Amazon should locate its second headquarters in a place that helps build trust with people on the right, left and center that are growing more suspicious of the power of high-tech companies, writes Ross Douthat.
A couple of interesting things are happening with the massive companies that rule our online lives. First, the lords of Silicon Valley face political headwinds. There is tech-company skepticism on the populist right, the anti-corporate left and the good-government center. There is talk of trustbusting and utility-style regulation from Steve Bannon as well as Bernie Sanders. There is a palpable feeling, as Ben Smith of Buzzfeed wrote last week, that the online giants’ “golden age” of political immunity is ending, and that it might be “normal politics, normal regulation” from here on out.
Second, one of these giants — Amazon — is in the market for a second headquarters, where it intends to park some 50,000 employees and an awful lot of tech-industry dollars over the years and decades ahead.
The Amazon hunt has inspired data whizzes to argue about which U.S. metropolis best fits the company’s demanding specifications. The New York Times’ The Upshot, for instance, used indicators like job growth, an educated labor pool, quality of life and ease of transportation to winnow the list to Portland, Ore.; Denver; Boston; and D.C. — and then gave the edge to Denver for its space and lower cost of living.
The company will probably ultimately make a choice along these lines. But the political backdrop, the growing suspicion on the right and left about whether big tech serves the common good, raises an interesting question: What if Amazon treated its headquartering decision as an act of corporate citizenship, part public-relations stunt and part genuinely patriotic gesture? What if it approached the decision as an opportunity to push back against trends driving populist suspicion of big business — educational and geographic polarization, coastal growth and heartland decay, the sense that the New Economy creates wealth but not jobs and that its tycoons are loyal to globalization rather than their country?
Amazon can’t realistically spread its offices and jobs across America’s most isolated and despairing counties. But instead of picking an obvious BosWash hub or creative-class boomtown, it could opt to plant itself in a medium-sized city in a conservative state — think Nashville or…