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[Commentary]

Certain Certainties

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What Amazon HQ2 means for New York City

The announcement that Amazon is moving one of its two new headquarters to New York brought the state’s two leading politicians, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, together in perfect harmony yesterday. For nearly five years, New Yorkers have had to watch these dueling mediocrities feud over any number of petty disputes, while the infrastructure of the state and the city slowly crumbled away. But here they were, on the same stage at last, blushing like schoolboys, grinning and chuckling and shaking hands as they gave us the good news. 

There’s nothing like a massive corporate giveaway to bring runaway egos back together. For the low, low price of just $1.2 billion in tax subsidies and another half a billion in public improvements, Amazon has agreed to place one of its two new corporate headquarters in Long Island City, in the borough of Queens. This, in a city and state where Governor Cuomo cannot get the subway or commuter trains to run on time. Where he has largely shrugged at the looming disaster awaiting New York and the entire Eastern seaboard should one of the Hudson River tunnels, badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy, have to shut down (“It’s not my tunnel,” he has said). Where little to nothing has been done to address the rising sea levels that climate change is certain to bring, where the public schools still struggle for resources. Where the massive amount of sewage created by all the new high-rises in Amazon’s new home of Long Island City cannot now be adequately dealt with, local residents being advised not to flush their toilets when it rains.

What Amazon promises in return—sort of—is to bring 25,000 new jobs, averaging $150,000 in salary—to Queens. The corporate behemoth further pledged, according to the New York Times, to “donate space on its [new] campus for a tech start-up incubator, artists, industrial businesses and a new school.  It also said it would make investments in infrastructure and green space” and fork over “$5 million for training and internship programs and a promise to participate in ‘job fairs and resume workshops’ ” at a local housing development.

All of these “improvements” are, of course, the sorts of things that government used to do routinely. And certainly the $1.7 billion New York is forking over could create a hell of a lot of jobs fairs and pocket parks.

 Amazon baited this particular scam perfectly, getting city after city to bid against one another for its new executive campuses in the East. And like a couple of out-of-town rubes buying the Brooklyn Bridge, de Blasio and Cuomo fell for it hook, line, and sinker. 

In the quasi-republic we now live in, the deal New York cut was done as undemocratically as possible. Amazon will get to skip the land-use review process designed to study the environmental and societal impacts of any massive new business. The neighbors will not be consulted at all—“there could be local input but no local veto,” as the Times put it—and Amazon’s subsidies will not even be subjected to a vote by the state legislature or the city council. The trillion-dollar company, Mayor de Blasio assured us, “needed a certain amount of certainty.” (Amazon founder and czar Jeff Bezos, we are told, is also getting a helipad, because New York is not now noisy enough.)

For all the endless palaver about New York “investing in the tech center,” what our governor and mayor are really bringing to town is the world’s largest ever sweatshop. For most of its employees, Amazon is a throwback to the Dickensian workplace; it is notorious as the company that would rather line up (publicly funded) EMT crews outside its vast warehouses than provide its workers with sufficient air and water. (For a full account of just how grotesque Mr. Bezos and his company really are, read—here in the pages of Harper’s and in her stunning, brilliant book, NomadlandJessica Bruder’s firsthand accounts of how Amazon deliberately targets and exploits senior citizens as temporary workers because they are less likely to complain about the backbreaking work pace. If they do, they are immediately fired without so much as a word.) For all that Cuomo and de Blasio act as though the future will be reinvented here, the only future tech Amazon is really interested in is replacing these underpaid and mistreated workers with robots and drones. If this is the future, we are all in a heap of trouble.

Of course, nothing so jejune as a warehouse is coming to New York with Amazon. These will be just the corporate suites, thank you. The other day on WNYC, New York’s own public radio station, some sunny snake-oil salesman from Crain’s Business was trying to make out that these $150,000 positions would be open to everyone. For instance, all New York women now making $18,000 a year had to do, he assured us, was avail themselves of a small retraining program and voila! in maybe a year they would be executive material at Amazon.

This is the sheerest hooey. Amazon’s promised 25,000 workers, who may or may not ever appear, will most likely be drawn from the existing corporate ranks the world over. Far from upgrading the jobs of struggling New Yorkers, they will serve as one more wedge to push them out of this ridiculously overpriced and underserved city.

The unkindest cut of all is that this fraud is being perpetrated by two leaders who never miss a chance to show off the progressive credentials they wear on their sleeves. “We’re both pragmatists,” claimed de Blasio at their joint news conference—“pragmatist” apparently now being a synonym for greed.

De Blasio as a mayoral candidate deplored the vast wealth divide in New York as a “tale of two cities,” but now he seems to have signed over his whole administration to the machinations of Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, a Goldman Sachs recruit who never met a corporate subsidy she didn’t like. But then, Big Bill was long ago revealed as a political featherweight, with no future in the business after his term expires at the end of 2021.

Governor Cuomo is a more curious case, his face, it seems, always turned firmly toward the past. New York is now a fabulously wealthy city, but he still relentlessly seeks out corporate giveaways such as this one. The city entertains nearly 65 million tourists a year, but Cuomo has pushed repeatedly for building it new convention centers, and he has forged ahead with plans for a new, subsidized casino upstate, even as the gambling industry continues to collapse like so many dominoes all over the country. Other projects, such as his “Buffalo Billions” program for reviving that city, have long been besieged by rumors of massive corruption. It is as if, for Cuomo, it is always the 1970s, and New York must beg and bribe everybody to come live and work here. 

The greater tragedy of what our leaders are doing is that New York now has the wherewithal to build a city that will readily attract worthwhile people and businesses of all sorts. Fix the subways, fix the sewers, fix the tunnels, fill the schools with more teachers, support a living wage, pay attention to small businesses, tax our international corporations, and New York will be a place that the Amazons of the world will pay us to move to. This used to be the liberal idea—“If you build it, they will come”—but our born-again, “progressive pragmatists” are apparently too scared to try it.

So who does want Amazon? Well, a Times reporter found just the man, one Richie Wissak, who owns a cab company in Long Island City and is hoping that the company will replace a local strip club that tragically  closed down six months ago. “The community’s not going to dig it too much, but I think it’s going to be great for this area,” Mr. Wissak informed us. With any luck, Wissak’s cabs will be carting home a much higher class of inebriates. Maybe that should become our new municipal slogan.

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