In the end, Amazon did what Amazon was always going to do.
The Bachelorette-style “competition” that saw 238 cities across the country prostrate themselves before—and turn over lots of valuable information about their regions to—corporate demigod Jeff Bezos, in hopes of winning the beautiful rose of HQ2? It didn’t matter.
What mattered was that Amazon got the publicity it wanted, with eager municipalities and giddy elected officials fawning over the company for months on end, like a pimple-faced schoolboy desperate to catch the prom queen’s eye. Raleigh put ads on Seattle buses, and North Carolina spent at least $92,000 on an ad campaign—T-shirts! Social media!—designed to convince Amazon to cast a flirtatious glance in our direction. Other cities went further—Chicago (which was offering $2 billion) paid William Shatner to narrate its proposal video, as Bezos is a Trekkie. A small Georgia city offered to name itself “Amazon” if it won HQ2. Everyone, even in the most progressive bastions, seemed to forget the horror stories that have emerged from Amazon’s warehouses or its rapacious efforts at union-busting.
Amazon, after all, was offering fifty-thousand high-paying jobs—not warehouse jobs, which would be someone else’s problem, but white-collar ones—and $5 billion in total investment. It would have been, especially for midsize cities like Raleigh, a game changer. Alas, Amazon’s supposed interest was likely all for show.
Because what mattered more than Amazon’s publicity coup is that, after having 238 cities bid on the project, and then by dangling the twenty “finalists,” including Raleigh, on the line for a year, Amazon extracted the massive incentives it wanted from New York and Arlington, Virginia—places where it already has a base of employees—which split the “honor” of being Amazon’s choice.
All it cost them was $2 billion—$1.5 billion from New York, $573 million from Virginia. (Nashville, which pledged $15 million in cash, got the consolation prize of a smaller Amazon office.)
The Triangle was never really in the running. In fact, those behind our region’s bid hadn’t heard from Amazon since June, a few months after they wined and dined company officials at the Executive Mansion and Ashley Christensen’s Death & Taxes.
With Amazon’s choice made, we’re just now learning the incentives—previously shielded from public view—that were on offer here: On Thursday, Wake County released documents showing that it and the city of Raleigh had promised Amazon up to $277 million, which two county commissioners told the INDY aligned with the county’s usual incentive-package structure and would have applied to any company planning a project like that. (Durham officials initially contemplated incentives of up to $50 million. But according to an email Mayor Steve Schewel sent to the Durham Herald-Sun Friday morning—in response to the last paragraph of this story—Durham never advanced or seriously considered an incentive offer, even though it was included as part of the regional pitch. “Business leaders involved in the regional Amazon bid may have calculated that Durham would put up incentive money for Amazon. But to my knowledge the City staff or council was never approached for any incentive,” Schewel wrote.)
Wake’s contribution would have only been part a small part of it: While no hard numbers have been released about the state’s contribution, the 2017 budget allowed for “transformative projects” that invest $4 billion in the state to be reimbursed 100 percent of their corporate tax bill for a quarter century; the legislation also removed the $35 million incentive cap for such projects. What’s more, the One North Carolina Fund could give the company $5,000 a year for five years for each new employee. At fifty thousand employees, that’s as much as $250 million a year—and $1.25 billion over five years.
As Jon Sanders of the conservative John Locke Foundation told me earlier this year, add to all that the state’s help with infrastructure, and we’d be looking at billions of dollars in what he termed “crony capitalism.”
He’s not alone in thinking that way. While Virginia officials rejoiced at the news, it hasn’t gone over as well in New York, which plans to locate its share of HQ2 in Queens. Soon after the terms of New York’s deal with Amazon were made public, U.S. Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic Socialist who will represent parts of Queens, tweeted: “Amazon is a billion-dollar company. The idea that it will receive hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks at a time when our subway is crumbling and our communities need MORE investment, not less, is extremely concerning to residents here.”
We’ve been getting calls and outreach from Queens residents all day about this.
The community’s response? Outrage. https://t.co/Jl4OIfa4gC
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Ocasio2018) November 13, 2018
In a case of politics making strange bedfellows, Ocasio-Cortez’s stance won (sometimes backhanded) plaudits from Fox News’s Tucker Carlson and the conservative National Review.
Other New York Democrats piled on, questioning the effect Amazon would have on housing prices, wondering whether HQ2 would force out working-class residents, and challenging the notion that this corporate giveaway was the best way for the city and state to allocate their resources. (Indeed, the project will reportedly disrupt two planned sites that would have added fifteen hundred much-needed affordable housing units to Queens’ stock.) Some Democratic legislators have vowed to fight the incentives, with one sponsoring a bill to redirect the money New York plans to give Amazon to canceling student debt.
It’s unclear whether they have any hope of succeeding, considering that New York’s two most powerful Democrats—Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio—are fully behind the project, apparently believing, as Amazon spokesman Jay Carney, a press secretary for former President Obama, told CNBC this week, that “these performance-based incentives will absolutely pay for themselves and then some for each community.”
Economists and policy experts aren’t so sure.
In February, more than a hundred of them, led by urbanist Richard Florida, signed a Change.org petition pleading with Amazon finalists to enter something of a nonaggression pact: “Tax giveaways and business location incentives offered by local governments are often wasteful and counterproductive, according to a broad body of research,” they wrote. “Such incentives do not alter business location decisions as much as is often claimed, and are less important than more fundamental location factors. Worse, they divert funds that could be put to better use underwriting public services such as schools, housing programs, job training, and transportation, which are more effective ways to spur economic development.”
Their advice was ignored.
Even combined with whatever the state put up, Wake County’s offer wasn’t the largest bid. Newark, for example, offered an insane $7 billion. But it was nonetheless substantial, totaling more than half the amount it gives to public schools each year.
To a company like Amazon, currently valued at nearly $800 billion and likely to be worth $1.6 trillion within a decade, however, $277 million is small beer. So, too, is New York and Virginia’s $2 billion. Amazon didn’t base its decision on financial incentives; instead, it located HQ2 in the cities that already have the highest concentrations of Amazon workers outside of Seattle—and where Bezos already has houses. This so-called competition was little more than a ruse to get the cities that were already going to “win” to cough up some dough, and get the cities that weren’t to cough up information about economic development plans and infrastructure that Amazon can now use in its business planning.
We got played, y’all. And it was probably for the best.
Few regions in America could absorb its impacts like New York and Washington, D.C., both of which are already thriving, expensive, and congested. In Raleigh, Amazon would have brought enormous consequences along with the boost in economic development: As happened in Amazon’s hometown of Seattle, housing prices (and property taxes) would have shot through the roof, economic inequality would have skyrocketed, and I-40 would be the stuff of nightmares—especially considering that Wake County is still playing catch-up on mass transit. As one Seattle Times columnist, speaking from experience, warned last year, HQ2 would set off a “prosperity bomb.”
Perhaps it would have been worth it. Perhaps not. But to find out, we would’ve had to give the world’s richest man a few billion dollars, after he pitted us against other cities that were vying to give him a few billion dollars to ensure that he had wrung every last dollar from gullible politicians and their taxpayers while sitting on a net worth north of $130 billion (with a b).
That’s more than just a morally indefensible version of capitalism. (My mother never considered “but everyone’s doing it!” a valid moral argument, and neither should policymakers.) That’s a sucker’s game, and we never should’ve played.