Ch. 1: Amazon and Gratitude

Why New York lost Amazon, and how we feel about it

Last year, I went to a publishing event that was sponsored by Amazon Literary Partnership, which gives out around $1M annually to literary organizations. I know this fact because Amazon’s name was all over the signs around the event, and the brilliant head of the organization kicked off the night with such effusive praise of Amazon’s generosity that if I hadn’t known better, I would have been sure that Amazon was the sole savior of writing and publishing.

The worst sort of abuser is one that makes you thank them until you somehow manage to gaslight yourself.

Aligning itself with Cave Canem and Copper Canyon is good business for Amazon. It keeps some of the squeakiest wheels quiet. You look like a real jerk when you’re publicly bad-mouthing someone who has just given you a gift. But what if the giver took the money to pay for that gift out of your wallet, along with everything else they found in there?

Last week, a story ran in the (Bezos-owned) Washington Post, trumpeting “Amazon.com is reconsidering its plan to bring 25,000 jobs to a new campus in New York City.” That’s how the article opened. “Bring 25,000 jobs” is exactly the same kind of savior language that Amazon evoked from their sponsored partner. It sounds like a gift basket. But Amazon is the most hard-nosed and rapacious company in the world today. They need to hire at least 25,000 people somewhere to keep expanding their worldwide dominance and crush all competition until the entire world’s population is buying only from Amazon.

“The resistance in New York contrasts with the warm welcome Amazon has received in Virginia...” The Washington Post story sounded like a press release from Amazon. And though this story seemed like just a pressure tactic from the company, a week later, Amazon pulled out of their plans for a NYC-based headquarters.

“After much thought and deliberation, we’ve decided not to move forward with our plans to build a headquarters for Amazon in Long Island City, Queens. For Amazon, the commitment to build a new headquarters requires positive, collaborative relationships with state and local elected officials who will be supportive over the long-term,” Amazon posted on their blog.

The idea that Amazon seeks positive collaborative relationships is an unbelievable punchline to anyone who knows anything about the company that got its start preying on the book publishing industry, and petulantly threatened to cease expansion in Seattle if the city passed a small headcount tax meant to help address the growing homelessness problem in a city with skyrocketing (Amazon-fueled) gentrification. The entire process of searching for HQ2 was a spectacle where desperate mayors from 238 cities across the country publicly prostrated themselves in front of the tech giant, offering them billions of dollars in incentives, while giving them tons of data, which Amazon will be able to use to inform their continued aggressive expansion. (In a future letter, I’ll talk more about Amazon and its hunger for and stranglehold on data.)

In the wake of Amazon pulling out of LIC, there has been a cacophony of hand-wringing about the loss this represents to New York. “I’m really upset about losing Amazon’s HQ2,” Mike Pesca wrote in Slate. “Let’s focus on the $3 billion in subsidies and $27 billion over 25 years that Amazon would have given the state and city. (New York City’s total budget is $89.15 billion.)”

Like good scientists, let’s make sure we’re comparing apples to apples. $27B over 25 years represents $1.1 billion per year. Even assuming New York’s annual budget of $89.15B remains static over the next two and a half decades, that means Amazon’s presence would represent only 1.23% of the tax revenue of the city. In exchange, we’d be kicking off our “partnership” with Amazon, the richest company in the world, by letting them set the terms of the deal, including running roughshod over the needs of a community that is already there, already suffering from the effects of a serious affordable housing crisis and crumbling public transportation and infrastructure, problems which Amazon’s huge HQ2 presence would definitely exacerbate.

So let’s look again at that $3 billion dollar subsidy that we were offering in exchange for 25K new jobs. That is  a subsidy of $120,000 per job. Um...what? We could literally hire 25,000 employees at a solid living wage for 3 years for that amount of money.

What if we offered $5,000/employee to stores and restaurants in their first 3 years of operations? Maybe we’d have fewer empty storefronts. What if we offered $10K to recent grads who took jobs as teachers, or nurses, or at non-profits that benefit NYC in some way? As we look back at how this process went, perhaps we can examine other ways that the city could use economic incentives to create behavior and activity that is in line with the values we espouse and the way we want to grow.

New York clearly saw what kind of neighbor Amazon would be, and said nah, we don’t want to pay you for that privilege. And for maybe the first time in company history, Bezos made a play where he wasn’t able to use his company’s scale and dirty underhanded tactics to bulldoze his opponents. New York is one of the only places big enough and tough enough to tell Amazon “thanks but no thanks.”