From 1870 to 1911, the Standard Oil Company and Trust controlled almost all oil production, processing, marketing, and transportation in the country. Through mergers, purchases and lucrative trust agreements, John D. Rockefeller built an industrial empire that made him and his associates astonishingly wealthy.
Propublica reporter and author Alec MacGillis sees similarities between Rockefeller's oil empire and the tech empire built by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
"There are precursors; precedence for where we are now. What I think about most, probably, is the Gilded Age with Standard Oil and those monopolies in earlier times. I think that's a good comparison," MacGillis, a Pittsfield native, said during a recent interview at The Eagle. "Rockefeller controlled the railroad and he also controlled a lot of the oil being moved on the railroad. It's very similar to what Amazon has achieved. It controls the marketplace, where we buy and sell everything, and then it is also a seller on the site. It's competing against other sellers, while controlling the entire platform.
"I've had some people say, 'What's the big deal? We've been here before.' And I reply, 'Yes, but when this happened before, we took action; we had big battles around it."
In the case of Standard Oil, the U.S. government brought suit against the corporate giant, in 1906, under the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. In 1911, the courts ordered the company to dissolve and divest itself from more than 33 companies.
The U.S. government has yet to take any similar action against Amazon, which reported $8.1 billion in profit during the first three months of 2021, an increase of 220 percent from the same period in 2020. During that same period, Amazon also shed 27,000 workers.
Similar too, between then and now, he said, is the gap between the wealthy and the poor, individually and regionally. But for a time, throughout the 20th century, there seemed to be a balance when poorer cities and parts of the country began catching up with the rich ones. That trend, began to reverse in the 1980s and sped up with the rise of the tech giants in the 1990s. Amazon and other e-commerce giants took advantage of that economy, growing in size and bringing wealth to those regions they called home. Places like Seattle and Boston grew in wealth and influence. Property prices soared and urban areas gentrified, as long-standing brick-and-mortar retail shops shuttered their doors.
MacGillis, who spent three years researching his recently released book, "Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America," said he hadn't intended to write about Amazon, specifically, but more about e-commerce's overall impact on the economy. And while gathering stories from those whose lives have been impacted by the e-commerce economy — as employees, sellers, buyers or competition — Amazon emerged as the prevalent underlying thread that tied the stories together.
Another deciding factor that pushed the narrative to focus happened in 2017. MacGillis, like most of the nation, watched as cities around the country, Pittsfield included, vied for the chance to become the home of Amazon's second headquarters. When finalists were announced, many of the selected cities clamored to put together incentive packages that waived taxes and other fees, while local officials signed non-disclosure agreements, shutting the press and the public out of the negotiations process.
"As a reporter, what really upset me was the lack of transparency and the constant insistence on secrecy, at all levels, in all the dealings around the second headquarters where all the finalists had to pledge utter secrecy and to not disclose the terms of these massive tax incentives they were offering," he said. "[And I was upset by the] secrecy around the warehouse negotiations; with all these cities and town officials having to use codenames for the warehouses and [having to agree to] give up the bare minimum to the local press."
Even warehouse employees have to sign nondisclosure agreements (NDA), he learned, after applying for and being offered a job at one of Amazon's fulfillment centers. MacGillis said he decided not to accept the job when the first thing he would have to do is sign an NDA agreement.
MacGillis will speak about his book at 4 p.m., Sunday, June 6, during a conversation with William Everhart, retired Berkshire Eagle Editorial Page editor. The event, hosted by the Lenox Library and The Bookstore in Lenox, will take place in Roche Reading Park. The event is free, but prior registration is required. Tickets are available through a link on the library's website.
MacGillis recently took time from his schedule to answer a few book-related questions for The Eagle.
1. What books/materials were inspirational in writing this book?
"The History of the Standard Oil Company," by Ida Tarbell was definitely an inspiration. A more recent one that was sort of a model was George Packer's "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America," that came out during or a little after the great recession. It's about America coming apart at the seams and it's similar in that it focused on a handful of people in different parts of the country and their lives. In that sense, his book was a model.
2. What is your favorite book written by a journalist?
"Common Ground" by J. Anthony Lukas and "Ghettoside" by Jill Leovy. Most of the books I love are by journalists.
3. What book have you recently read that you couldn't put down?
"Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty," by Patrick Radden Keefe.
4. Who is your favorite contemporary author and why?
John Gardner. While no longer living, I still count him as contemporary.
5. What books are currently on your nightstand?
"The Dollmaker" by Harriette Arnow; "Bleeding Out" by Thomas Abt; "Amazing Grace" by Kathleen Norris: "Never Let Me Go" by Ishiguro, Hummingbird in the Trenches" by Kondwani Fidel; "We Own This City" by Justin Fenton.