COMMENTARY

You Didn't Lose the Amazon Lottery. You Dodged a Bullet.

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So what do Crystal City, Va., and Long Island City, N.Y., have that your city or state doesn't?

Well, everything, as it turns out.

Or at least enough to beat 18 other finalists to land Amazon's so-called "HQ2," an economic development prize so huge that it was supposed to create tens of thousands of new jobs, generate billions in tax revenue and, I'm pretty sure, guarantee overnight delivery for every man, woman and child in these United States.

But did you really lose out? Sure, it might look that way now, but in reality it appears you dodged an epic bait-and-switch. 

According to one analysis, officials in New York offered $1.7 billion in incentives along with additional local tax reductions to lure Amazon to Long Island City in the borough of Queens. Meanwhile, Virginia and officials in Arlington County reportedly put together a $573 million incentive package. 

New York will be paying Amazon IN CASH for those jobs — to the tune of an eye-watering $50,000 a head or so, GQ's Drew Magary wrote this week. And it's been widely reported that those jobs might not even be good ones (or even very much fun). Nor is there even any guarantee that local residents will be hired to fill them.

You know who'd be on the hook for that cash?

You would. And it's not like Amazon needs the financial aid.

The retail behemoth, which paid zero in federal taxes in 2017, was the beneficiary of a nearly $800 million windfall in the GOP-authored tax bill that sailed through Congress last year, according to research by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

In Pennsylvania, where Pittsburgh and Philadelphia ended up on the list of finalists, state officials shared letters to Amazon detailing an offer of up to $4.5 billion over 25 years that would have been indexed to income taxes collected from the company's employees, along with $100 million to support transportation improvements. 

In Philadelphia, it would've been paired with local tax breaks estimated at at least $1.1 billion to the company over 20 years.

Then there's the small matter of housing affordability.

As MarketWatch reported, "Home values in New York City have already soared 42.5 percent over the past five years, while prices in Arlington County, Va., have risen 15.5 percent. Home values in Seattle (Amazon's hometown) increased 73 percent over that time span."

And rents are already on the rise in Arlington and Long Island City — thanks to millennials and others who are fleeing Manhattan's and D.C.'s sky-high rents. Because of that influx, rents rose 3.8 percent in Northwest Queens (home to Long Island City) over the past year.

Now the politicians. They're straight up winners — for all the wrong reasons.

As GQ's Magary correctly notes, the optics of trying to land Amazon actually far outweighed the actual result of that effort. And that's because it allowed politicians in an election year to brag that they were doing all they could to bring jobs, jobs, jobs back home.

In their piece for The Conversation, Jensen and Malesky said there was incentive to pander, pointing to YouGov survey data showing that voters were more inclined to be sympathetic and supportive to candidates working hard to land big employers — and that they were forgiving when they did not.

"A winning bid that included a bigger tax incentive led to a 5 percent boost in support relative to the scenario in which the governor won the investment but didn't outbid other states. Even more interesting is that a losing bid that included a big incentive led to double the boost of support," they wrote.

The bottom line?

There's clear "electoral value to politicians of making a splashy bid for an investment, particularly when they have good reason to believe their locality has little chance of actually winning it. We suspect that this allows a politician to avoid the potential blame of losing a bid as well," they wrote.

Think for a moment what that kind of money could do for your state or town if it were spent, instead, on schools, on healthcare, or even economic development in those downtowns that were hollowed out because merchants couldn't compete with Amazon.

So best of luck to Queens and Northern Virginia. Be careful of what you wished for. You just got it.

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