After New York, that brazen tart, deserted poor Amazon at the altar, the brokenhearted Amazon said nobly it was done with love and would never seek a new headquarters again. But we all know how long that sort of thing lasts. The tingle returns.
What we must fear in Dallas, when the tingle does come raging back, is that Amazon, spurned by the big city, will come back here hunting for a sweet country lad or lassie
Before Amazon announced last November which cities it would agree to partially marry, the laddies and lasses who run Dallas from behind closed doors were offering everything from our first-borns to our poor old grannies. Six hundred million bucks in dowry from the city alone was to be evenly matched by the state of Texas.
The Dallas suburbs were offering that kind of money plus a willingness to perform the civic equivalent of unnatural acts, but, frankly, no one wants to do an unnatural at with a suburb anyway. We should hope that was the end of it. Our nightmare would be that it isn’t.
First of all, let’s take all of this pie-in-the-sky crap about 25,000 new jobs and billions in tax base. What’s really interesting is who believes that stuff, when and why. In 2005, one of the nation’s biggest logistics companies (shipping and warehousing) came unbidden to Dallas, bought 5,000 acres on its own dime without asking the public for a nickel and tried to launch a continental shipping hub. The company claimed this new “inland port” would create 65,000 direct and indirect jobs.
The Dallas Morning News and the North Central Texas Council of Governments accused the company of racism and helped put it into bankruptcy. Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, the county’s longest serving African-American officeholder, gave the middle finger to the company’s promise of jobs, saying, “In slavery, everybody had a job.” In other words, screw jobs.
Eventually it emerged in federal court testimony that the company’s true sin was trying to create an enterprise that would have competed with an existing regional business owned by a rich Dallas family. And speaking of rich Dallas families, when we woke up to the fact that we were not chosen by Amazon, one of the scenarios that came much clearer was the real story behind the intense interest and boosterism of The Dallas Morning News' editorial page during the courtship phase.
Lo and behold, subsequent events revealed that the newspaper’s entire strategy for selling its vast disused acreage downtown turned on pitching it to Amazon. When Amazon turned up its nose, the green icing on the paper’s downtown wedding cake sort of melted away like it was left in the rain in MacArthur Park.
The Dallas offer to Amazon was shrouded in secrecy, as if the people who would eventually pay for it, the taxpayers, were the very last who should be told anything about it. Meanwhile, we had all of these hucksters, preachers and carnival barkers telling us how great it was going to be, while they kept their own cards close to their vests and up their sleeves.
None of this is to say that jobs and economic development are not important. Jobs, work, employment, economic hope: all important. But what do we believe about all that? Who do we believe? When and why?
Last week, something called Job Creators Network, financially supported by the ultra-conservative Trump-backing Mercer family, bought a billboard in New York attacking Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The billboard accused Ocasio-Cortez of costing New York the Amazon HQ2 that was proposed for Long Island before Amazon withdrew.
The billboard said: “Amazon Pullout. 25,000 lost New York City jobs. $4 billion in lost wages. $12 billion in lost economic activity for NY. Thanks for Nothing, AOC!” The tone of the billboard was an assumption of the obvious — that everyone who could read would immediately agree with the Mercers that the newly elected Ocasio-Cortez, a vocal, charismatic opponent of the Amazon/Long Island deal, had really screwed up royally this time.
But just as that billboard was going up, Business Insider, an international publication owned by the German publishing house Axel Springer SE, published a poll that seemed to make an emphatic statement of the contrary. Only 4 percent of people polled — 4 percent! — thought deals like Amazon/Long Island were a good public investment. Business Insider conceded that this finding seemed to dramatically contradict its own previous polling, but it gave a plausible explanation. The answers here, it said, have everything to do with how the questions are asked.
If you ask people, “Do you want 25,000 jobs?” the answer is yes. Same thing with four billion dollars. Everyone wants four billion dollars. But, of course, that’s not how anything works in the real world. That stuff doesn’t come from the sky. If you want real answers to real-world questions, you have to include the costs before you ask people to choose. Especially where public money and public policy are concerned, you have to show people the opportunity costs. We get Amazon, what do we give up? What else could we have done with that money?
The new Insider poll took the total tally for the New York offer to Amazon, $3 billion, and offered some choices for what could be done with it: We’re going to give away $3 billion in public dollars. What do you think would be the best bang for the buck? Give it to one great big company to build one great big headquarters? Give it to several midsize companies to open offices? Give it to existing businesses in the city to encourage growth? Or give it to residents to encourage spending?
Forty-five percent of people polled favored giving the money to residents to increase spending. Fine, feel free to snicker. I believe in snickering. Let’s come back to that one in one second.
The next biggest group, more than 20 percent, favored giving the money to existing businesses. The third, 18 percent, favored midsize companies. The Amazon solution, again, came up with an under-whopping 4 percent.
We could go ahead and treat this as that billboard in New York does, as evidence that most people are stupid, feckless, self-seeking and don’t know how the world works. I think that leaves us with the mystery of how America happened, but, fine, I get it.
The thing is this: Look at the overall shape of that poll result. It’s like the pyramid on the dollar bill, only it’s upside-down. The apex, the pointy part with the eyeball where the Mercer family lives, is at the bottom with a 4 percent approval rating. The broad bottom where most people live is at the top with 45 percent.
If you want to take that simply as people being stupid or merely wanting money, I can’t stop you. But I take it as an expression of where people place their trust and faith, and it’s an expression too long dormant in this country. When this country has its head on straight, the people have faith in the people. They’re not going to let the uber-rich shove these take-it-or-leave-it deals in their faces ad nauseam, and that’s not only because the deals are so fundamentally insulting. People are not going to keep accepting them forever because people no longer have faith that these are the deals that will work.
When do they? When have they? If trickle-down take-it-or-leave-it economics is such a brilliant idea, why is half the American middle class either driving Uber at night or doing Oxy? Where’s the trickle?
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In the meantime and on a more positive note, we do have still nascent but already stunning success to look at in our cities, where people are building back their own neighborhoods with their own hands. The dumbest thing about that billboard was the implicit suggestion that the skepticism about Amazon/Long Island was something Ocasio-Cortez had cooked up on her own. That’s giving her way too much credit. The opposition in New York welled up out of neighborhoods where people were looking at infrastructure, at schools, taxes and rents and saying, “Hey, look, this whole Amazon thing is half-baked. While the people behind it have been busy sending photographs of their penises to each other, they have neglected to analyze how the actual event would really work out in real life.”
(By the way, I should make clear that I do not mean to imply here that members of the Mercer family have been sending people snapshots of their penises. While penis photos do seem to be emblematic of the nation’s wealthy corporate leadership today, there is no evidence to suggest that the Mercers themselves have been in on it.)
This entire narrative is poignantly expressed by the politics of our own city. Here, the real success, the deep-rooted social and economic vitality is found in the neighborhoods where people have forged their own destiny a brick and a board at a time, often not merely without help from City Hall but in the face of active, aggressive opposition from City Hall.
On the other side of the tracks, we have the kind of hollow, throwaway development that pours public money into the pockets of a few well-wired insiders while it drives people out of close-knit communities and leaves basic infrastructure to rot, crumble or explode. That’s the side of the tracks that would sell us all down the river to Amazon in a New York minute. And by the way, that’s the real issue in our upcoming mayoral election, not nit-picky campaign finance gotchas. The real issue is this: They don’t get it. We do.