Economy

Why Amazon's Runaway Growth Doesn't Sit Well With Seattle

Amazon store in Seattle
Amazon store in Seattle
Joni Balter

SEATTLE — Strolling through the bustling construction zone of Amazon's urban campus in Seattle, you instantly recognize the charm offensive the company has aimed at its hometown. "Banistas' at two outdoor stands offer bananas to employees and passers-by — a visual cue to Amazon's smiley logo.

Most American cities would do back flips to have a jobs juggernaut like Amazon.com Inc. in their midst. After all, the company will soon fill more than 10 million square feet of office space in a place where it now employs more than 30,000 people.

But Seattle is not like other places. Locals resent the enormous traffic problems, soaring housing prices and building frenzy that have accompanied this bonanza, all of which cause jitters about inequality in a town that sees itself as egalitarian.

For decades, Seattle was a city that worked. People could travel across town without having an anxiety attack. They could park near a destination. Not so much anymore. The tech and web industry expansion has clogged roadways, changing the way the place functions. Or doesn't.

True, millions of dollars in donations for various endeavors are nothing to sneeze at.

It is Amazon that is often singled out for Seattleites' wrath, even as the company boasts that a number of employees at its sprawling campus on the northern edge of downtown walk or bike to work. If you ask who has the better deal in the uneasy relationship between e-commerce giant and "superstar city." the company holds the larger end of the stick.

Long standoffish, Amazon is trying to change its image with worthwhile and sizable efforts.

Just this week, it announced plans to permanently house more than 200 homeless people in one of its new buildings, probably the company's most enduring gift yet to the city. Amazon earlier lent an old hotel scheduled for future development to the same nonprofit group that serves homeless women, children and families.

CEO Jeff Bezos's family recently donated $35 million to Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, on top of earlier gifts of $30 million. Amazon gave $10 million toward a new University of Washington computer science and engineering building.

But Amazon is not yet known for substantial charitable work. "I don't see Amazon's aspirational goal for being a philanthropic leader for the region," said former Mayor Norm Rice. "It's still forming."

To use one yardstick, the company lacks an employee-match giving program. Having one would alter some sentiments, said Michele Hasson, fundraising consultant.

True, millions of dollars in donations for various endeavors are nothing to sneeze at, but a more meaningful act might involve another project — one that seems to acknowledge the accusations that Amazon plays a role in perpetuating income inequality.

The company has announced it will provide space and equipment for five restaurants catering to employees and the public, to be managed by a nonprofit called FareStart. The goal is to train entry-level food-service workers so they can land higher-paying jobs.

"They say the 1,000 mile journey begins with a single step, and that is probably the right magnitude," said labor economist Jacob Vigdor, a professor of public policy and governance at the University of Washington, referring to the worker-training program.

But, Vigdor continued, "Realistically, this will probably help a few dozen people in a nation where we have millions living in poverty. They are doing their work in Seattle, but if you ask where has Amazon and technology change destroyed jobs, Amazon and electronic commerce can be blamed for the disruption of millions of retail jobs."

Former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn tapped into the bountiful local angst with his recently announced campaign to reclaim his old job under the banner of "Keep Seattle." Keep Seattle what? Fill in the blank. The intention is the way it used to be.

Amazon is sensitive to the implicit criticism. In 2015, John Schoettler, the company's vice president of global real estate and facilities, ventured out of Amazon's shell far enough to lead the local business chamber.

"I believe we are trying to change," Schoettler told a public forum last month. "We are a very bashful company in many respects." He later added: "We are never going to please everybody, that's an impossible thing, and we will die trying to do that. We want to be a good neighbor, a good contributor."

Amazon is Seattle's largest property taxpayer and private employer, and it pays its employees here pretty well. The accompanying construction boom and hiring spree have boosted the broader vibrant economy, which has seen 99,000 new jobs added in the last seven years. Thirty percent of them are in tech.

On the other side of the ledger, the runaway growth has made the place less affordable for longtime residents and compounded the income divide. At the same time, Amazon and its top employees benefit from a favorable tax climate. Neither the state nor the city has an income tax, though a few mayoral candidates and the city council would like to change that.

I think Amazon gets the best part of the deal.

In the 1990s, locals growled that another Seattle-area company, Microsoft Inc., was crowding roadways, diminishing livability and being aloof. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said then he was building his company and would get to philanthropy eventually. He did so in dramatic fashion.

Amazon was fortunate to locate in an almost ready-made neighborhood, where Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen owned much land and once envisioned a large downtown park. Voters said no to the park; they would have had to pay some of the costs.

So the neighborhood is becoming an innovation and tech center, with Amazon joining the Gates Foundation and many other health and research — a veritable STEM City.

Despite the thumbs-down on the park, voters approve most tax measures. Yes, to billions of dollars of transportation improvements. Yes, to more low-income housing. Yes, to greater park spending generally.

Longtime residents feel they have paid for infrastructure that Amazon is capitalizing on. Historian Knute Berger, for one, feels that Amazon bears major responsibility for much of the rapid change, even if he doesn't blame the company for all the ill effects.

"I think Amazon gets the best part of the deal," Berger said. "I lived here before Amazon. It was a great city. Now I think it is a city with big problems."

It's hard to sneer at a company building a high-tech tomorrow town and trying to make amends on the home front. But the many overwhelming impacts of rampant transformation deserve a very Seattle retort: Your efforts are noticeable and welcome — but you have a ways to go.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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