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tv   Virginia Festival of the Book - Alec Mac Gillis and Amelia Pang  CSPAN  July 8, 2021 9:33pm-10:23pm EDT

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from the virginia festival of
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the book on their books about the downside of our global internet driven consumer economy. >> author of winning and losing, senior reporter for pro public and the recipient of the george bulk award, the robin toner prize and other honors. also thehe author of this and me the 2014 biography of mitch mcconnell and lives in baltimore. amelia, author of made in china a prisoner and sos letter and hidden cost of america's goods is an award-winning journalist was written for publications such as mother jones and the new republic covering topics from organic flawed to the prevalence of sexual violence on native american she lives near washington, d.c. the moderator today is the
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director of the international human rights clinic at the uva school of law and his research focuses on justice and post-conflict scenarios, land governance, peace building and accountability for human rights violations. thank you for joining us today. thank you very much. p it's been a pleasure to read your work. i'm very glad for you not only to read the process of the research to get the books out i
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have a couple of questions and i will take some from. let me start by asking about the process. atat what point and how did you realize that all of those hours of research were book material? you had an analysis screaming to be told. >> thank you. i'm very excitedo to be here. thank you for organizing this. for me, the book began not about amazon but as a book about regional inequality between the places in america. i am a reporter and we've spent a lot of time around the country
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and have grown increasingly concerned and even alarmed by the disparities i saw when i would go between the winner take all. i've been wrestling with this for years thinking about w how o write about it and capture it and what i finally decided to do is frame it around amazon and these glaring regional divides. >> i started reading the book and it's very fascinating and i'm excited to be here tonight. when i was doing research about the letters written in the u.s.
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and other democratic countries i found this one particular story unforgettable because he was written by a political prisoner and he had halloween decorations that it is a product that you could hang or you might use it as a decoration for a children's party but it was manufactured in a chinese gulags where there were very much real grave surround them if they died from the egregious labor conditions.
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i thought of that story in particular was a product being made and where it was made was a great way to take a deep dive into the many problems. >> excellent. i kept thinking how one promotes experience from our laptop to our doorstep and that a lot of work takes place in different places and measures need to be
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put in place. but to just reconstruct that biography we can see your book helps take us. why don't you tell us more about the trail of the book. my book starts with an average american consumer whome is a mother and working on decorating her child's halloween party and
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that is when she comes across this very cheaply purchased product from kmart, stones made of styrofoam. somebody purchased it because it was too goode of a deal to pass on but nobody even had a real need for it. it sat in storage for two years before she remembered she had it and when she opened it she was shocked toec receive a letter written by the political prisoner in china. it tells how it landed in a laborr camp but also more importantly what are the problems that make it easy for things manufactured.
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it's all about geography as a kind of portrait of the landscape country and how things have sorted out and the landscape it doesn't go overseas to the source of the products as amelia'se book does. i thought i knew about these things but i didn't really. it's so startling and needs to be reckoned with so i would urge people to read it. fulfillments about the domestic side of this whole geography and it endeavors to sort of take you all the way from the headquarter cities of amazon, seattle and washington, d.c. that have become hyper prosperous in their
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success to the point they are unaffordable foror many residen. longtime residents being displaced, terrible congestion, dystopian levels in the winner take all series and it takes you down to the warehouse towns. storing the goods, packing them them on so you go from seattle and dc to warehouse citiesad like baltimore, dayton ohio. did you meet a o young man that makes cardboard boxes like the bottom of that domestic chain 11 or $12 an hour making cardboard boxes and truck drivers in southeastso ohio you go all the way up this letter and see how
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what's happened in this kind of driven economy is a sorting out of cities and towns. there's something about this economy that has created gaps between cities on a scale that we've never seen before and it's really unhealthy for both ends of the spectrum. >> the one one click economy is to eliminate the human interaction but it's a measure of success. i want to something and i didn't have to talk to anyone. but this book not only challenged that idea and to
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indicate tell us more like walmart or kmart sourced from the factory who are very far away from their families and not necessarily working in great conditions either, but to the ways that the company's form relationships a lot of w times they don't give them enough time
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or enough money to make the products and pay real workers so they have to subcontract to a lot of forced labor facilities where the detainees are not paid at all and after work under pretty torturous conditions to meet our deadlines. these types of labor camps a lot of o the detainees most of them never received any kind of sentencing and don't have access to them a lot of times. a lot of them are pro-democracy activists and ethnic minorities and civil rights lawyers.
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during 15 to 20 hours of manufacturing work and not pay for it at all. a. >> i wonder if you would tell us more. >> they are not all based lucrative's because they are managed usually by security the bureaus rather than actual businessmen. they are extremely useful ways
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for the government to silence the demographics. short answers for many years they've been living under pretty oppressive conditions and the government is worried about the group and the potential result. so much of fulfillment is about
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that loss of human interaction and the loss of communities that we now experience. the first chapter of the book is called community and it's about a loss of community in one city in that c case, seattle. but throughout the bookbu you he people who are struggling now because they've lost that kind ofse interaction. i will give two examples. two of my favorite characters in the book one is a former steelworker in baltimore working at a huge steel mill at a place oucalled sparrows point that was the largest in the entire world and they found five or 6,000 people in this town that was all wiped away and has been replaced by aep logistics business park.
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i found the gentle man that worked at the steel mill. it had a purpose and a sense of community and fellowship. he then went to work at the amazon warehouse making less than half he made. the work was done, dangerous of course but incredibly isolating. and it was just he felt so completely alone. none of that kind of fellowship he had at the steel mill and he finally quit after just a few years. i was talking recently to another who lives nearby and he commented on the fact that he
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noticed the workers at the warehouse now when they are leaving their shifts go screaming out of the warehouse just flying out driving so fast they had to put biggest speed bumps to try to slow people down and people are desperate to get outt of there because there is absolutely no sense of fellowship there. you do your shift and then get out and get home where the workers would roll out of the hesteel mill and as a bunch roll into the bar or the diner or whatever it might be. the other groups i focus on in the chapter are small business owners in el paso who run a small office supply companies essentially think of gender mifflin fromll the office except it's in el paso and these are people running small businesses who sell office supplies goods
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to local governments and school districts and businesses and they have done it for years and prided themselves on the surface and human interactions with their customers. they say i just ordered the wrong. i bought it from someone else. i'm sorry but can you help me out i'm going to lose my job if i can't get help here and of course they helped him out. it's a human interaction. it's their customer. now these suppliers are being pressured to start selling on the amazon marketplace as third-party sellers. they got the local governments in the school districts say we will buy from you on amazon.
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it's all going to get routed through the one click instead of that direct interaction between the office supply company and the buyer. it's not just of the cut that they are losing but also they knew this was going to cost the community in terms of tax revenue it was going to cost in terms of the kind of gristle that holds the community together so it's a big part of this rightun now. >> there were two movies that came to my mind.
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there is a controversial statement about this idea of the winner takes all. it's the only way for the business to survive, so it isn't about grit. even as we accept that nature it is a given. i had this question in my mind
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it was what is the role of the government in all of this? it is a radical transformation of many social spheres but the role of the government and made in china you think of how what is the government doing wrong, what should it do and for good and for bad maybe it can start with the book. >> my book covers a lot of those failures of the u.s. government in addressing this issue.
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this includes the last administration although they were called a so-called china hawk there was so much more he could have done. for instance, the one piece of legislation that should have passed as soon as possible if we care about human rights as a country is the forced labor prevention act and w what that would do is ban all products from the region and the overwhelming amount of evidence with a high concentration of camps. there is no way for our companies to independently set people to go investigate the products are not being manufactured by forced laborers. banning the products would be impactful because as an area that is investing a significant
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amount in developing and if they lose a major trading partner in that region, then it could push china towards its policies to be the larger forced labor it is stalling and it was reintroduced in the house and the senate and remains to be seen where they can get it passed. that's what the role that the government canan play but has yt to play. i see two main governments for the policy structural changes to address. what is unfolding right now in
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alabama where there is a union election happening at a large amazon warehousee. in alabama wh a historical echo named for the british engineer back to the steelmaking process and now it's a warehouse area and they've got and election and if you could ldsee the warehouses that woulde pretty extraordinary. and in some ways towards improving the conditions of this kind of work you would a sort of set us on a historical arc that we saw last century where the jobs were very low paid to make
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sure they have been freely and fairly and president biden spoke out as he did a week or two ago on that point was a very big deal. one big reason for this inequality that fulfillment is about as economic concentration to put it very bluntly one reason you have this huge gap between the cities and towns is that business and commerce that used to be dispersed all around the country in various sectors is now drawn into only a handful of places because the economy is dominated bymy a handful of
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companies so the media and revenue around the country and among various newspapers and tv is kind of sucked into the area where you have to companies that control 60% of that revenue and retail. some mom and pop stores and department stores, regional department stores is now increasingly kind of drawn into amazon and the cities where amazon is headquartered so you end up with seattle so for the government now to finally after all these years of letting our antitrust laws kind of atrophy the approach to monopoly. there are signs the biden administration has raised points in this regard and there's even a sense where you could have
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some bipartisan. th.. >> and before to answer this
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question in a little bit of our role of the unbiased consumer demand to save made in china that then to do research. that is despite knowing that our actions have dire consequences. they can help us take pleasure in buying merchandise.
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so what we say about human nature in our weaknesses and our contribution like that big state of depression what do your roots tell you about human nature? >> studies have found that our brains light up when we see a really cheap price are we feel we're getting a big bargain deal. a lot of happiness and that is d a powerful feeling and studies have shown during a critical moment meeting at to a customer's decision to buy a product, there are two competing groups of considerations and one is price and quality and the other group that is competing for the brains attention is
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how it was made and if there are any ethical concerns about this product. but we only have enough space in our brains for one main group to take hold as we buy products. that's not to say we will always fail in this regard is another study that found if consumers read a note about why it is unethical to buy a product specifically counterfeit products, then if you read it right before the decision to buy then most often they will choose not to buy the product and sacrifice the desires to make an optical
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choice. but unfortunately this phenomenon only the left a couple of minutes up to half an hour and then we forget and then price and the desire becomes the main desire so i feel hopeful forg change as we learn more about how horrific these camps are i feel confident more and more people will be able to hold that oninformation at the forefront of their brains for a longer and longer period of time especially these women camps sexual abuse and the detainees that spent so much of their days and nights doing forced labor and when they are not
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that is how the cheap products are made. so talk to factory owners and managers may said realistically we cannot meet the low prices that these companies demand from us. so those are factors of price and production deadline a lot of these that companies can control and we as consumers can control so made in china is about empowering consumers to make a more informed and ethical purchases. i know there are a lot of depressing topics during this talk but i want to highlight i
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do see some key things we should start looking for in the favorite brand sustainability pages if we find out the favorite brands liare not revealing with forced labor in the supply chain and then we push to do better with transparency. so viewers can take away hope and change. >> i found those incredibly helpful and concrete in what can be done. i saw the filament directed at the consumer because i do believe yes there are these
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large structural and systemic forces and yes the economy has changed but each of us has agency has consumer and days citizen to make certain choices and as the highly educated urban metro liberal leaning american who buys quite a bit of stuff on amazon and doesn't think too much about it and the book is meant to open their eyes and think what is behind the click. i have to say i am even more worried about this now than i was a year ago. the pandemic has greatly accelerated what the book describes with the way of life you cannot state how much thamazon has grown in this last
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year it is astonishing they had to hire 500,000 and not including drivers to handle the huge surgeon orders that are up 40 percent year-over-year. stock is up 86 percent. jeff basil's personal fortune is up $58 billion they had to build 50 percent more warehouse space. it is just a fact for a lot of us the one click purchase before maybe b we did with a little bit of compunction or stigma loss that because we saw that is something we were doing to fight and the curve out public health mandates in do that righteously. and i do worry that i was struck by the alacrity of which people embraced this kind of distance. and i do hope that those
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habits don't stay 100 percent and we can reengage with the world and community around us and people and physical space and stores and life in our place rather than just hunkering down at the screen. that is my hope that they will help with that. >> thank you very much so what can we do to make things better and reading her book and to start realizing what we are doing as an action from
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that. and another question and that depends on and certain technology is there any way there any way that we can try to find those clicks do you come across those were to search for those that are doing betterrt than others? >> unfortunately i have to say the way most companies do business with china and the
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ways they investigate their factories in china i don't think there's any company out there that could safely guarantee to consumers any forced labor in the supply chain because for the most part the quality of the audits they are really week with cursory audits that cannot detect something as complicated as forced labor a lot - of the time. and this is especially the case amazon doesn't even do audits most of the time they say they strive that they release very little information about which suppliers are auditing. when i was in china i spent some time visiting the camps but the prisoners were
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manufacturing products and exporting. i followed the trucks that left a these camps to the super suppliers working with all kinds of exporters in official apple supplier included. and these factories made all different types of products that the pet products and wide range of products in their did looking at the customs records to see who is picking them up it was a long complicated list of middlemen like a company like amazon or target. but it does have the name of the product in the name of the brand a lot of the times and if you google it comes up
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everywhere so i don't know that particular truck i followed so it shows a lot of the types of products could have an origin in a chinese labor camp. and then to verify the quality ofur those factories so what we can do is ask companies to reveal more about their auditing practices especially amazon. >> so to say it is so brave that you met in china. >> but then you just sit there
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on a highway staring at a slow truck. [laughter]ly >> to cover the question very well but one thing i would add is a small note of hopefulness and it is not intended as a corporate plug but as a statement of reality what is happening in the market right now there is a growing option out there that is prosperingt for those small businesses that are trying to sell their goods without going into the mall amazon or shop if i so what i have read in the business media but what has become a whole other way for companies and have something
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they want to sell online without wanting to just go into the massive empire where you pay 15 or 20 commissions to this giant company and then that actually is possible you will see more things like that as we get bigger and scarier to see domestic small businesses here are not wanting to do something else and realizing how bad. so even without antitrust action which is necessary you may still start to see a bit of some challenges here and there. >> to that end what is the
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difference between amazon and walmart? none of them are known for those businesses. >> absolutelyt not. walmart had a huge effect on thisf country in the years of its massive growth so one major difference between the two companies is that walmart pay so much more in taxes because of its physical presence it pays billions more in taxes per year and what is
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all about gaming that taxes and avoiding sales tax by beingg online and avoid having to pay taxes and that is a driving part of the success. i am no fan for mark it is so destructive in so many ways but it is a much bigger taxpayer than amazon. >> it is time to wrap things up. thank youou to everyone and from the local independent bookseller you can also check out the virtual 2021 virginia festival of the book online.
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thank you. >> this is been a great conversation partner we appreciate everyone here tonight and yes thank you to the virginia festival of books. thank you for spreading the message i really do think collectively we can do better. >> such great questions and so glad we paired with this and thank you to all of you for joining us tonight it is a test subject and i will admit the books can be bracing reads. but it is so important there was a note on the book at the independent bookstore yesterday put several books by the cash register to promote them and the bookstore owner wrote on them. please read this book. this is our world.
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she is right. both of the books are our world. it's important we recommend it
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>> tonight is but in conjunction with logic magazine a critical journal with our relationship between technology and society. one of the


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