When we think of Amazon, most of us picture buying something from the internet and going to pick it up a few days later at Post and Print. But Amazon has expanded far beyond the realm of a simple internet retailer. It has become a corporate giant on the level of Facebook, Google, and Apple. It has become so large that its owner, Jeff Bezos, now holds the title of world’s richest person.
Amazon’s ever-expanding influence is clearly seen in the competition between multiple major cities to host what will be known as Amazon’s “HQ2.” These cities have included Brunswick and Scarborough, but they were put out of the running last month. Now Amazon’s short list of 20 cities that it is considering include Boston and my hometown, Pittsburgh.
Each of these cities has had to submit an official bid to Amazon, and it has been known since October that many, if not all, of these bids offer substantial tax breaks to strengthen their bid. As Reuters reported, over 1 billion in tax breaks was offered by the State of California,and over 2 billion in tax breaks was offered by the State of New Jersey in October. And this month, the City of Pittsburgh has been fighting a request from a local news station to make their bid public. We can only surmise what is in Pittsburgh’s bid, but it’s widely suspected that it includes substantial tax breaks that wouldn’t be popular with many working-class residents.
So why are these cities and states offering these massive tax breaks to a retail mammoth owned by the world’s richest person? The explanation we will receive is economic growth, but we have to ask, who benefits from this growth? In spite of what many say, it will not be the everyday people who’ve lived in these cities for years. It will be the cities’ elites and, of course, Amazon itself.
Amazon is not the savior it claims to be. It has promised to bring jobs and growth into the region where its HQ2 will be placed. But why should we believe these claims? Amazon has a history of treating its workers poorly, it has a history of union busting, its workers pass out on occasion because their warehouses are too hot, and it’s actively seeking to eliminate jobs instead of creating them, as evidenced by the new cashier-free convenience store in Seattle. So while it will bring jobs, we have to ask how many of those permanent jobs will longtime city residents have access to, and will they be able to receive a good living from the pay?
Meanwhile, cities will lose out on valuable tax revenue. They have now engaged each other in a fruitless race to the bottom where they will constantly attempt to undermine each other with competing tax breaks. Who loses out when corporations and the rich aren’t taxed? Working people. The tax revenue that could come from something like this could be used to fund critical infrastructure and public services that help people cope with their everyday lives. As cities one-up each other with these tax breaks, less and less money can be dedicated to these essential projects, leaving working people out to dry.
It’s time to stop bending over backwards for billionaires like Bezos. All over the country, struggling, often deindustrialized, cities offer substantial tax breaks to companies in hopes that their economy will be revitalized. But this, too, represents a race to the bottom that we cannot afford. Cities should be putting the needs of their residents first, not the needs of multi-billion dollar corporations like Amazon. Ultimately, we need to look into creating an economy that is managed democratically, so all the wealth that’s created can benefit everyone, not just the billionaires. Cities need to stop competing with each other. Tax break-offs will never bring the change we need.