New York’s progressive politicians have their wish. On Thursday, after rising opposition from the local left, Amazon — founded by Jeffrey P. Bezos, The Post’s owner — announced that it will not be building a second headquarters in their city. Either this was a landmark victory for progressives opposed to financial incentives offered by cities courting large corporations, or a landmark lesson in being careful what you wish for.
Even by New York standards, the political alignment on the project known as HQ2 was peculiar. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who openly detest each other, stood side by side in favor. Opposed were former mayor Michael Bloomberg, a fiscally conservative technocratic centrist, making common cause with far-left Democratic politicians such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
De Blasio’s and Cuomo’s motives were clear: The politicians wanted to spur development outside the overcrowded Manhattan core, to collect the ancillary tax revenue that Amazon’s operations would generate and to be able to tell voters they brought 25,000 high-paying jobs to New York. It was odder to see Bloomberg and Ocasio-Cortez lining up — and they didn’t, really. Bloomberg opposed subsidizing job creation, while Ocasio-Cortez loves government-subsidized employment but doesn’t want it to benefit that most-hated figure, the large and successful corporation.
Bloomberg’s argument has a lot of currency among policy wonks and almost none anywhere else, because few voters want to spend their valuable spare time discussing economic first principles or cost-benefit analyses. Ocasio-Cortez’s argument, by contrast, makes progressives swoon, while wonks scratch their heads. HQ2 was supposed to employ 25,000 people at an average of $150,000 a year, while the incentives Amazon negotiated came to around $3 billion total — in other words, less than one year of the proposed $3.75 billion annual payroll.
Successfully blocking HQ2 was thus far from a clear win for the progressive priorities of the New Yorkers who killed it. More worrying still for progressives should be how it went down: When they turned up the political pressure, Amazon simply withdrew safely beyond their reach rather than reopening negotiations. The political optics are good for the politicians who opposed the deal, only at the cost of diminishing their actual power. After all, the best way to bring corporations to heel is to get them comfortably rooted in your jurisdiction, and then start making demands.
That’s why I think it’s possible that the progressives didn’t quite mean it. Though they’re also probably not terribly dismayed. Progressive politicians get to brag about the HQ2 ouster for years to come. And no matter whether you think the deal would ultimately have been good or bad for New York, the truth is that the city didn’t really need Amazon.
The city already has the biggest and most diverse economy in the country. True, HQ2 might have been a nice push for outer-borough development, but it was never going to fundamentally alter New York’s economic fortunes. Undoubtedly, progressives understood that, though they might have failed to understand that Amazon didn’t really need New York, either. There are plenty of other American cities today that are dense, walkable and safe, with excellent restaurants — and access to top-notch retail over the Internet.
Though Amazon won’t lose much by redirecting expansion elsewhere (including adding personnel to its offices elsewhere in New York), Big Tech should be worried about the company’s experience. Once viewed by the left as the Good Big Business, Big Tech has now been reclassified to the ranks of the rapacious monopolists. Meanwhile, the right is also getting less tech-friendly as it perceives Big Tech taking the other side in the culture wars. At the moment, tech has no obvious political allies.
Allies are going to be essential, because Amazon’s battles with local activists in Seattle and now New York were but the opening skirmishes in what promises to be a long war. Activists are looking to curb tech’s economic power, with whatever political tools they have at their disposal, from the special employment taxes tried in Seattle to lobbying for federal antitrust actions.
Thus the only clear winner this week is the city set to become the primary battleground: Washington, where Amazon is going ahead with plans for its other new East Coast outpost in nearby Crystal City. The best-case scenario is that HQ2VA anchors the area’s growing tech sector, helping the city diversify away from government services and toward a new, more varied economy that could remake Washington in the image of other world cities that are economic as well as political capitals. But even if that doesn’t happen, there will still be that war coming, and old Washington can fall back on its traditional business of selling ammunition to both sides.