Welcome to the United States of Amazon

A new media project covering the nexus of commerce, technology and power

US Congress as an FBA fufillment center as imagined by DALL-E

“It’s easier to invent the future than to predict it”-- Jeff Bezos (misquoting another dude in Amazon’s first job posting)  

“I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me”- Frank Costello 

It’s a tumultuous time for the American experiment. Next year, two men a score past their prime pickleball years– one who makes indictment a quotidian affair– will seek to become the most powerful man on earth. Which octogenarian wins rests on the whim of macroeconomic forces each candidate is at most partially responsible for.   

2024’s soap opera is poised to play out amidst an unprecedented crisis of confidence in American institutions. Faith in the presidency, criminal justice system, medical system, Congress, Supreme court, organized religion, TV news, newspapers, the police, public schools and big business is at historic lows.  While ⅔ of Americans still express some patriotic pride, the share of folks who are “extremely proud” of their national identity is declining precipitously, particularly among younger generations. 

Amidst it all, one entity maintains an apple pie like approval rating. At the height of its PR-industrial complex power in 2018, Amazon was the most trusted institution in America for Democrats and #3 for Republicans. In 2021, 72% of Americans held a favorable view of Amazon, second only to the US military. Today, Lina Khan’s latest crusade comes amidst polling showing that 91% of Amazon Prime members are satisfied with the service and independent voters oppose breaking up Amazon by a 5 to 1 margin.   As Amazon pundit Jon Elder puts it, the modern American creed is “God, Family, Amazon…..with the data suggesting it is not necessarily in that order. 

Paradoxically, Amazon holds simultaneous elitist and populist appeal and is viewed favorably by the kids and olds alike. More Americans used Amazon Prime last year to make a purchase than voted in the 2020 election. 

Said simply, Amazon is our nation’s strongest civilian institution and one that for better or worse, wields unprecedented corporate power. To better understand Amazon is to better understand the American zeitgeist. 

In analyzing Amazon’s impact on our republic, there are two major diatribes taking shape:

Amazon is the shining star of American supremacy, an egalitarian tide that lifts all boats. In its sheer audacity and scale, Amazon’s logistics empire is proof that we can still build great things in America, a proud capitalist middle finger to the nerds who gleefully lament our decline. The firm employs roughly 1.5 million Americans with 1 in 153 American workers sporting the iconic curved arrow. Bucking the trend of corporate lobbying against raising the minimum wage, Amazon is a proud supporter of the fight for $15. 

While the anti-monopolist crowd gets their panties in a bunch over a few private label batteries, they miss the bigger picture. The company is no longer a centralized retailer as it is a services business and distribution engine that empowers small businesses to reach customers. As reported by Marketplace Pulse, 60% of units sold in Q3 of this year came from third-party vendors on the platform. 

More than 60,000 entrepreneurs operate third-party businesses on Amazon that exceed $1M in annual revenue as independently owned entities. All told, it’s no hyperbole to declare Amazon and Shopify as the greatest enablers of entrepreneurial dreams of our generation. Hell, for the better part of a decade, starting an FBA business was the best path to everyday Americans becoming millionaires. Amazon’s success is our nation’s success and we should be rooting hard for it. 

Amazon is relentless capitalism run amok, corporate plutocracy masquerading as democracy. With its sheer magnitude, Amazon is the new vampire squid wrapped around American democracy. For every Senator’s occasional proud moment of grandstanding, the HQ2 campaign laid bare who has the upper hand as even nominally progressive politicians thirstily offered up billion dollar tax breaks. Meanwhile, five years later Arlington still waits for much of the prince who was promised.   

The company’s fight for $15 is a cynical headfake as warehouse jobs, typically a middle-class, often union gig, are reduced to paycheck to paycheck strife in the towns where Amazon sets up shop. Amazon is a notorious union buster, keeps employees under significant surveillance and is powered by employees whipping it out and firing into a bottle……which due to Amazon’s lax third-party approval can be packaged and sold as a top energy drink on the platform.  

Of the millions of third-party sellers on the platform, a greater percentage each day are industrial operations from Shenzhen, not kitchen table dreamers from Schenectady. As Amazon’s take rate soars above 50%, they operate on slimmer and slimmer margins, their livelihoods one arbitrary policy change away from existential ruin. 

Yet, the real danger of Amazon’s supremacy lies in how unevenly its spoils are distributed. As outlined masterfully by Alec Macgillis in Fulfillment, Amazon is a “force accelerant of the regional inequality making parts of the country incomprehensible to each other.” Said another way, we pay for one day (and soon, one hour) shipping with the fabric of our communities. To spin the old Eisenhower quip, this is not progress at all, in any true sense. It is American society hanging from a cross of cardboard.  

Of course, defining Amazon exclusively with either of the dramatic reductionist tropes above is folly. As Bobby said, good and bad I define these terms, quite clear, no doubt somehow. 

What is undoubtedly true is that Amazon is currently at the heart of most business meta stories. Both with its internal AI ambitions and its investment in Anthropic, Amazon is the sleeping giant in the AI wars. The platform’s slow takeover by Chinese based third-party sellers coupled by attacks on its flank by Temu and TikTok is a pretty good harbinger of where Beijing is creeping up the American value chain. Amazon earnings reports and what they say about consumer sentiment on inflation is probably your best resource to predict which of the aforementioned 80 year-olds will rule the free world next year. 

For my part, I’ll try to leave the moral opining to others. I’m launching this newsletter to analyze seemingly esoteric and disparate happenings around Amazon that I believe have much larger implications on our America.  

UPDATE: It’s been a few months since I initially wrote this introduction and it remains the first thing most of y’all read when you check United States of Amazon out so I’m including a link to the most popular posts to give you a sense of the vibe and what to expect if you subscribe.

While Amazon is the protagonist, we’ll go deep on the broader retail ecosystem, focused on the nexus of commerce, tech and policy. Retail employs roughly 16 million people and is 6% of the nation's GDP but its impact is grossly undercovered by the mainstream business press. The Wall Street Journal’s current analysis level consists of telling Lina Khan to watch Shark Tank.  The New York Times loves to trot out a random comms or sociology professor to run the same proverbial thinkpiece every few months. While there are a plethora of great indie retail newsletters written by folks who deeply understand Amazon and its idiosyncrasies, wiser operators in this game steer away from the political ramifications. In stupidity is opportunity, he says to himself. 

This newsletter is a culmination of career exploits for me. I’ve spent most of my professional life at the nexus of commerce and technology, at times operating within and at times trying to disrupt different corners of Amazon’s world. I took a quick deviation from that career path to try and help build a now defunct media publication called Protocol that promised to cover the “people, power and politics of technology.” Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you what happened there.

Protocol’s demise has left a gaping hole in how covering the large technology corporations as the quasi-governmental entities that they are. For most of the Trump years, too much ink was spilled about Facebook at the expense of truly understanding the political power of big tech as a whole. I’ve come to believe that convincing the American punditry that Facebook was the existential threat to our democracy was  Murdoch’s piece d’resistance— his final way of telling us we are not serious people.  

All the while, it was Jeff Bezos who has most shaped our nation in his image. Welcome to the United States of Amazon. It’s Day One for democaracy.

Who are you and why should I read your shit? 

Honestly, I’m just some fuckin’ guy. But, here’s my deal. Today, I lead business development for Forum Brands, a conglomerate of brands that take care of families, which operate primarily on Amazon. I’m also the co-founder of a software platform called Brandable, which offers profit intelligence (ok, analytics) to Amazon and Shopify operators.  

I am NOT here to pump my bag for either of these endeavors. Insofar as writing this newsletter sharpens my thinking pertinent to my day job(s) and raises my profile in the space, I’ll take it.  But I am firmly committed to avoiding the trap of what Brian Morrissey at The Rebooting astutely calls “marketing masquerading as thinking” 

While this will not be a column for partisan analysis, I want to be super clear of my underlying political biases as I’d be naive to say they won’t influence my writing. I am firmly in the 12% of 18-34 year old Democrats that unabashedly loves America, warts and all.  

Who is this written for?  

I have two core audiences in mind who I hope to provide value for.  

1) For those who work in the Amazon and broader tech ecosystem, I hope this will be a frank examination of the cultural and societal ramifications of our work and I way to collectively think through where our industry, and by extension, our nation, is headed

2) For those who don’t work in the retail ecosystem, I hope this can be an entertaining and enlightening look at how the world’s largest retailer lives rent-free in your nation’s collective consciousness, buried amidst a litany of dad jokes and Bruce Spingsteen memes. 

What can I expect if I subscribe?   

At minimum, I’m mentally committing to writing the ten or so pieces I outlined above and then evaluating whether this thing has story-market fit so to speak. I’ll write bi-weekly, on Friday afternoons, likely three beers deep by the end ,edit sober on weekends and publish the following Monday.   

Each newsletter will have three sections– 

  1. A Feature Story: 1K- 1,500ish words analyzing a major trend in the Amazon ecosystem and the political and cultural implications 

  2. Retail News Round-Up: A bit of the old’ best reads from around the internet pertinent to the retail and tech ecosystem along with some light commentary.   

  3. Dispatches from America:  A potpourri of interesting Americana that I’d like to highlight in a given week

If the concept hits, I may even go back to my old school journalism roots and mix in some interviews with practitioners in the field and (‘gasp) original reporting. 

Why are you doing this now? 

To be modest, I'm a Scott Galloway/Jim Cramer level savant when it comes to timing the market. In 2021, I tried to launch a fintech/crypto media vertical at a now defunct tech publication, right as bitcoin kissed $69K and Block was buying Afterpay for more than the whole company is currently worth. In early 2022, I bet my career on an Amazon rollup. (For what it’s worth, this one worked out shockingly well as I bet on a uniquely great operating team in what turned out to be a brutal macro environment. Reminder, kids, in startups, always bet on the best people over everything.)

So it only makes sense that I'd start writing again consistently in late 2023 right on the cusp of a newsletter nuclear winter. Sorry thinkbois and girls, I am death, the destroyer of Substacks.  

Will you try to monetize/build a real business out of this?  

Last week, I attended Jacob Donnelly’s outstanding A Media Operator conference seeking an answer to that very question. 

I landed on not thinking about business viability for a very simple reason. To be brutally honest, I only got genuinely excited about consistently writing again when I shed the notion of creating a media product that I thought would be commercially sustainable. 

If it appears there is a market for incorporating advertising or subscription in a manner that doesn’t kill my vibe and zeal to write, I’m a capitalist at heart and will ultimately chase the almighty dollar in time.  

Until then, we run on vibes.