This spring Seattle will be home to the world’s most advanced homeless shelter. Eight floors of Amazon’s new headquarters building will be devoted to Mary’s Place, a local community service center supporting homeless families. In addition to the traditional diversion center and extreme weather shelter, Mary’s Place will include longer-term transition housing for up to 275 people at a time. It will feature legal and employment counseling, outdoor play areas, sustainable energy, even a dog wash. They will also provide temporary housing for families with severely ill children seeking temporary support.
Good, bad, dystopian or hopeful, we can all agree that this is bizarre. Across the history of capitalism there have been some examples of firms taking very active roles in their communities, building model company towns like Hershey, PA and Steinway, NY, and some of these experiments were very successful. But all of these efforts were focused on the company’s workers, and almost all of them were created to stave off union organization.
Apart from a few notable examples of personal philanthropy from wealthy businessmen, companies have never taken on a sustained social welfare burden. This is not merely unprecedented. It points to the dawn of a new, perhaps troubling era, in which commerce eclipses politics as our main channel of political expression.
Why is Amazon building a homeless shelter in its offices? Why are they investing millions of dollars to support affordable housing in Alexandria, VA? For that matter, why did Salesforce join with dozens of other tech businesses in San Francisco to force the city to tax them to fund new homeless supports?
Why is Nike taking sides in the debate over police violence? Why would a building supply company take out a Super Bowl ad supporting immigrant families? The simple answer is that our democracy is failing to deliver the baseline public conditions necessary to support continued prosperity. Our public institutions are collapsing into such appalling dysfunction that corporations have to divert shareholder funds to prop up dying public infrastructure.
In 2018, Berkshire Hathaway, Amazon and JP Morgan joined forces to build a health care provider that would be “free from profit-making incentives and constraints.” Their effort reflected Warren Buffet’s frustration over America’s failure to enact a universal health insurance program. He has referred to our broken system as “the tapeworm of American economic competitiveness,” and publicly supported single-payer. Haven, the new venture they created, began offering coverage to employees this year with a goal of broader availability down the road.
Over the past decade, businesses have taken on a larger role as a channel of democratic expression while our political system has ground to a halt. We find ourselves voting with our purchases, because voting only on Election Day doesn’t seem to deliver the practical outcomes we need to sustain our civilization. It’s nice to see this approach notch an occasional win, like when Chik-fil-A announced it was dropping support for bigoted religious groups, but it isn’t enough.
Amazon is building a homeless shelter in Seattle because the city’s local political infrastructure, dominated by Democrats, stumbled for too long. They failed to accomplish a goal as simple as allowing enough housing construction as the city’s prosperity boomed. Seattle’s challenge was complicated by the federal government’s complete abdication of responsibility for providing affordable housing, but other growing cities aren’t experiencing the problem at this depth. Locally, it’s homeowners, protecting a unit of infrastructure that we’ve converted into a wealth machine, along with wacky political fantasists, who are preventing the city from adapting to growth. By the time Seattle began to adopt some minor steps toward growth, their efforts were too little, too late. Housing prices have begun to decline, but they remain wildly out of synch with incomes, with a long way to go to reach affordability.
Tokyo doesn’t have this problem. Houston doesn’t have this problem. This isn’t an issue caused by Republicans or Trump supporters, but a disease primarily afflicting America’s most heavily Democratic areas. Our deepening political dysfunction is bigger than the insanity that has swept the GOP.
Amazon’s homeless shelter is, in a sense, welcome. An emerging “social capitalism,” in which a degree of political responsibility is incorporated into companies’ bottom lines, is a helpful development, but rising social activism among purely commercial entities will not save us from the collapse of our political system. A corporate homeless shelter is not a feel-good moment. It’s a warning.