The bidding war Amazon incited over its second headquarters did not go as planned.
Instead of culminating in a celebration of the internet retail giant’s corporate citizenship, the yearlong search for HQ2, as it became known, turned into a PR disaster. First, activists and local politicians in New York City raised enough ire about their state’s $3 billion deal for a half-share of HQ2 that Amazon ultimately backed out.
Now activists in Northern Virginia, where Amazon decided to put the other half of its new headquarters, are also hoping to derail the company’s best-laid plans, or at the very least bring some much-needed attention to exactly what is being given away – all three quarters of a billion dollars of it – to a mammoth company in the name of economic development.
“We’ve been door-knocking mostly in neighborhoods that are low-income neighborhoods, or immigrant as well,” said Danny Cendejas, an organizer with La Collectiva, which is part of a coalition called “For Us, Not Amazon” that is critical of Virginia’s deal with the company. “It ranges from people not knowing Amazon is coming here to not knowing about the incentives that are being offered, to not knowing the effects of Amazon coming here.”
A consistent critique of the Amazon deal, in fact, is that the company hasn’t engaged with the community. “There was not a lot of information being given out, was the sense that we got,” agreed Maha Hilal, co-director of the Justice for Muslims Collective, which is also part of the “For Us, Not Amazon” coalition. But of the people who were aware Amazon was coming, Hilal said, there were some major concerns.
“There is the issue of incentives. With the city granting Amazon incentives, [the residents] are basically paying their taxes to Amazon,” she said. “And the fear of displacement was a big concern. Even though it’s Crystal City where they’re slated to come, it’s going to impact many communities.”
On Saturday, Arlington County’s board will vote on a $23 million package of local tax incentives for Amazon, which would be in addition to the up to $750 million it will receive in incentives from Virginia at the state level. That’s on top of a favorable tax deal already offered to tech companies that relocate to Arlington’s “Technology Opportunity Zone.” Crucially, the proposed deal with Arlington did not include any pledge by the company to pay living wages or put money into affordable housing funds. Instead, Amazon simply has to meet office space occupancy goals.
Meanwhile, a recent study by the New Virginia Majority found that the new Amazon facility in Virginia will displace some 6,000 people, mostly from working-class families, as well as drive up housing costs and exacerbate existing traffic congestion woes.
“This issue with Amazon HQ2 coming here, it will disproportionately affect middle- and low-income people in many ways, in the short and long term. That’s just a fact,” said Julius Spain, president of the Arlington branch of the NAACP. “We have to be cognizant of the low-income communities who may be driven out. They can’t afford to live in a quote ‘revitalized neighborhood.’” The For Us, Not Amazon coalition has asked the Arlington board to formally delay its vote, but as of this writing, that seems unlikely.
So why does this happen? How does one of the richest companies on Earth talk a state and county into giving it hundreds of millions of dollars? Because it can, and politicians pay.
This is how big corporations operate in modern-day America: They pit cities and states against one another in a battle to see who can dish out the most tax breaks, incentives, land grants, and other giveaways to an already-mammoth money-making organization. Companies hold their workforces for ransom and threaten to effectively kill them off by moving somewhere else, and lawmakers cave and pay up. And almost no one follows up in subsequent years to see if anyone’s promises have been kept, perpetuating the cycle.
Estimates for how much state and local governments spend annually on corporate tax incentives vary, but everyone agrees it’s in the tens of billions of dollars annually. And that’s likely an undercount, because navigating subsidies requires keeping tabs on thousands upon thousands of government agencies, offices, and officials, many of whom don’t do an adequate job of tracking what they’re handing out, or intentionally hide their subsidies entirely. A 2017 survey found half of the nation’s 50 biggest cities and counties didn’t even disclose the names of incentive recipients.
Plenty of research has been done on the efficacy of corporate tax incentives, and the consensus is that they don’t have real economic effects. As the researcher Timothy Bartik put it in a 2017 analysis: “Incentives do not have a large correlation with a state’s current or past unemployment or income levels or with future economic growth.”
There are many reasons the effect is so minimal, but one of the big ones is that tax incentives wind up “incentivizing” moves that companies would have made even if they hadn’t received a dime, with companies creating or destroying jobs based on the same considerations that fostered the move, not any particular tax break.
Take the case of Toyota. The car-maker received $40 million from the Lone Star State to consolidate three offices from around the country into one headquarters in the Dallas suburbs in 2013. It was the largest corporate tax break Texas had dealt out in a decade. And Toyota said afterward that the move would have made sense for the company even if those public dollars weren’t on the table.
“That wasn’t one of the major reasons [in] deciding to go to Texas,” Toyota spokesperson Amanda Rice told the Houston Chronicle in the spring of 2014, referring to the subsidies. Instead, “company representatives referenced a host of other factors, including geography, time zone and quality of life.” Yet the company received a $40 million windfall anyway.
This exact critique applies to Amazon and HQ2. After receiving data from hundreds of cities, and spending months picking over the particulars of 20 “finalists,” the company wound up choosing the nation’s capital and the world capital of finance. There are good reasons for it to have an expanded presence in both places that have nothing to do with tax rates. It’s possible it even had them in mind from the very beginning.
Given the evidence, why do corporate tax incentives continue to be a plague on state and local budgets?
Because, for a lawmaker, the appearance of doing something to bring in jobs makes for good headlines, and the cost can always be punted to the next person.
“Politicians really do need to get re-elected, so there really is a political value to issuing press releases and cutting ribbons and passing along the cost to your next three successors,” said Greg LeRoy, director of Good Jobs First, an organization that tracks corporate tax subsidies.
There’s also a collective action problem when it comes to specific subsidies: The company in pursuit of them has every interest in doing whatever it takes to secure its bounty, while opponents have diffuse interests, and may not be particularly harmed by any one deal in a way that necessitates mass resistance. Since the subsidies are bad for the public at large in the aggregate, but beneficial for one interest group in the specifically, organizing to fight back is made difficult.
Political scientist Nathan Jensen, currently at the University of Texas–Austin, has looked specifically at corporate tax incentives and found that their use has an explicit political benefit. “A governor reaps more reward for new investment in his or her state if his or her administration offered tax incentives,” he and three colleagues wrote in a 2013 study that looked at governors and whether their support was bolstered by the use of tax incentives to bring in new businesses. “In fact, a governor will be rewarded for offering tax incentives even if it does not succeed in luring the intended investment.”
And this is true not only at the state level. “In a study of local governments, we learned more about official use of business incentives for electoral gain. We found that directly elected mayors, as opposed to appointed city managers, offered larger incentives and engaged in much weaker oversight of business incentive programs. Elected mayors offered more money and conducted fewer and less rigorous cost-benefit analyses to investigate whether the incentives were economically useful,” Jensen wrote in 2016. Electoral accountability really wasn’t anything of the sort.
Another factor playing into the politics of incentives is that Americans are starting fewer businesses than they used to. In the 2010s, new business start-ups activity hit rock bottom as the country emerged from the Great Recession, but that was only the culmination of a trend that has been occurring since the 1970s. There are a lot of theories as to why this decline in America’s entrepreneurial spirit has occurred, including that it’s a result of the decrease in robust anti-trust enforcement, but it’s a certainty that it’s happening. And fewer new businesses means fewer ribbon-cutting opportunities for lawmakers, so they’re all fighting viciously over what’s left.
That effect is apparent even now, as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, along with other New York lawmakers, are still trying to cajole Amazon into re-reversing its HQ2 decision. But for now, New York stands out as a rare victory for activists against the corporate greed machine.
“That was a victory for all communities of color, for all immigrant communities and low-income communities that are fighting daily against the threat of displacement,” said Cendejas. “Deals for economic growth shouldn’t be done on the backs of low-income communities and communities of color.”
“I’m happy that something happened up there in New York, where the people spoke and Amazon listened and they left,” Spain said. “That gave me some motivation to say, ‘listen, the same thing can happen in Arlington.’ Anything’s possible.”
This piece was adapted from “The Billionaire Boondoggle: How Politicians Let Corporations and Bigwigs Steal Our Money and Jobs” by Pat Garofalo, out now from Thomas Dunne Books.