Hardly anybody is better at seeing how the economic transformations wrought by Amazon play out in real people’s lives than a journalist named Josh Dzieza at TheVerge.com. His story about the town of Roundup, Mont., (see Last Word) goes something like this: People from around the world buy things they find at low prices, put them in boxes, and ship them to Montana. There, all that stuff is taken out of the boxes and sent to Amazon. Later it’s put back in boxes and sent out. Except sometimes people buy things from Amazon and ship them to Montana, where they are taken out of their boxes and sent back to Amazon. You have to read the article to understand why, and you may still scratch your head a little; as you might guess, Montana’s lack of a sales tax comes into it. It’s a story about the inscrutable leveling of the global marketplace. And it’s also a story about how a few resilient entrepreneurs in a small town found a way to make the Amazon economy work for them.
But what about the rest of us? Two decades ago we worried that factories shutting down and big-box stores opening up would hollow out America’s towns and midsize cities. Those fears were justified. The hollowing out did happen, and we see its results in an epidemic of deaths of despair. Much the same happened generations ago in the great migration from farms to factories. The new modes of commerce now threaten a hollowing out that’s just as severe, as stores disappear and a new servant class emerges to invisibly pluck items off warehouse shelves and drop our purchases on the doorstep. In many ways, Amazon is making our society materially richer. But it also threatens to make many Americans—starting with store owners and continuing soon enough to big-city professionals—irrelevant. Prior upheavals led ultimately to new kinds of cities, jobs, and ways of living. As this economic revolution unfolds, will it create more winners, or more losers and islands of desperation?