We've heard for years about the hothouse conditions at Amazon's warehouses. Now the New York Times reports that the company's white-collar employees face a brutal work environment - long hours, a feedback system that reportedly encourages coworkers to sabotage each other and a work culture that warns a female employee not to let a recent miscarriage affect her work performance.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has pushed back against the report, saying it doesn't reflect the company's practices.
Should consumers care what goes on behind the scenes at the company that delivers their diapers? Should Amazon's work practices be the topic of public debate? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, debate the issue.CartoonDavies' latest cartoon: Transition of powerCartoonsNational cartoon roundup
Sometimes, you don't want to see how the sausage is made.
It's an old truism that whatever product or service you purchase - restaurant food, cloud computing, smartphones - you probably don't want to know the details of how it's produced. The kitchens are often less clean, the workplaces less safe or more exploitative, than you'd prefer.
But we sure do enjoy those restaurant meals and smartphones, don't we? Truth is, the Amazon story isn't all that unique. It's the logical outcome of unrestrained, unleashed capitalism. The main goal of nearly all capitalistic enterprises, after all, is to maximize profits - that that means, to a great degree, minimizing costs. Employees are costly. Inefficient employees are especially costly. And what's more inefficient than an employee who needs the time or space to fight cancer or grieve the loss of a child or, for heaven's sake, take a vacation or sleep overnight? Capitalism doesn't want workers. It wants widgets, each easily replaced and nearly cost-free. That's why, when you see proposals to raise the minimum wage in big cities across the country, opponents gleefully cheer on the rise of robots and automated processes to take the place of grocery clerks and fast-food employees. (As stressed as Amazon's white-collar employees might be, the company's blue-collar workers - with fewer outside options - have it much harder.) Now: It's true that capitalism is responsible for the greatest increase of wealth the world has ever seen. How could that not be? That's what capitalism does! But capitalism does its best work when there were other institutions to restrain and counterbalance it - a government to outlaw child labor, a union to demand a living wage and 40-hour workweeks. Companies do not care about work-life balance. It's up to workers - and the institutions designed to protect them - to claim it. That's even true, we now see, of white-collar workers.
It's never fun to see how sausage is made. But afterward, there's still a question left: "Do I want to keep eating the sausage?" Amazon's customers now have to decide that for themselves.
Unrestrained capitalism didn't make Amazon the largest retailer in the world. Unrestrained capitalism is a cartoon caricature, not a depiction of reality.
Amazon is enormously successful thanks to ambition, self-sacrifice, exploitation, backbreaking work, innovation, avarice and creativity - vices and virtues that long predate Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations." Say what you will about Jeff Bezos, but he was willing to accept years of losses in order to build the company to what it is today. Founded in 1994, Amazon didn't turn a profit until 2009. What kind of capitalist does that? A company that survives and thrives on tight margins is one that cannot afford to be complacent. Which is why Amazon is apparently a human meat-grinder, not unlike many technology companies and Wall Street firms.
Nobody is forced to work for Amazon. It continues to attract high-performing talent. People don't last very long. But most of them go on to better, saner jobs.
And yet . and yet.
Although many Amazonians say the all-work-all-the-time culture is not quite as pervasive as it once was, it remains an extremely high-intensity business. Bezos denies Amazon is a "soulless workplace," but how else would one describe a job that requires employees to be attached to a phone and a laptop at all hours? That culture doesn't just permeate big corporations - it's become an inherent part of the ever expanding "gig economy." The work-first mentality has gradually subsumed the American Dream of a middle-class life where work is balanced with family and leisure.
This should be a greater concern for conservatives than it appears to be. Because we do believe in free markets and prosperity, and we blanch at politicians who peddle such nonsense as "corporations and businesses don't create jobs" and "you didn't build that." We believe hard work is quintessentially American. But we also believe faith, family and friendship are quintessentially human. We were not made to be cogs in a machine.
Amazon is great because Amazon is rare. Amazon is rare because its culture is unique. Let's celebrate success - but let's also remember the ends do not always justify the means.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Joel Mathis is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine.