Why chasing Amazon was never going to pay off

Amazon loves playing hard to get. First, they made cities across the country grovel — and throw tax breaks and other benefits their way — for the opportunity to be the company’s second headquarters. Now, it seems HQ2 may instead be a pair of satellite offices in near-to-DC Virginia and New York City.

The prospect of this decision, first reported by The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and the process they have taken to get there tell us two things: First, Republicans can no longer lay claim to being a pro-business party, successful as they’ve been at making the states they control increasingly undesirable to modern businesses and workers. And second, Amazon — and any big company — isn’t going to save American workers. They’re going take what they can, and many will exploit where they can. Which is exactly why we need robust protections in place now to make sure that formidable companies work for the American public as much as their employees work for them.

Amazon declined to comment to the Wall Street Journal report and didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on The New York Times report. The company has said it will complete its search for an HQ2 by the end of the year. And while a lot remains uncertain, and Amazon may yet come to a different decision, certain aspects of this still-TBD expansion are undeniable.

Amazon has spent all year milling about ostensibly searching for an HQ2, looking at cities including Dallas, Miami, Nashville, Boston, Atlanta and Raleigh. After the company’s boom laid waste to affordable housing in my hometown of Seattle, the company is looking to expand beyond the Pacific Northwest.

Amazon has given generously to local Seattle homeless shelters. However, when the Seattle City Council initially passed a new tax to fund affordable housing and homelessness initiatives, Amazon and other Seattle-based corporations helped fund a campaign for a ballot measure to repeal it. Shortly thereafter, the council voted to reverse its vote on the new tax.

What’s telling, though, is how quickly most of the potential locations in red states fell out of the running. On the one hand, there’s a compelling social and political argument for bringing a young, technologically adept workforce to a red or purple state (or keeps them there), while also expanding opportunities for blue-collar warehouse jobs.

But Republicans in those same states have undercut any pro-business claims based on tax breaks alone, many of which have come at the expense of funding for public education. Modern companies rely on technologically adept workforces, and that requires a firm commitment to public education.

Notably, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, New York and Washington, DC, spend more than average on their education systems; New York’s schools rank in the top 10 best in the country, while DC is quickly rising. States including Texas and North Carolina wind up toward the bottom of the list, despite being hubs of excellent higher education with progressive cities like Austin and Raleigh-Durham.

Those values also matter. The inexplicable hostility among many conservatives toward public transport, for example, means that liberal cities in liberal states had a built-in advantage over conservatives ones in the HQ2 selection process — Amazon, understandably, would look for good infrastructure and public transportation options for its employees.

Companies like Amazon also rely on a diverse workforce, and likely don’t want to be caught in the middle of squabbles over whether transgender people can pee in peace. And no doubt Jeff Bezos was watching when the lieutenant governor of Georgia went after Delta — a company headquartered in his state — and threatened their tax breaks for no longer giving special perks to NRA members.

Does a company looking to attract the young and college-educated (a disproportionately liberal group) want to be in a state that promotes Trumpian values and demands workplaces accede to them?

But, of course, neither does Amazon really want to promote progressive values beyond the superficial ones, and the lesson of the HQ2 scramble is that cities shouldn’t put quite so much hope on Amazon or other large companies as a capitalist saviors.

The company, after all, has engaged in opaque, NDA-required discussions to see what advantages they can sap from the cities courting them, while the company itself promises too little in return. Tens of thousands of jobs are no joke and any state should chase them. But the public transportation required to get workers to those jobs isn’t a joke, either — something Amazon surely looked at when deciding which city to pick, even though they don’t seem to have plans to significantly support it.

After all, public transport is generally paid for partly by tax dollars — of which no one in the HQ2 hunt was asking Amazon to pay its fair share. Amazon is a company, after all, looking to maximize profits. That won’t necessarily benefit a city as a whole. And in a space-constrained, wildly expensive place like New York, Amazon might hurt a lot more than it helps.

The answer, then, is to challenge smooth GOP claims of business-friendliness and Amazon’s own narrative of its progressive values. It’s to make sure that the politicians we elect offer truly progressive and broadly beneficial policies, including those that are good for individuals and businesses — well-funded public education, strong public transport systems — and those that make a society function for everyone, including fair tax rates for the wealthiest, affordable high-quality health care and paid leave.

The Republican Party gave up on helping the vulnerable long ago, and isn’t doing much to aid American businesses in a new tech-driven economy. But don’t look to the companies for help. They won’t save cities — or anyone but their owners.