A Trojan Horse Named Amazon
The real issues behind the Amazon - New York City deal, and why this is a threat to everyone, including you.
While New Yorkers were busy voting out Republicans at the polls, their fearless incumbent Governor, confident of a third term, quietly released a bombshell he clearly hoped would be drowned out by the election day hype: Amazon is Coming To Town in the form of a second headquarters in Long Island City. There are plenty of articles briefly giving you the basics of that deal, from the pro-business side to the critical side, so let’s cut right to the chase: allowing Amazon to establish a Headquarters in Queens is a stupid, foolhearted, irresponsible, destructive and moronic move no matter how you look at it, unless you happen to be a greedy, short-sighted real estate developer working in New York City who’s looking to make a lot of easy money at the expense of everyone else.
The Amazon deal is a first-rate Trojan Horse; while it will affect Queens residents most of all, it actually damages everyone living in this country in some very fundamental ways. If you’re not convinced of that seemingly hyperbolic statement, allow me to present the evidence:
1. Amazon, the Company.
Most Americans these days are so beaten down by corporate America, they accept behavior that 50 years ago was considered inconceivable by even the greediest of companies. News of Amazon coming into their neighborhood is met with the fatalistic acceptance of aw, shucks- but change is part of life. If it’s not them, someone else will come in and do the same thing. Well… no, actually. Yes, corporate conglomerates in general are pretty bad, and we shouldn’t let any company enter a neighborhood unless it is truly beneficial to the community, but Amazon is an especially despicable- and dangerous- case.
For starters, they don’t just give little back to a community. They give nothing back… to anyone. In 2017, they took in $178 billion dollars in revenue, yet paid zero dollars in Federal taxes that same year. Let me repeat that: ZERO DOLLARS. That’s the kind of news that should send Americans revolting and the IRS rethinking its tax code, but it barely made a dent in our beaten-down-by-rampant-capitalism society. Liberals and Libertarians both agree that this type of crony capitalism is not what anyone intended when they signed our constitution into being, so why have we accepted this? Tax dollars is how our government pays for… um… everything. The basic premise behind taxing our income is that as clever and brilliant as you might be as a businessman, you don’t exist in a vacuum. You depend on society to function, and your taxes are how you ensure society’s survival as a whole while you work on your survival as an individual. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
When you exploit the loopholes of a tax system to such an extreme, that relationship is gone and the system breaks down. Those billions of dollars are essential funds not going to schools, infrastructure, social services, health services, the arts, and pretty much everything else that makes up a civilization; even if you don’t care one iota about other humans, you still depend on them to work your company and buy your products. Capitalism can actually function more or less okay as long as no single entity grows large enough to exploit its flaws, but in today’s world of behemoth corporations and government handouts, that’s exactly what’s happening.
I understand why Jeff Bezos wants to avoid paying taxes. The question is, why do any of us want to help him? In October, Senator Bernie Sander’s public shaming campaign against Amazon’s low wages seemed to have succeeded as Bezos announced a $15 / hour minimum wage for their factory workers. Everyone praised the move, but few people read the fine print: to offset the increase, Amazon cut several bonuses and removed employee stock options. For many veteran workers, the new setup actually leaves them earning less. It was a brilliant move: fool the public into thinking you’re doing the right thing while you actually get to do even more of the wrong thing. Given Amazon’s track record, how much of a blind eye must one turn to convince themselves that Amazon’s presence will truly enrich New York City? Can you name one example where this has actually happened?
Amazon’s anti-union practices are completely at odds with New York City’s rich history of labor Unions. People are excited about the 25,000 jobs that are being “created”, but let’s look at these jobs. Out of all Fortune 500 Companies, Amazon is almost at the very bottom of employee longevity- and we’re talking specifically about their full-time, professional tech workers, not their overworked and underpaid warehouse serfs:
Despite competitive wages (the median tech worker makes $93,000) the median employee lasts only one year before moving on. Not only does that speak volumes about the kind of dismal corporate culture employees have to deal with, it means that most of the 25,000 people that move into Queens and Brooklyn to work here will be gone in a year, only to be replaced by another 25,000 transients. Meanwhile, rising rent prices will drive those of us who currently live here and can no longer afford it out of the city. I’ve lived in Queens almost two decades. I’ve been a part of our local CSA for 12 years, and have been running it for 10. I co-own a bar in Woodside, my daughter goes to public school in Queens, and we’ve been renting the same place for many years now. In other words, I am fully invested in Queens; this is my community and my home. I don’t only add a friendly face and a sense security to the neighborhood, I add my economic power. I buy from local vendors, I support local farmers, I pay local taxes, I sell locally-made food to local patrons. If Amazon moves in and I am forced to leave, does anyone honestly believe that the transient and rootless tech-bubble workers that take my place will do the same during the single year that they bother to stick around?
Let’s not forget- Queens is currently the most diverse place in the entire world- that is our strength. We are truly the melting pot of ideas, more diverse than the United Nations, and for the most part, we pretty much all manage to get along. Now let’s look at Amazon: their management is 75% White, and 75% Male. Their American workforce is 60% White, but since Amazon refuses to release the breakdown of those numbers, it is widely understood that the majority of their minorities are found among their warehouse workers and not in the type of tech jobs coming to LIC. The majority of their techs are young, white, and male. It would be great if Amazon reached out to the high school kids growing up in the nearby Queensbridge Housing Project and gave them a tech career and a job… but nothing about that dream jives with Amazon’s past behavior. At all.
Cuomo and his moronic cronies can boast of job creation, but the reality is a net loss for the city. They’re getting $3 billion in financial incentives from New York City to come here for a promised 25,000 workers, which means we’re paying Amazon $120,000 per job. That’s a good deal for whom, exactly? A consultant in the tech industry I spoke to at a local Town Hall meeting made the point that it’s already incredibly hard to find good tech workers in this city. If Amazon comes in, they will draw from two major sources: first, from local talent, which will hurt and potentially drive out of business the smaller tech companies that can’t compete with Amazon’s offers… and second, from the rest of the country, where transient tech workers will come from to displace the middle class that made Queens what it is today. Both these sources are a lot more preferable to Amazon than doing what Cuomo and De Blasio are pretending will happen: reaching out to our under served local minority youth, and offering them jobs. LaGuardia College recently prepared a video specifically to woo Amazon, boasting of their 3,500 mostly-minority tech students, deluding themselves with the dream that Amazon is going to hand them all high-paying jobs. This is complete and utter bullshit.
Every single action Amazon has taken in their shoddy history proves one gigantic thing: they will do everything possible to avoid investing in anything that isn’t Bezos’ bank account. For Long Island City, Queens, it means that New Yorkers will get stuck having to figure out the extra traffic and congestion that will come with 25,000 new bodies. The 7 Train, which serves Long Island City and is already overcrowded and full of daily delays that the MTA can’t fix, will have to deal with an extra 25,000 riders. And the sewage that constantly backs up from nearby Newtown Creek isn’t exactly going to get better when 25,000 more people are flushing toilets… yet none of this has been taken into account within the deal.
As Senator Michael Gianaris put it in a recent public meeting, the more you examine the Amazon deal, the worse it gets. The way it’s “supposed to” work is that if you want to build in the city, you go through the ULURP review process, which involves the Department of City Planning (DCP), the City Planning Commission (CPC), Community Boards, the Borough Presidents, the Borough Boards, the City Council and the Mayor. In this case, the Mayor and the Governor put aside their long-standing feud in the name of Real Estate Money to bypass the entire process by classifying this deal a General Project Plan, which allows them to ignore everyone else and just do what they want instead. How is this legal? I’ve yet to receive a clear answer to that question.
More enraging is the fact that Amazon demanded Non Disclosure Agreements from the 20 Cities it was considering. Let me reiterate that: a private company was given the power to demand absolute secrecy from United States Governments, barring them from any public discussion or transparency. How is that legal? And how are you okay with this information, since it means that Amazon is literally running our country? The NDA turned the entire HQ2 search into an ebay auction; by keeping governments in the dark, Amazon got Cities and States to outbid each other in a frenzied bidding war, which is how they managed to pull out a whopping $3 billion in subsidies from its “winning” Cities (that number keeps on growing as more details are revealed.) New York, especially, got the short end of the stick, offering 3 times as many subsidies as what Virginia committed to for their HQ2- which means, quite simply, that New York got played. Big time.
It gets worse. Part of Amazon’s commitment is in a paltry “Infrastructure Fund” that gives New York City approximately $600 million across four decades for transit improvements. But the money is coming straight out of the discounts the City is giving Amazon; in other words, we are paying ourselves with our own money, and giving Amazon the credit. By contrast, Google just announced it is doubling its own presence in Manhattan, which will bring in another 7,000 jobs- without a single government subsidy. It’s appalling and embarrassing that our two “leaders” groveled at the feet of Bezos for over a year, handing him everything he asked for and demanding nothing in return.
Don’t believe the hype. If someone tells you Amazon promised to build a new school, or is providing space for artists, or improving the landscape with green space… the truth is, all of that was part of a previous deal with Plaxall that was already years in the making. Amazon bought that deal out in order to make this one happen, which means that none of those “concessions” were actual concessions- they’re simply remnants of a previous negotiation Amazon is now getting credit for.
And if that’s not enough of an insult, Jeff Bezos will get his own private helipad, so that he can fly over the congested streets and the overcrowded subways he created. It’s amazing how many people are obsessed with Russian hackers, while absolutely oblivious to the fact that we’ve already been taken over by corporations. Think I’m exaggerating? Chew on this: Amazon now owns the cloud storage service that the Department of Defense runs on, to the tune of $950 million. They’ve also convinced the CIA- the most secretive agency in the entire world- to entrust them with their data for the tune of $600 million. That’s literally our country’s most classified secrets sitting in the hands of Jeff Bezos. They also managed to rewrite our government contracts so that all government supplies- from pencils to toilet seats- will be purchased through them. And read this Washington Post (owned by Jeff Bezos) report about Amazon offering their facial technology to ICE in their prosecution of undocumented immigrants.
Business, data technology, media outlets, government: even if you don’t shop through their website, Amazon is still ubiquitous in your life in even more ways than I’ve referenced here. In almost every sense of the word, they are more powerful now than our own government.
Let’s look at how Seattle changed after Amazon took over that city. First, the big one: rent. Between 2011 and 2015, rent prices went up $.11 per square foot every year. In the neighborhoods with the highest concentration of Amazon’s tech workers, that figure was $.60 per square foot. So the cost to rent a meager 800 square foot apartment would have risen $480 in that short time period- and this was in an area much less crowded and in-demand than Queens.
How about traffic congestion? Thanks to Amazon’s arrival, Seattle now has the fourth-worst traffic in the nation:
Crime? Out of the 20 largest U.S. cities, Seattle is #1 in property crimes. 2017 saw more rapes, murders, and assaults in Seattle than the previous 2 years combined. This is no coincidence; as the income gap between rich and poor widens, crime increases; once the poor get squeezed enough, they’re going to take it out on the people squeezing them. New York, by the way, leads the entire nation in income inequality, so keep that in mind as you ponder how Amazon’s tech jobs affect the surrounding area.
Just down the street from Amazon’s proposed Long Island City HQ is the largest housing project in America: Queensbridge Housing Project. Does anyone really expect that the 7,000 people who live there aren’t going to react to rich Amazon workers flaunting their wealth as life gets even more expensive? And when they do, the next step will be Amazon pressuring the city to beef up their police force and security cameras, ushering us closer to a Big Brother police state all paid for by… you an me.
All of this leads to Seattle’s biggest issue: skyrocketing homelessness. The city declared the issue a State of Emergency in 2015, and it’s only worsened since then, tripling the number of homeless kids in schools to 4,300. The City tried to pass a $500-per-employee tax on businesses making over $20 million in order to fight it, but Amazon pressured the Mayor into watering it down to $275. The number one cause of homelessness is (duh) lack of affordable housing, and the number one cause of that (for Seattle) is Amazon Dot Com. Even without Amazon, New York City is already struggling with its own homeless problem: the number of people sleeping in shelters each night is now 77% higher than it was a decade ago, and our overall numbers are higher than any level since the Great Depression.
The data is clear: the 25,000 tech jobs will not make this city better, it will make it worse.
3. Bursting Bubbles
There’s another side to watching our LIC bubble inflate: it eventually pops. Economies always ebb and flow, which is why it’s imperative to build a diverse economy that can withstand such ebbing and flowing. Wall Street traders understand that a diverse portfolio is the key to success. So do farmers- by planting a diverse variety of crops, they build a stronger resistance to bugs and hedge their bets that if weather hurts one crop, a different one will survive. New York City is (as of now, at least) a fairly diverse economy; if the publishing world dies, it only affects one small part of the population. If fashion takes a hit, the rest of us are okay. To put all our eggs in one basket- an Amazon Shopping Basket to be precise- defies all wisdom. There are plenty of cities that are in such dire straits that one could argue that, despite Amazon’s vampiric style, having a dose of Amazon could be considered a boon. Detroit, for one, has nothing but space and desperately needs a boost, even if it’s by Jeff Bezos. More locally, plenty of New York State’s ailing cities up north need help, and if Andrew Cuomo actually cared about the state he supposedly serves, he would be pointing Amazon in that direction.
New York City, on the other hand, does not need such help. In the early aughts, I did a lot of work for the Discovery Channel down in Silver Spring, MD. Discovery had just moved in (2003) and built a gigantic flagship HQ, ushering a gigantic change in this sleepy, working-class town. Over the course of one year, I saw the transformation myself through frequent visits: new restaurants, condo units, bars… all the typical signs of gentrification. Most people welcomed this change- after all, Discovery was a cable giant- they owned several channels (Animal Planet, etc.) and were growing and growing. Fast-forward to 2017, when Discovery announces they are leaving Silver Spring, and with them, 1300 jobs that helped revitalize the local economy. What will happen to those workers? What will happen to all the stores, schools, and local infrastructure that arose to support them? That remains to be seen, but residents are clearly concerned about Silver Spring’s future.
That’s the problem with getting in bed with a corporation- in the end, their bottom line is a lot more important than you are. They owe you nothing. And Discovery isn’t even a particularly “evil” company- they are just responding to market trends. In 2003, they were cable kings, and Netflix was just a dvd mail-order company whose only competition was Blockbuster. Who would have thought that, in 15 years, they would have completely altered the entertainment business landscape, toppling network giants and movie studios?
If you haven’t figured out the lesson to be learned here, it’s this: Amazon is going to come in with 25,000 new bodies, forcing unwelcome, rapid change in Queens, and then it’s going to leave. I can’t tell you when they will leave, but they will leave. It might be because the tech landscape of 2028 will be so radically different than now, that Bezos will decide it’s time to pack up- that’s a pretty realistic scenario given how quickly technology changes (go back 10 years to 2008 and think about how you lived.) And when Amazon does pack up, it will leave a big, empty, irreplaceable hole, because all of the people like myself who had planted roots here will have been replaced by transient tech workers who will pack up and leave without a fight, eager to find the next high-paying bubble they can feed off of. If you need another example, take a trip to Michigan, where the auto industry left once-shining cities like Flint and Detroit in such shambles that they are still plagued with poverty (and no clean water) decades later. What kind of short-sighted fool would want a company like Amazon to enter a dense city like New York? (Don’t answer that- it’s a rhetorical question.)
This brings us to our final, and most frightening but least talked-about issue: water. Long Island City rests on the bank of the East River. Specifically, the Anable Basin, which is RIGHT ON the waterfront (it’s a basin, after all.) And that’s where Cuomo, in his hush-hush backroom deals, has worked out the new Amazon HQ to be in. There’s just one problem: human beings have heated up the planet extensively, to the point where our sea levels are rising faster than we expected. There are plenty of great articles explaining how that affects New York City, but the facts are irrefutable: even if we stick to the Paris Accord limits (which our current President is decidedly not doing) we will still see a 10-ft rise in sea levels before things taper off. Not next year, of course, but it will happen. And the reality is we’re not stopping our wasteful habits anytime soon, which means the actual figures are going to get worse, and sooner. Even with extreme carbon cuts, Long Island City- specifically where Amazon plans to plant their flag- will be totally underwater:
This is not science fiction- it’s science fact. No amount of clever engineering will stop this from happening- the ocean is too great a force, even for modern man. If we’re honest with ourselves, we should be talking about a slow, but steady evacuation from New York City now- a well-planned, decades-long exit strategy so that no one has to suffer. That would be called “thinking ahead.” What we shouldn’t be doing is dragging another 25,000 people into an eventual death trap. Even if they don’t have to suffer the consequences, their kids and grandkids will. What kind of selfish, short-sighted generation does this to its future?
And that’s just the long-term sea level rise. Short-term, there is no doubt that a severe hurricane will hit New York City in the next decade or so- the only question is when. So let’s add the FEMA cost of rescue, the insurance property damage costs, and a few random lost lives to the Amazon deal, because there is no doubt we will be paying them, as the insurance industry has already figured out. That’s why flood insurance is skyrocketing on many homes across the country, though they are currently highly subsidized by our federal government so as to not scare off homeowners. The whole thing is totally unsustainable, and will come crashing down eventually. Still a good deal, Cuomo?
And that’s not all, folks. The City Environmental Quality Review just published their detailed examination of Long Island City. LIC was rezoned by the city so that they could allow developers to come in and build all those ugly, empty luxury skyscrapers that now adorn our skyline. When they first proposed the rezoning, they had to submit a “Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS)” for Long Island City. It projected that the neighborhood would experience 300,000 square feet of residential development across 300 new units. In actuality, the zoning changes gave us 8.74 million square feet in new residential developments, which added more than 10,000 new units to LIC.
It also predicted that the neighborhood would see an addition of 979 residential units by 2013, but in reality, they built more than 3,000 new units by that year, and an additional 5,000 units since. In other words, the city grossly underestimated the numbers, whether on purpose or not. Some other facts from that report:
- Since 2000, the median household income has risen 230 percent, from $53,000 to $123,000.
- The FEIS estimated that an additional 99 school seats would be needed by 2010; by 2010, the zoning changes had brought 240 new students to the neighborhood, and just eight years later, more than 3,200 students have been added. Seven out of nine local elementary schools are now overcrowded, with one operating at more than 200 percent capacity.
- Average ridership at the neighborhood’s three main subway stations (Court Square, Queensboro Plaza, and Queens Plaza) has increased at seven-times the city-wide rate over the last six years.
Currently, the city has not solved any of these problems that they brought upon themselves when they handed out all those development contracts… and that’s where we stand now, before adding another 25,000 more problems to this mix, all without any environmental, economic, or structural solutions. Why? Because Andrew “Amazon” Cuomo is completely funded by the Real Estate Industry, and this is how he repays them for putting him back in office a third term. It’s really as simple as that. He owes them a favor which will cost Queens everything, and him nothing, and the only thing standing in his way right now is you and me, which, in Amazon’s eyes, is nothing at all.
Americans get the America they deserve. It was our apathy and complacency that gave us a Donald Trump presidency, and it’s the same thing that will make this Amazon thing a done deal if you finish reading this, grumble a little, and forget about it.
Even if you don’t live in Queens, this battle will affect you. If it goes through, it will signal other corporations and cities to do similar things all over the country. If the public manages to stop it, it will signal future Governors and Mayors that the public is watching them…and hopefully, it’ll torpedo Cuomo & De Blassio’s presidential dreams, too. Either way, there’s no excuse: every American needs to fight this as hard as they can. The only acceptable outcome is for Amazon to go away. If public pressure turns into a bargaining game and Amazon concedes some of the subsidies, this is not enough. Even if Amazon kills the full $3 billion in NY State giveaways and everyone cheers and calls it a victory, it is not a victory. Amazon would have moved here anyway without the subsidies, and even if the eliminate subsidies, we will still have to deal with all the problems this article points out. The only acceptable outcome is a complete rejection of Amazon’s bid.
Here’s how you can help:
1. Boycott Amazon, Whole Foods, AbeBooks, Twitch.TV, Zappos, Woot, and Audible.com. Don’t use an Alexa, don’t use CreateSpace, avoid games by Double Helix, and stop visiting IMDB, Box Office Mojo and Goodreads at all costs. Why? Because all of them serve the same purpose- they funnel your personal tastes and interests into data that Amazon gets rich from. I know you’re going “but all of this stuff is part of my daily lifestyle!” and, yes, you’re right. That’s the problem: it’s precisely how Amazon grew powerful enough to boss our government around. We are slaves by our own design. Or, to put it another way:
2. Tell everyone. No, seriously- tell everyone. A lot of people hear “25,000 jobs” and think this is a great deal. They have no idea of the details; they need to know. Again, this isn’t about New York- it’s about America. Social Media is the only way we can battle something is big as Amazon. Discuss the facts! If you’re on Facebook, add this image to your profile:
3. Call your representatives. If you’re in New York City, call everyone. Here’s a list:
• State Senator Michael Ginaris is leading the fight on the local state level: (718) 728–0960
• Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer represents the LIC area and is partnering with him to stop Amazon: 718–383–9566
•Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made national news when we rallied and voted her in (and voted incumbent Joe Crowley out): 929–388–6141 and 929–388–6141
• Assemblyman Ron Kim is a leading voice against Amazon, having co-authored this New York Times op-ed. He’s introducing legislation that redirects corporate subsidies in NY State towards student debt cancellation. He’s also one of the few NY Politicians who did not sign last year’s letter of support for Amazon coming to NY. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, and call him with your support: 718–939–0195
One possible way to stop the Amazon deal is through the Public Authorities Control Board, which, if it’s invoked, requires a unanimous vote from the Governor, the Senate Majority, and the Assembly Majority. Come January, the Senate will be Democratic, and Michael Ginaris is the Deputy Leader. When you call him, remind him of this, and demand that the Amazon deal is non-negotiable. Democrats may want to extract some concessions but allow the deal to pass- this isn’t enough.
Please call Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins at (914) 423–4031 and demand she fight this all the way without compromise.
These two Queens representatives have made public statements supporting Amazon: feel free to let them know what you think of that:
• Catherine Nolan, 718–784–3194
• Carolyn B. Maloney, 718–932–1804 (Queens) 202–225–7944 (DC)
And these are our State Senators who have a lot more pull on a Federal Level. A public statement from them is worth a lot; please push them to make one:
• Chuck Schumer, (212) 486–4430 / DC: (202) 224–6542
• Kirsten Gillibrand, NY: (212) 688–6262 / DC: (202) 224–4451
Here are the two clowns who started this whole thing. Please let them know where you stand:
• Andrew Cuomo, 518–474–8390
• Bill De Blasio, 311 (within NYC) or 212-NEW-YORK (outside NYC)
4. Keep yourself informed. Join groups to help spread the word when action can and should be taken. Here are several groups you should join, bookmark, follow:
Primed Out NYC — a Facebook Group serving as headquarters for all activism fighting this deal.
Assemblyman Ron Kim is fighting this a different way, by diverting corporate subsidies into Student Debt Cancellation. Bookmark his Gut Checking Democracy page.
Take Back NYC is full of really helpful posts and news about this kind of issue, and specifically about Amazon.
Queens Neighborhoods United is also full of activists and resources you can follow.
The LIC Coalition — they’re fighting this thing from ground zero and know a lot about the local issues.
I will be updating this section as more information comes in.
6. Silver Linings.
One upshot of this catastrophe is that the deal is so bad, both the far left and the far right find themselves actually agreeing on the deal, as is the case with the ultra-conservative National Review publicly praising “socialist” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ criticism of the deal, which is the political version of seeing pigs actually fly. This little tidbit of news is monumental, especially in our fractured country where everyone is obsessed with taking sides.
New York State itself is a very divided place- you have the Big Apple, and then you have everyone else. Upstate folks resent the city because they hold most of the power; city folks barely consider the needs and interests of everyone up north. Amazon is an issue the entire State can find unity on- if $3 billion can be handed to Amazon, clearly it can be infused into the crumbling infrastructures of our many struggling cities up north. Amazon in Buffalo or Rochester would have been a lot better for everyone involved than Amazon in NYC, but of course, those places aren’t as glamorous as New York, so Bezos wasn’t interested and Cuomo couldn’t care less. But we do.
Let us work together on this one: liberals, conservatives, urbanites, rural folks, old, young, and everyone else. We might differ on specifics, but we all hate corruption and want a government that places our interest ahead of corporations. It’s time to unite.