia Romano recently tweeted, “Waiting for bus to Amazonia — 7 dudes and me.”

Last month, Amazon released its diversity numbers. While the company reports 63% of its worldwide workforce is male, it’s likely closer to 75% male in the company’s Seattle technology headquarters; that’s the company’s overall managerial ratio and close to Microsoft’s technical ratio. The Rainbow PUSH coalition called Amazon’s report “…intentionally deceptive, as the company did not include the race or gender breakout of their technical work force.” Furthermore, it said, “The broad assumption is that a high percentage of their black and Latino employees work in their warehouses.”

Census reports show that Seattle is the fifth whitest big city and getting whiter. It also says that pay equity has declined as Amazon’s grown; says Politico, “Women in Seattle…make just 78 cents for every dollar earned by men…down from 86 cents in 2012.”

The Future is Obvious

So a lot about our Amazon-fueled future is just plain obvious: Seattle will be more male, even more white, wealthier and less diverse, unaffordable to those with lower incomes including the firestarters of culture, artists. The city’s spacious skyline, which offered scenic views from many areas of town, will be forever transformed; anyone who lives here knows it already has been. Many parts of Seattle are unrecognizable from last year let alone a few years ago.

Some may find it exciting to be in a city growing so quickly, gratefully insulated from the national recession — but the nature of these changes concern me.

The Local Wealth Gap

Locally, Seattle reflects the national trend in the wealth gap; The New York Times reports the top 0.1% of the wealthiest Americans hold 22% of the country’s overall wealth; the wealthiest 5% of Americans control more than 60% of overall wealth. Ferraris, Maseratis and Teslas are the new Porsche, and Porsches, BMWs and Audis are everywhere.

But not everyone’s living large. August 2014 was “the highest reported robbery totals of any month” on Capitol Hill. My home was robbed in February. In June, Seattle PI reported, we became “the first city in America to see simultaneous vigils for gun violence victims”.

In addition to fast-rising rents, parts of the home market are on fire. Zillow forecasts my home’s value will increase to $960,000 next year from $649,000 in 2012, an increase of nearly fifty percent in just three years.

Zillow Forecast of My Home Value
Zillow Forecast of My Home Value

I admit I’m part of the problem. Not only did I come to Seattle for the opportunity to work at a large technology company, but it made me wealthy, as well. I’m not saying that Amazon shouldn’t grow and that others shouldn’t benefit from the opportunity, I just believe the company’s growing irresponsibly and beginning to have an irrevocably damaging impact on Seattle’s character and quality of life.

Political Influence

One of the things I learned reporting on Microsoft’s tax dodge for a decade is how the state’s wealthy corporations tend to dominate political decisions and the subtle forms of legalized “corruption” that take hold such as Boeing’s recent $8.7 billion in tax breaks.

Seattle’s greatest failure in the modern age is not investing earlier in public transportation, divesting from it e.g. Tim Eyman and under investing. This current growth spurt won’t last indefinitely — and we’ve missed an opportunity to tax development commensurately for proper capacity building. One thing is clear, traffic will get much worse before it ever gets better.

But Bezos is said to be a Libertarian, a philosophy that promotes limited to no government. In 2010, Bezos gave $100,000 to fight I-1098 which would have imposed a progressive income tax in Washington State. Proactive government investment in infrastructure just isn’t his concern.

He and Amazon are also strongly anti-tax, perhaps most notably in its strong arm tactics with individual states such as when it closed a Texas distribution center rather than pay sales taxes.

While Bezos regularly contributes money to PACs and candidates, he rarely votes. Voting’s for the little people. So, earlier this year, Amazon gave $25,000 to a failed initiative to improve bus service which is apparently vastly under capacity around its growing campus. Clearly, a deeper investment is needed.

Dumb on Diversity

Diversity is what makes cities flourish and frankly, Amazon is dumb on diversity.

In “Broverwhelmed,” SeattleMet described a woman’s unfortunate interview experience: “When she arrived for her second interview at Amazon, the applicant was escorted to an undecorated office the size of a closet. There she sat as a procession of seven guys filed in one at a time to ask her questions, often the same questions as the guy before. Few made eye contact, none offered her so much as a drink of water or a bathroom break. The whole day she didn’t lay eyes on a woman. She was there for five hours… She didn’t get an offer, but by the time she ran (screaming?) to her car she didn’t want one.”

Said Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack, CEO of Fizzmint: “Just look on South Lake Union streets … the men and women are very often separated by gender. ‘That’s not men and women avoiding each other,’ she declares. ‘That’s high-prestige/low-prestige workers hanging with their own.'”

In Amazon’s Killing My Sex Life, Romano famously said Amazon men offer “the kind of talk that shuts vaginas down cold.”

Amazon’s rapid growth is driving gentrification into popular neighborhoods such as quirky, traditionally gay, Capitol Hill. But Capitol Hill is becoming ‘less gay’ and LGBTQ hate-crimes jumped from 6 in 2011 to 19 in 2012.

But what about at a deeper level? What can we learn from Bezos and Amazon’s track record to predict how our city might fare in the future?

Confrontational Culture

Seattle has a reputation for being friendly only on the surface; it’s called The Seattle Freeze. And, Amazon’s not helping. Bezos once told Forbes, “Our culture is friendly and intense, but if push comes to shove we’ll settle for intense” and the company is known for its confrontational culture.

While it’s not fair to cast generalizations, many of the subsequent articles and comments in response to my dating article reflected the tone of Romano’s reports from Seattle women of their own dates with Amazon men: “The type of person who is attracted to these jobs and thus to the Seattle area seems to be a socially awkward, emotionally stunted, sheltered, strangely entitled, and/or a misogynistic individual.”

Mistreating Employees and Customers

We can learn a lot about how Amazon will show regard for Seattleites in the future by how it treats its own employees and customers. By and large, Amazon employees report a caustic, hyper-competitive overworked environment. Gawker’s recent series of first hand reports by employees highlighted much of the worst but not necessarily anything new to Seattleites with friends and family who’ve worked for the company.

According to PayScale, Amazon’s median employee retention rate is one year, compared to Microsoft with four years. I’m astonished at the success they’ve had with this level of turnover.

Amazon likes to say it’s obsessed with customer satisfaction but it wasn’t afraid to put customers second in its dispute with Hachette Publishing, blocking pre-orders and slowing deliveries.

Earlier this year I discovered that Amazon’s non-English speaking outsourced customer service was essentially being leveraged by scammers to streamline fraud in the company’s marketplace. Only after my post became a top search result at Google did Amazon apologize to me and refund my sale.

A No-Show on Philanthropy

While Bill Gates has provided tremendous philanthropic leadership locally, Bezos and Amazon have been called “The New Scrooge” and a “virtual no show in hometown philanthrophy.” While Microsoft’s been a leader in employee giving, Amazon’s response has been its awkward Smile program; only .5% of sales go to support charitable causes and Amazon receives the tax break for the donation.

Researching this piece I was most struck by a side note in Brad Stone’s Business Week expose, “New hires get a backpack with a power adapter, a laptop dock, and orientation materials. When they resign, they’re asked to hand in all that equipment—including the backpack.” If push comes to shove Seattle, expect Amazon to treat us with the same regard.

Bubble-Like Domes Planned for Amazon's Campus
Bubble-Like Domes Planned for Amazon’s Campus

Is Amazon’s Growth Spurt a Bubble?

Ex-CEO of Microsoft Steve Ballmer recently said, “Amazon’s not a real company” because it doesn’t make any money. “If you are worth $150 billion, eventually somebody thinks you’re going to make $15 billion pre tax,” he said. “They make about zero, and there’s a big gap between zero and 15.”

And, the company’s recent quarter broadly disappointed investors. Amazon lost $437 million in the third quarter, up from $41 million during the same period last year.” Reported Motley Fool, “That’s a more than 1,000% increase [in losses].”

While Amazon’s done a decent job of diversifying its revenue streams e.g. AWS cloud services and devices, the technology world can change quite quickly. Amazon’s technical and operational advantages will narrow as competitors catch up to its expertise.

It certainly doesn’t seem overly leveraged, but could Amazon one day collapse as Washington Mutual did? It’s unlikely but not completely outside the realm of possibility. Any sudden broader economic downturn could hurt the retailer’s cash flow which is the lifeline to Seattle’s current growth.

For the foreseeable future, Seattle’s prospects will rise and fall with Amazon.

Microsoft too is facing severe long term challenges. A simultaneous economic retraction by both companies would cast a perfect storm over the Seattle economy.

What Amazon Could Do Differently

If Amazon cared to address any of these issues – which it doesn’t seem to thus far, here are three things it could do immediately:

1. Advocate for an appropriate tax system in Seattle and Washington state, one that can properly fund adequate investments in our transit system, educational system and our overall infrastructure

2. Lead on diversity both in Seattle and worldwide. Here’s a hot tip for Bezos and other technology leaders — if you want to hire more women, offer your competitors’ female employees more money and fund an ongoing array of collegiate technology scholarships for women and minorities. Bezos should set his mind to competing in diversity with the same zeal he runs the rest of his business.

3. Lead on supporting economic programs that make it easier for lower income, lower skilled Seattleites to stay in the city, especially minorities and artists during what is inarguably a time of rapid economic change and transition.

Bezos is famous for his question mark emails – customer complaints he forwards to his managers with a simple question mark that compels them to rapidly respond. If you’re an Amazon customer living in Seattle and share my concerns about the company’s impacts on our city, I encourage you to email this article to [email protected] and be sure to lead with a question mark.

It’s perfectly fair for Seattleites to speak up and demand answers of Amazon – its core business values include be “vocally self-critical” and “earn the trust of others”. Increasingly, that trust is under strain.

One of the best things about Amazon is that it’s hugely innovative. It’s e-commerce innovations, the AWS cloud, Kindle, Amazon Video, its Marketplace and Bezos’ investments in space show that it can do amazing things when it applies itself. But often, its innovations are misplaced — like on tax policy, or treating its warehouse workers like human robots or the privacy tone deafness of its Fire phone.

Which Amazon will show up to help Seattle keep up with the company’s growth?

When I first moved here, Seattleites used to complain about Californians and boast about being “native” Washingtonians. Today it’s hard to find those folks – most of us are from somewhere else.

As for myself, I’ve spent time this past year exploring alternatives from Portland to Vancouver, B.C. and frankly, I’m not sure I’ll stay. More importantly, I’ve cut my spending at Amazon by 90%.

Follow Jeff Reifman on Twitter or at his blog.

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