WARTEL: Amazon is bad for democracy

The recent Amazon HQ2 escapade demonstrates the company’s outsize influence and a disregard for the well-being of the communities it seeks to enter

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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced new locations for Amazon headquarters, including New York and Virginia.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

After a debasing competition of states and municipalities seeking Amazon’s next headquarters it was announced that the winners of HQ2 would be New York and Northern Virginia’s own Crystal City. Leaders of Virginia’s public institutions tripped over themselves to praise the decision that could land the area 25,000 new jobs. At face value, bringing in Amazon is a remarkable achievement, “a testament to everything the commonwealth has to offer,” according to University President Jim Ryan. But when the mask is off, it becomes clear that Amazon coming to Crystal City is a horrible outcome of an even worse process that highlights the broken nature of our economy and democracy.

Amazon set out to find which state or municipality would sell as much of itself to the company.  Maryland offered $8.5 billion, New Jersey offered $7 billion and Pennsylvania was willing to cough up over $4 billion. In total Amazon will get around $4.6 billion in government subsidies. This “assistance” isn’t even necessary, it’s a show Amazon and Jeff Bezos have encouraged in order to see which area would bend to its whim the most. The result of this competition for Amazon HQ2 is the unveiling of a corporation flouting democracy in exchange for profit. How else can you describe a situation which will see Virginia hand Amazon $23,000 per job created. 

The process of choosing a new headquarters involved Amazon requiring states and municipalities to sign non-disclosure agreements — in the case of places like Montgomery County, Md., it led to entire sections of the incentive process being redacted. The message is clear — Amazon and local governments wanted people to know as little as possible in the business deal. Now, the silencing of the democratic process isn’t over. The Arlington County Board limited activists to one question on Amazon at a recent meeting, and despite promising a public hearing, the board seems willing to ignore the residents’ plea for transparency and community cooperation. At another listening session, certain issues like Amazon’s involvement with ICE were cut from the discussion.

The impact of Amazon on these communities will likely be devastating. In Crystal City — apparently being renamed National Landing — rents will go up, traffic will increase and the impact won’t be limited to Northern Virginia, it will seep into Washington, D.C.’s already existing housing crisis, likely displacing low-income residents. The grotesqueness of Bezos’ company exacerbating a housing crisis as he builds a gaudy 25-bathroom mansion in D.C. only adds to the real issue at play — one of corporations flouting people in favor of profit. 

In the face this reality, no credit should be given to Bezos for his pledged $97.5 million dollars to housing charities. It’s about how much he makes in 11 hours. Make no mistake, Amazon is taking advantage of these communities. In response, residents of Amazon’s new headquarters and Americans all over must demand more from the company. When private behemoths like Amazon exist, they lead to the selling of our communities to the corporation that provides the glitziest photo-op

Take, for example, a short drive to Richmond, where the government was willing to give Amazon a 68 acre plot of land for a headquarters yet can’t seem to come up with a solution to the second highest eviction rate in the country. How can politicians possibly justify a massive giveaway to Amazon when they can’t effectively take care of their residents? And therein lies the essence of the problem with handing massive giveaways to companies like Amazon — it doesn’t just show a blatant disregard for the community and democracy, it reminds us that the wealth to rejuvenate our cities is already there. It just requires a government that’s willing to use it for people and not corporations.

A fairer democratic country starts with major city altering decisions incorporating the actual voices of residents. How come there can be underfunded schools and overcrowded public transit while companies get up to $90 billion in corporate handouts a year from states and municipalities? In fact, it boggles the mind to imagine why money would ever be spent enticing one of the most valuable companies in the world, owned by the wealthiest man in the world, to bring jobs to already wealthy areas, especially when it will likely make life worse for low- and middle-income people. From this, it’s clear that in the limited amount of time before the finalized deals, the Arlington County Board and New York state legislature should reject Amazon. Better yet, they should take those billions of dollars in incentives and invest them in the people who already live in their region.

Jake Wartel is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com.

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