Amazon's inter-city headquarters competition epitomizes our class war moment

American cities rushing to give taxpayer money to Amazon hints at a brave new anti-democratic era

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published January 18, 2018 4:59PM (EST)

Jeff Bezos (AP/Susan Walsh)
Jeff Bezos (AP/Susan Walsh)

North American cities have been tripping over each other to give away tax dollars to Amazon in hopes of attracting the company's second headquarters — and the competition is getting fiercer as the list gets smaller.

On Thursday, the tech conglomerate narrowed down the list of finalists for its second headquarters, which they call "HQ2" — winnowing 238 bids down to some 20 cities that could potentially host the next major Amazon campus. The list of finalists strayed from the West Coast (where Amazon originated), and included many locations in the Midwest and on the East Coast — including the cities of Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, New York and Miami. Yet location may be less important to Amazon than free money, considering the eye-bulging incentives cities have thrown at the fourth-largest company in the United States.

To wit: Chicago offered to redirect 50 to 100 percent of Amazon employees' income taxes back to Amazon — in effect, gifting billions of dollars of workers' tax money to a corporation worth around half a trillion dollars, helmed by the richest man on Earth. Newark, New Jersey is reportedly offering Amazon up to $7 billion in tax breaks. Denver could give Amazon $100 million in incentives from a state fund, according to the Denver Post. Similarly, Philadelphia could give Amazon $1 billion in tax incentives.

It’s worth noting that the only non-U.S. city finalist is Toronto, a city that reportedly isn’t offering outrageous subsidies to seduce Amazon.

As Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minn., pointed out, there’s something very troubling with this situation. As Rep. Ellison wrote on Twitter:

"Tax breaks to Amazon promised by New Jersey: $7 billion. Tax breaks promised by Illinois: $2 billion. Something is deeply wrong with our economy & democracy when local governments offer up their tax base to a corporation worth over $500 billion."

This civic genuflection to our corporate overlords marks the most extreme courting phase American cities have exhibited with a big corporation. Indeed, many democratically-elected civic leaders are laying out the welcome mat for Amazon, while everyday people in said cities seem less enthused by the prospect of prioritizing corporate needs over civic ones. In other words, it feels a lot like class war.

As Donald Jeffries, author of “Survival of the Richest” wrote in Salon, America’s class gap is wider than ever. "...[Things] have reached the point where the richest four hundred people in the country have more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the population combined," Jeffries wrote. "Even more incredibly, on an international scale, the richest 85 individuals in the world now have as much wealth as the poorest half of their fellow human beings around the globe.”

The ubiquity with which American civic leaders fawned over Amazon raises a bigger question: Why are politicians so desperate for us to believe that we can trust big corporations to make everything right again in our neighborhoods? It seems like trickle-down Trumpian logic at its best. The Trump administration made sport of encouraging us to believe that the GOP tax bill, essentially a giant gift to massive corporations and the rich, was a good thing for all of us. And yesterday, Trump's Department of Labor proposed a new “tip stealing” rule that would give more power to business owners and less power to tipped workers. These kinds of policies cede more power and money to big corporations, with no guarantee that working- and middle-class Americans will see any benefits. No signs of democracy here.

Alas, apparently this is our political moment. Amazon says its new headquarters will bring up to 50,000 jobs. But if history has taught us anything, "more jobs" does not equate to a tide that will rise all boats.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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