Amazon’s decision to plop half of its second headquarters in Crystal City in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars in government gifts and subsidies has swept away the last defense of the old free-market crowd. Corporate welfare won.
It won because to deny the potential economic payoff of even half of Amazon’s second headquarters would appear churlish.
Yes, there are costs, both the seen, which run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, and the unseen, which could total far more.
But Virginia Economic Development Partnership President Stephen Morel assured our elected officials that there are no actual costs. He said the Amazon pact will generate “positive revenue from day one.”
And who are we to gainsay anything the Virginia Economic Development Partnership might assert before a panel of elected officials? Del. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) assures us the deep and disturbing problems at the Virginia Economic Development Partnership unearthed in a scathing JLARC report have been fixed. Nothing to see here now – just think of the revenue!
And how could I argue with Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who in his calm, doctorly way, said the bulk of the money Virginia taxpayers are putting toward the deal “consists of investments in our education and transportation infrastructure.”
We all want functioning, flexible, accountable and affordable education and transportation systems. If Amazon is a catalyst for that, so much the better, right? [Jeffrey P. Bezos, Amazon’s founder and chief executive, owns The Washington Post.]
Well, sure. We just have to forget how Virginia will spend the next couple of decades bending its education system to the manpower needs of a single industry, if not a single company. Think of all those high-paying jobs!
And the transportation improvements? A few new Metro entrances and a pedestrian bridge or two will make Crystal City a new Rome.
And how are we free-marketers, wedded to our tired parables about “broken windows” to argue with the iron-clad logic of Republican legislators such as Sen. Frank M. Ruff Jr. (R-Mecklenburg), who asserts without a hint of irony that the Amazon deal will benefit the entire commonwealth?
I’m positive the small-business owners in Ruff’s district are pleased to know their tax dollars – which might have gone to pay for roads and schools in their own communities — will instead be used to bolster Amazon’s corporate needs.
Yes, against all of these assurances, assertions and promises, the tired free-marketeers must surrender.
We will say goodbye, then, to the idea that governments should not be in the business of picking corporate winners and losers.
With some regret, we will part with the notion that governments cannot give anyone (or any company) a single dollar without first extracting that dollar from someone else. Or, in Amazon’s case, hundreds of millions of dollars extracted, bundled and presented with winning smiles and glowing press releases.
We will also promise we will no longer point out the yawning difference between being pro-business and pro-market.
And as much as it hurts, we will deny, as often as the commonwealth and Amazon demand it, the wisdom of Milton Friedman:
The two chief enemies of the free society or free enterprise are intellectuals on the one hand and businessmen on the other, for opposite reasons….
[E]very businessman is in favor of freedom for everybody else, but when it comes to himself that’s a different question. He’s always the special case. He ought to get special privileges from the government, a tariff, this, that, and the other thing….
Sorry, Uncle Milton. We fought the rearguard action against successive Virginia governors and their economic development staffers as long as we could.
But we take some comfort in the possibility that our new status as members of the useless class might someday entitle us to a small stipend from our technological betters.
Though none should dare call it welfare.