When Capitalism Hurts: Amazon and Detroit

When Amazon released its top 20 contenders for its vaunted second headquarters this morning, I quickly scanned the list — not for my city, Philadelphia — but for Detroit.

I was sad Detroit didn’t make the cut.  It was a bad day for them and a bad day for the country, I thought.

It made me think about all the statements we’ve heard from iconic tech entrepreneurs about the transformative power of technology.  Well, Detroit is a place that needs to be transformed.  Where are these icons now?

To be sure, there’s a business case to exclude Detroit from the final cut.  Amazon said it was looking for a stable and business friendly environment and access to technical talent, probably not Detroit’s strongest suits.

For instance, Boston, which made the cut has about 85 colleges and universities to Detroit’s 32.

For better and for worse — and in this case worse — capitalism demands decisions that are focused on maximizing profits.

Worse because the shoulders that tech entrepreneurs, and really all of us, are standing on are Detroit’s.

It was Detroit that was the engine of growth for this country following World War II.  It was Detroit that powered the longest economic expansion ever.  Hundreds of millions of Americans, and billions of others around the world prospered as a result of this expansion.  And then the world changed, taking Detroit’s might with it.

But to have a chance to reverse this in one fell swoop and not do it?

To build a new city from these ashes into one of the greatest technology centers in the world, where AI, blockchain technology and robotics, among other technologies are commercialized and put to new uses?

To be able to say we made Detroit better than it ever was because Americans remain, as always, undaunted and find new opportunities where none existed?

To have as part of our heritage, the rebuilding of a city for our fellow Americans because of a shared belief we are in this together?

To be able to all these things, and not do them, for what, profits?

And remember, Amazon has never been a company that has focused on short-term profits.  That investors still buy Amazon stock with its eye popping P/E ratio north of 300x is proof they believe in Amazon’s long term view.

Detroit will prosper once again, even without Amazon’s second headquarters.  But inside those long and dreary and challenging days ahead for Detroit is where the pain of capitalism resides.

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