The Gist

I’m Really Upset About Losing Amazon’s HQ2

New Yorkers thought they’d actually give money to Amazon. Both politicians and the press failed to give them the facts.

Amazon logo upside down to make a frown over an image of Long Island City
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

The following essay is adapted from an episode of The Gist, a daily podcast from Slate about news, culture, and whatever else you’re discussing with your family and friends.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio had called Amazon’s decision to move to Queens the single biggest economic development deal in New York City history. And that means he just lost the single biggest economic development deal in New York City history.

Amazon was supposed to get $3 billion in subsidies. In exchange, New York state was to get $27 billion flowing into its coffers. Any business in the world would have gotten most of those subsidies by law. Not just the massive, wealthy ones.

Maybe the narrative around Jeff Bezos and his helicopter bothered you, but let’s not focus on emotion. Let’s focus on the $3 billion in subsidies and $27 billion over 25 years that Amazon would have given the state and city. (New York City’s total budget is $89.15 billion.) Both of those numbers might be inflated by activists on each side, but they don’t seem so far out as to be called bullshit upon (a service I provide).

We could offer poor, down-on-their-luck business owners some subsidies when they bring 25,000 jobs into New York City, but I don’t think those are the types who have 25,000 jobs to create. It’s almost as if the more great-paying jobs a company has to offer, the more likely it is that its CEO is very well-compensated. There are exceptions, but this is the rule, and it shouldn’t have upset New Yorkers to the point of saying “no” to billions of dollars in investment.

Amazon didn’t need the subsidies. It just wants them. But isn’t this just an example of the rich getting richer? It is, by $3 billion. But you know who else would have gotten richer? Every New Yorker, by $27 billion. Of course, there are only 20 million New Yorkers, so it really comes out to only around $1,350. If I offered you $1,350, but it meant that a very, very wealthy man who doesn’t need the money would also get rich, would you take that? I’m sure within Amazon they tell employees, “Guys, we had a great quarter, and you’re all going to get a raise,” and some socially conscious employees say, “Wait a minute, if we had a great quarter, and I’m getting a raise, does Jeff Bezos also benefit?” Indeed, he does. “Then I reject my raise.” Yeah, right.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo stuck by the deal, though he mostly was worried that this or that agency could kill it. But he thought he could work the angles in Albany, shepherd the deal through, and let the naysayers be damned. Whereas Amazon wound up saying, “Damn those naysayers, because every other city in America really likes us.”

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De Blasio was far much less full-throated in his defense of Amazon. On MSNBC days after the announcement, he said: “A smart government says, ‘We’re here to bargain for the people. We need to get a lot back for the people.’ There’s no question in my mind that that’s what we’re going to achieve here.” In recent days, he seemed much less cheerleader and more defense coordinator. He continuously made the point that he didn’t have any control over most of these subsidies. It’s a fair point, but it’s not trying to get the public to rally around the deal. It’s almost as if he wanted to still maintain his credibility with the progressives, as opposed to do everything he could to help the city.

I’m really upset. And I’m upset not because I was on the losing side of what I think is a fair debate. I really believed this would be good for the people of New York. It would be a strain on the specific neighborhood, Long Island City, that Amazon was going to go into. But I know that what defeated this deal was mostly asinine misperceptions and ignorance. I would have loved to sit down with de Blasio and Cuomo and give them a little communications advice.

We have a PR problem here. All we need to do is educate people about a fact: Most New Yorkers think their taxes actually go to Amazon: that when they write a check at the end of the year to New York City, or New York state, or when they get some of their paycheck money withheld, some portion of that would go to Amazon and Jeff Bezos’ helicopter. We know that’s not true.

Maybe we make fun of Bezos and his helicopter, vilify him a little bit. Maybe we say: Your taxes are not going to woo Amazon. That’s not how it works. What we did is we gave Amazon a coupon or did what a bar does for happy hour.

You could be a little humble. You could say, “I hear the community, and we’re going to look into this in the future, and maybe we’re going to not be as generous with the size of this coupon. We gave them a 10 percent off coupon. Maybe we should have given 5 percent. Let’s talk about it.” I know everyone who owns a stop-and-shop supermarket says, “Why should I give any discount? I got a great supermarket here.” Because if you don’t do a discount, you might get no money. And we didn’t want to risk it.

Here’s how the math works: We get 25,000 employees. They’re making an average of $150,000 each. That’s $400 million. There’ll probably be more employees than that, and they’re probably going to get paid more than that. It’s a great deal. You’re getting richer, too. Is Amazon getting richer? Yeah. That’s fine. You’re getting richer.

People love when you do this part, and you should mean it: That Long Island City subway station is going to be really crowded. If you rent in Long Island City, your rent is probably going to go up. Say “Long Island City” over and over. Make it salient that this is a tension between Long Island City and everyone else. It’s a little selfish on people’s part, but it’s a rational selfishness. They might start to think, “It is sad that Long Island City gets screwed, but I want that money for me, the New Yorker who doesn’t live in Long Island City.”

Let’s say Madison Square Garden announced a plan to add 59 seats. Would you say, “We can’t do it”? Fifty-nine seats, compared to the capacity of Madison Square Garden, is proportionally the same as 25,000 jobs in a city of 8.6 million people. Let’s say we’re adding 36 more taxis. Are you really going to worry about “What are we going to do with all the extra taxis?” But 36 more taxis, out of the 13,000 taxis, is the same as an increase of 25,000 to a city of 8.6 million people.

The most important number is $27 billion. It’s more than a billion dollars a year for 25 years. Don’t you want those billions? We’re going to help Long Island City. If you’re against this Amazon deal, you’re against the billion dollars a year for the rest of us. This is the rest of us versus the activists and, perhaps, one very vocal member of Congress who’s from the neighboring district of Long Island City.

If you were wondering, this site was not even in Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s district. It was in Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s district. Maloney has been in office for 26 years. She was steamrolled by the more impassioned Ocasio-Cortez, who has been in office for 43 days. My message to Maloney, who is pro-Amazon but didn’t do anything about it, is about a communications overhaul. I would tell her: Get a new communications director or, better yet, a whole new media staff. Or, you know what, just quit Congress. Because if you’re going to get dunked on like this, it will be an embarrassment to you personally and a disservice to the people of New York who just lost out on—one more time for the people in the back—a billion dollars a year.