CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS — Amazon.com, the books-to-diapers-to-machetes Internet superstore, is a perfect snapshot of the American Dream, circa 2011.
It grows by the hour, fueled by a relentless optimism that has made America America. First it sold books. Then it realized that buying printed words in bulk, sorting and shipping them was a transferable skill. It has since applied it to anything you could want.
In 2011, for example, I have bought the following from Amazon: a hard drive, an electric shaver, a Bluetooth headset, a coffee machine and some filters, a multivoltage adapter, four light bulbs, a rubber raft (don’t ask), a chalkboard eraser, an ice cream maker, a flash drive, roller-ball pen replacements, a wireless router, a music speaker, a pair of jeans and a shoe rack — and, oh yeah, some books. (Disclosure: A book and a long-form article I have written are sold on Amazon.)
Buying these things the traditional way would have meant driving around to many different stores and paying as much as twice the price for certain items. What’s more, Amazon knows me. It’s like family. It knows where I live, what I like, my credit card number. (Which, come to think of it, makes it closer than family.)
In a moment rife with talk of American decline, my Amazon experiences provide fleeting mood boosts. They remind me that, for now at least, this remains the most innovative society on earth.
And then my bubble burst.
Thanks to a methodical and haunting piece of journalism in The Morning Call, a newspaper published in Allentown, Pennsylvania, I now know why the boxes reach me so fast and the prices are so low. And what the story revealed about Amazon could be said of the country, too: that on the road to high and glorious things, it somehow let go of decency.
The newspaper interviewed 20 people who worked in an Amazon warehouse in the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania. They described, and the newspaper verified, temperatures of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or 37 degrees Celsius, in the warehouse, causing several employees to faint and fall ill and the company to maintain ambulances outside. Employees were hounded to “make rate,” meaning to pick or pack 120, 125, 150 pieces an hour, the rates rising with tenure. Tenure, though, wasn’t long, because the work force was largely temps from an agency. Permanent jobs were a mirage that seldom came. And so workers toiled even when injured to avoid being fired. A woman who left to have breast cancer surgery returned a week later to find that her job had been “terminated.”
The image of one man stuck with me. He was a temp in his 50s, one of the older “pickers” in his group, charged with fishing items out of storage bins and delivering them to the packers who box shipments. He walked at least 13 miles, or 20 kilometers, a day across the warehouse floor, by his estimate.
His assigned rate was 120 items an hour, or one item every 30 seconds. But it was hard to move fast enough between one row and the next, and hard for him to read the titles on certain items in the lowest bins. The man would get on his hands and knees to rummage through the lowest bins, and sometimes found it easier to crawl across the warehouse to the next bin rather than stand and dip again. He estimated plunging onto his hands and knees 250 to 300 times a day. After seven months, he, too, was terminated.
In a statement this week, Amazon acknowledged the complaints and said that it was working to address them, including by installing air-conditioners.
The prevailing American story line right now is seething anger at politicians: that they’re corrupt, or heartless, or socialist, or dumb. But the Amazon story, and many other recent developments, suggest that the problem is significantly deeper.
Far beyond official Washington, we would seem to be witnessing a fraying of the bonds of empathy, decency, common purpose. It is becoming a country in which people more than disagree. They fail to see each other. They think in types about others, and assume the worst of types not their own.
It takes some effort these days to remember that the United States is still one nation.
It doesn’t feel like one nation when a company like Amazon, with such resources to its name, treats vulnerable people so badly just because it can. Or when members of a presidential debate audience cheer for a hypothetical 30-year-old man to die because he lacks health insurance. Or when schoolteachers in Chicago cling to their union perks and resist an effort to lengthen the hours of instruction for children that the system is failing. Or when an activist publicly labels the U.S. military, recently made safe for open homosexuals, a “San Francisco military.” Or when most of the television pundits go on with prefabricated scripts to eviscerate their rivals, instead of doing us the honor of actually thinking.
The more I travel, the more I observe that Americans are becoming foreigners to each other. People in Texas speak of people in New York the way certain Sunnis speak of Shiites, and vice versa in New York. Many liberals I know take for granted that anyone conservative is either racist or under-informed. People who run companies like Amazon operate as though it never it occurred to them that it could have been them crawling through the aisles. And the people who run labor unions possess little empathy for how difficult and risky and remarkable it is to build something like Amazon.
What is creeping into the culture is simple dehumanization, a failure to imagine the lives others lead. Fellow citizens become caricatures. People retreat into their own safe realms. And decency, that great American virtue, falls away.
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