Amazon’s promotion machine par excellence shifted into high gear to tout President Obama’s visit on Tuesday to one of its warehouses – “fulfillment center” is the newfangled term – where he unveiled his “better bargain“ for “middle class jobs.” That visit was artfully synced with Amazon’s announcement on Monday that it would create 7,000 jobs. Out of nothing. One of the ongoing lies in America’s jobs crisis – and the President stepped right into it.
He was at the Amazon warehouse, a 1-million sq. ft. facility in Chattanooga, Tenn., to talk about “a good job in a durable growing industry.” The durable growing industry he was referring to was retail, specifically online retail, and more specifically Amazon’s online retail empire. And the jobs he was referring to were warehouse jobs – many of them part-time or seasonal.
Of the jobs Amazon announced it would create, 5,000 would be in its “fulfillment network,” so warehouse jobs – picking, packing, checking, and shipping customer orders. These jobs would be spread over more than a dozen of its warehouses across the country, including the one in Chattanooga, which already employs about 1,800 full-time and 700 part-time workers. And 2,000 jobs would be in customer service spread over five locations or might involve work at home. A portion of these jobs would be part-time or seasonal.
“What the president wants to do is to highlight Amazon and the Chattanooga facility as an example of a company that is spurring job growth and keeping our country competitive,” explained White House deputy press secretary Amy Brundage.
Alas, there is another side of the ledger of our job-creation hero. Amazon has been a juggernaut. I’m not complaining: I’m both a customer and an author with two books, and I’m happy with the company in both areas. But much of the retail industry, particularly booksellers, have seen their livelihood trampled.
Borders went bankrupt in 2011, eventually liquidating over 500 stores. Nearly 20,000 jobs went up in smoke. Barnes & Noble announced in early February, after a crummy holiday season, that it would shutter about a third of its nearly 700 stores. Thousands of jobs would get axed. The B&N down the street from us closed after Christmas a couple of years ago.
The battlefield of the booksellers is littered with memories of thousands of smaller shops. Ask the owner or manager of your local bookshop how they feel about Amazon, assuming that there still is a local bookshop in your neck of the woods. I made that mistake only once, mentioning the A-word in a conversation with the manager. His face turned red, his lips formed a thin line, and when they opened again, it was to utter “Amazon” as a pejorative.
The jobs that were lost in these stores were often held by people who liked books, knew books, read books, could help you find books, and could recommend books. Often times, these people were at once sales reps, merchandisers, customer service reps, cashiers, inventory clerks, computer technicians, and what not. They’ve been replaced largely by a website – and by some warehouse jobs.
“What is woefully underreported is the number of jobs its practices have cost the economy,” wrote Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, in a letter to the President to protest his appearance at the Amazon warehouse. The letter put a figure on those jobs lost in the wake of Amazon’s success:
All told, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, every $10 million in spending that shifts from Main Street retailers to Amazon results in a net loss of 33 retail jobs. That would mean for 2012 alone – using Amazon’s own numbers about its increase in sales – Amazon cost the US economy more than 42,000 jobs just last year!
This would be in all brick-and-mortar retail operations combined, not just bookstores, but nevertheless. “Small businesses are the engines of the economy,” the letter said. “When a small business fails and closes its doors, this has a ripple effect at both a local and a national level.” And so the CEO and the board of the ABA told the President that they were “disheartened to see Amazon touted as a ‘jobs creator’ and its warehouse facility used as a backdrop for an important jobs speech, when, frankly, the exact opposite is true.”
Life without online retail is hard to imagine these days, and Amazon has been on the forefront with countless innovations. Online retail sales this year are expected to reach $262 billion in the US – of which over a quarter is likely to go to Amazon.
Amazon has an advantage over small stores: it has the Fed. The Fed’s money-printing and bond-buying binge has produced the largest credit bubble in history and another stock market bubble. Both of them are the most magnificent corporate giveaways ever. Amazon benefits enormously: it can lose money, no problem, and yield-hungry investors are still willing to buy its bonds that yield so little it’s ludicrous; and it can use its inflated stock as currency, of which it can always print more, to compensate its employees and executives and buy other companies. Smaller retail businesses can’t do any of that.
What President Obama conveniently overlooked when he used Amazon as a platform to tout his “better bargain” was the subsidy Amazon received from the Fed and the negative net effect on jobs that that subsidy had.
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