Back when Amazon was still deciding which American city to move its new headquarters to, the New York state governor, Andrew Cuomo, promised to change his name to Amazon Cuomo if that’s what it took to win the bid. Needless to say, he was upset when the company announced it would not build a new “HQ2” headquarters in New York’s Long Island City. Feeling jilted, Cuomo has since gone begging Amazon and Jeff Bezos to change their mind. He’s also lashed out at the politicians and community groups who fought his planned $3bn giveaway to the company. Cuomo’s fight to win Amazon back is exactly the kind of desperate move Democrats should avoid.
Republicans and establishment Democrats have long been united in the belief that corporations are the key to mitigating – if not solving – America’s most pressing problems, from inequality to climate change. The reality is that big business created those problems in the first place, with ample help from policymakers. Reining them in and revitalizing the public sphere is the only way to fight back.
By aggressively lobbying to smash safety nets and corporate tax rates, corporations over the last several decades have effectively taken cities and states hostage, leaving mayors and governors to grovel before billionaires for a few crumbs for their increasingly desperate constituents – usually in the form of poorly paid work.
As companies gobble up city resources, they are afforded generous tax breaks to make sure they don’t actually have to pay their fair share to maintain them. Such measures, it’s said, are necessary to create a “positive investment climate” – or else they will just find somewhere else offering a sweeter deal. Similar logic operates at the federal level, and Reagan’s business-backed push for supply side economics foretold that tax breaks for the wealthy few would eventually trickle down to the many. Needless to say, that didn’t work out, and wages have stagnated as corporate profits have climbed.
The myth, however, endures. Controversy over Amazon’s decision to pull out was based on the promise that it would boost New York City’s economy by creating 25,000 jobs, a figure that seems to have pulled virtually out of thin air by Amazon PR and repeated ad nauseum in the press. It’s not hard to imagine, though, how the Amazon deal might have played out: temporary jobs would dry up within a few years, white-collar workers (mostly) would get steady paychecks, and Long Island City would officially become a playground for the wealthy as Jeff Bezos got even richer. Maybe the 7 train, serving Queens, would start running a little faster.
Of course, Amazon isn’t an anomaly. And these sorts of bad deals aren’t just for Democrats. The former Republican Wisconsin governor Scott Walker made a similar gamble on Foxconn, the Chinese manufacturer perhaps best known for its factory town in Shenzhen, where 18 employees attempted suicide in a single year, making screens for Apple in squalid working conditions. Walker handed Foxconn more than $4bn in public money, for a few years making Wisconsin a petri dish for regressive anti-union laws on the basis that teachers and other public sector employees were a drain on taxpayers. After promising 13,000 jobs that would boost southern Wisconsin’s economy, Foxconn announced that only a small percentage of jobs would be blue-collar work, with most positions going to “knowledge” workers. By some estimates – depending on how many jobs are actually created– the midwestern state will shell out up to $1m per job. Walker lost his seat last November, in part thanks to blowback from the Foxconn deal.
Beyond these individual projects, the fossil fuel industry collects about $20bn annually in subsidies at the state and federal level, incentivizing the world’s most destructive companies to keep drilling us into oblivion. And tax rates on corporations and the wealthy more generally remain scandalously low.
These kinds of reckless giveaways are the opposite of what voters actually want. A full 59% of Americans support considerably raising taxes on the rich back to mid-century levels. And 81% of registered voters support a Green New Deal, including 64% of Republicans. 71% of Americans support increasing federal spending on infrastructure, and 54% support a green jobs guarantee.
By proposing to invest in what the country actually needs, the Green New Deal turns the perverse logic of corporate giveaways on its head. Rather than jumping in with public handouts that pad shareholder pockets, the government can play a strong role in guiding the economy to serve the public interest; in this case, to tackle the world’s most pressing existential threat: climate change. But the Green New Deal is also about more than avoiding devastating temperature rise, and getting to net-zero emissions by 2030.
Given the sheer amount of work to be done mitigating and adapting to climate change, it’s also an opportunity for millions of Americans to get well-paid employment through a federal job guarantee, which can offer attractive options outside of the carbon-intensive supply chains (Walmart, McDonald’s and – yes – Amazon) that are some of the only jobs on offer in many communities.
Union contracts would be awarded to revamp our decrepit grid system and electrify the country, as the country’s top researchers get to work figuring out how to decarbonize so-called hard-to-abate sectors like steel, concrete and shipping. Included as part of a Green New Deal package, Medicare for All would allow Americans to move to pursue new opportunities, as their healthcare would no longer be tied to their work. Ideally, we could build out robust public transit networks around the country and finally fix the transportation system.
It’s worth noting that Cuomo recently announced support for something he’s calling a Green New Deal for New York, albeit one far less ambitious than the version being pushed by New York Renews, a coalition of labor, community and environmental justice groups from around the state. Still, it’s hard not to see the logic of his HQ2 bid as at loggerheads with what will be needed to make any statewide Green New Deal a reality.
Simply put, a robust Green New Deal can build a better New York City and a more livable world – no HQ2 required.