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High Stakes Petulance

February 20, 2019 (914 words)

Amazon is no longer going to locate a new $2.5 billion HQ facility in Long Island City, Queens (NYC). The prickly press release was made public last Thursday morning – Valentine’s Day.

The bad news landed with a thud on the desk of Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who in a rare display of unity from two politicos usually at odds with each other, had both lobbied hard to lure this windfall investment into their jurisdiction.

In the wake of the abrupt reversal, fingers were immediately pointed at detractors like newly-elected U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-styled democratic-socialist, who complained loudly about the purported $2.8 billion in tax breaks and other subsidies being offered to the tech giant, after the deal was first announced to great fanfare in November.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez took noticeable pride in the pull-out, tweeting “Today was the day a group of dedicated, everyday New Yorkers and their neighbors defeated Amazon’s corporate greed, its worker exploitation, and the power of the richest man in the world,” referring to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

But her subsequent comments about spending all that money “ourselves… to hire out more teachers… fix our subways… we can put a lot of people to work for that money…” seemed like naïveté in the extreme, since New York doesn’t currently have that $2.8 billion in its coffers to allocate.

Governor Cuomo blasted “a small group of politicians (who) put their own political interests above their community.” He saw the Amazon HQ initiative as a classic win-win. In his opinion the project would have helped diversify the city’s economy, cement its status as an emerging tech hub, and generate money for schools, housing and transit.

…taking their ball and going home

Mayor de Blasio, on the other hand, had a different reaction. He said Amazon “just took their ball and went home,” instead of working through issues and addressing concerns raised by local politicians and members of the immediate community. He may have a point.

As a juggernaut of economic activity Amazon is used to getting its way, and being welcomed with open arms wherever it decides to land. It has never had to worry much about “community relations” when formulating plans for the next expansion. Even in its home base of Seattle, Amazon has reportedly never given much thought to the surrounding infrastructure, seeing its social responsibility as being limited to “creating good paying jobs.”

Long Island City in Queens proved to be a different story. A segment of the population – including certain state and local politicians – questioned the extravagant tax incentives being offered, worried about the rising cost of living in gentrifying neighborhoods, the potential overburdening of schools and public transportation, and yes, also called into question business practices widely viewed as holding down wages.

All of which apparently caught the brain trust at Amazon off guard. “A number of state and local politicians have made it clear they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward,” Amazon said by way of explaining its pivot.

But Amazon’s decision to back away from Long Island City should not be seen, as Representative Ocasio-Cortez initially framed it, as some sort of moral victory for those who believe big business enjoys far too much political influence.

…how to change the status-quo?

This one, not-so-minor skirmish does nothing to alter the unjust dynamic playing itself out across the country. The question should be: what can we do to improve upon the one-sided status-quo? Mr. de Blasio had it exactly right when he said this deal – had Amazon lived up to its commitment and seen it through – was an opportunity to develop a more equitable balance on economic issues.

So it would have been far better to keep Amazon at the bargaining table, trying to convince them to agree to certain concessions. How to accomplish that feat is the trick. Appear too brash, and they exit stage left in a huff, as obviously happened in this instance. Present as too deferential, and your concerns are brushed aside with little more than lip service while effectively getting steamrolled.

For those who think young Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is too noisy and confrontational, consider that nuance doesn’t get anybody’s attention these days, least of all a tech giant like Amazon’s.

If Ms. Ocasio-Cortez were my daughter, I would make sure she knew how much I admire her fiery enthusiasm, and her ability to articulate a position with clarity and precision. As bright as she is, though, she is still only 29 years old. No doubt her understanding and working knowledge of how to win friends and influence people will continue to develop, as the years roll by.

In the end, there is no denying companies like Amazon hold all the cards, and have all the leverage. He who has the gold, makes the rules. At some point Amazon and its ilk will have to decide for themselves that business has a social responsibility that extends beyond just being profitable, contrary to what Milton Friedman announced to the world back in 1962.

Our only hope is that successful juggernauts of economic activity will want/> to start considering their impact on the surrounding community, and will come to see their corporate mission as extending to a concern for the general welfare of society.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
February 20, 2019

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