THE BLOG
08/17/2015 08:21 am ET Updated Aug 17, 2016

The Amazon Economy

ANDREW YATES via Getty Images

A recent New York Times piece describes Amazon.com as Lord of the Flies for engineers and managers. Relentless culling, hyper-critical supervision, and channels for informing on allegedly slacking co-workers create an artificial State of Nature, where many employees careers are brutish and short. The article tells the stories of workers placed under special scrutiny upon returning from cancer treatment and stillbirths, and quotes a chain of forty-year-olds fearful of being replace by thirty-year-olds, twenty-five-year-olds afraid of being replaced by college students, and so forth. In the world the reporters portray, wanting work-life balance, or just a rest, is an aberration that gets punished as soon as it is discovered.

The most striking thing is that Amazon's top executives are evidently proud of this. It's the world they've been striving to build: an obsolescence-proof company that won't ossify like General Motors or the old IBM. Never mind that it sounds like the Hunger Games for white-collar workers.

What makes this kind of hamster-cage halfway plausible as a model of the future? What allows its architects and the successful employees to believe in it?

Let me take one step back to answer that. Teaching a course last year on the long debate about capitalism and democracy, I read the mid-century progressive economists John Kenneth Galbraith and John Maynard Keynes, who were once the spokespersons of their profession. What caught my attention, because it was so different from today's common sense, is that they assumed security was a perfectly natural and legitimate goal, and that any developed economy would be shaped by people's search for it. Unions, protection against arbitrary firing and abusive workplaces, and social protections like guaranteed health care and higher education were all ways of institutionalizing the goal of security and dealing ever more people into it.

Amazon's attitude is exactly the opposite: security is the enemy. Equated with slacking, it is hunted down mercilessly wherever it appears. This agenda is a revealing caricature of the unquestioned common sense of today's economics profession and managerial elite. They, too, tend to see security as the problem, not the goal.

Why? The main reason is the cult of efficiency. By constantly driving people to improve every aspect of the goods and services they're producing -- or lose their jobs trying -- Amazon does create a fairly efficient machine. Someone who felt comfortable going home to his kids, or taking it easy while convalescing from a medical crisis, might not have found a way to eliminate that extra click, or might have left that buggy interface in place an extra week. Security means a little less efficiency -- at least within a company rich enough that it can afford to churn through workers and still attract new aspirants.

But goods and services aren't the only products of an economy. It also produces jobs, work experiences, on-the-job relationships (meaning not romantic relationships, but the interpersonal life where most people spend most of their daylight hours), and, in the bottom-most of bottom lines, lives. We are out living while we work, and in the long run, in a Keynesian bon mot that remains the state of the art, we are all dead. Lives that are more fearful, more emotionally harassed, at best more addicted to workplace "high performance," are among the major products of this economy. Whether or not you call that efficient, it's also kind of awful. These lives are the social equivalent of the pollution that "efficient" power sources like coal produce, and both can make the world less worth inhabiting.

There's also an ironic left-liberal version of the arguments against security. I often run into humanitarian types -- human-rights lawyers, public-health contracts, good people -- who will seize any opportunity in a conversation to rank on secure taxi drivers (Uber is saving Paris!), protected tenants (it's so hard to find an apartment in Geneva!), and so forth. They make a classic argument for disrupting security: often the person who is willing to drive for Uber is an immigrant, a non-traditional worker, or otherwise marginal or disadvantaged. Existing rules to protect security keep that person out, and -- by implication -- the search for security is xenophobic and parochial.

This is a classic partial argument. It's true that deregulation will almost always open an opportunity for someone else to do the same work with less security (or less pay), and, by hypothesis, that person is going to relatively unprivileged at the beginning of the story. If she weren't relatively unprivileged, she wouldn't be hungry for a diminished job. And so there is always a sense in which deregulation and increased insecurity are progressive.

The points about inclusion and exclusion are important and not to be ignored. But this argument against security is, to repeat, only partial. It focuses on the individual who benefits, but not on the larger system that the change produces. Eroding security produces an economy that is more inclusive in some respects, but also looks more like Amazon -- for everyone. An inclusive economy is a good, even urgent goal, but this way of pursuing it makes it a more inhumane economy in other respects. The thing everyone is struggling to be included in gets degraded along the way.

The progressive tradition has always been about making inclusion and security work together for a genuinely humane economy. Efficiency -- well, it's a good thing, but not everything. When it's a matter of waiting an extra day to buy a book you could also get downtown, or of an extra click for a year's supply of shampoo, it might be worth giving up some efficiency in exchange for better working lives -- which, after all are part of our real and only lives.

Of course, the ideas are only half the fight, and probably not the most important half. The most equal and secure American economy, the one that John Kenneth Galbraith spoke for, was built by the strongest unions in American history. Those are now weakened to the point of irrelevance. Finding new -- and reviving old -- ways to build institutions committed to security and equality will take effort and creativity. But ideas will matter too. Those institutions are worth building if you believe a more humane economy is possible, and worth pursuing.