Tag Archives: Amazon

Home Advantage

I’m not ready to move on from the subject of yesterday’s post, which was triggered by the efforts of numerous cities to lure Amazon’s second headquarters.

Let me just share two additional observations, one from a recent study reported in Governing, and one emerging from a recent argument in Indianapolis’ City-County Council.

The Governing article shared a study done by the Urban Institute.

In choosing New York and D.C., Amazon opted for two cities that have led the economic expansion since the end of the last recession in 2009, far outpacing the rest of the nation in job growth. The decision drew the ire of politicians at the state and federal levels, along with others who had called on the tech giant to place its second headquarters in a city where it could play a more transformative role in the economy.

Yet a new study from the Urban Institute suggests that landing such a large corporation isn’t actually the best way to build a local economy and spur job growth.

If give-aways massive enough to “steal” large employers–to lure them from City A to City B (in what certainly seems to be a national zero-sum game) isn’t a sound growth strategy, what is?

Instead, the report says, cities should focus on growing existing local firms, not trying to lure out-of-town companies and poaching firms from other cities. “Most job expansion and contractions come from birth and deaths of homegrown businesses or expansion or contractions of existing home-based businesses,” says Megan Randall, a research analyst with the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and a co-author of the report.

According to Randall, when so-called “marquee companies” locate in a new city, they tend to displace existing businesses, especially mom-and-pop stores. Supporting and expanding homegrown enterprises has been a more successful strategy for adding job growth.

Worse, giving up tax revenues to lure a new company puts a strain on local services, particularly schools.

As New York University business professor Scott Galloway put it in an email to Barron’s on Tuesday, the tax incentives from New York amount to “an elegant transfer of funds from municipal school/fire/police districts to Amazon shareholders.”

Cutting into services and school budgets makes the local workforce less attractive in the long run, and the location less alluring, the Urban Institute report notes….

Cities would be better served, according to Randall and other economic policy analysts, by improving schools and public services, and focusing on nurturing their existing network of businesses.

When a city offers tax giveaways to lure a company, the government goes into the negotiation with a marked disadvantage because of what economists call “information asymmetry.” The city doesn’t have all the information about what the company is looking for. In some cases, a company may choose a city it would have moved to anyway, pocketing the tax incentives even though they weren’t a deciding factor.

“Firms are in a advantageous position,” Randall says. “They know cities want to attract jobs and create opportunities for their residents. They know they are in the position to leverage a public benefit from what they have to offer.”

What the article calls “negotiation” is more often–and more accurately–described as extortion. And that brings me to a recent dispute in Indianapolis’ City-County Council.

Corteva is a company formed last year, as part of Dow Chemical’s mega-merger with DuPont. Delaware-based Corteva—which includes the local operations of Dow AgroSciences—is set to be spun off as a public company in June 2019, and it employs about 1,400 workers in Indianapolis.

The City-County Council approved 30 million dollars to “incentivize” the company to maintain operations in Indianapolis.  Most Councilors weren’t happy about it.

The incentive deal authorizes the issuance of $30 million in economic development revenue notes to Corteva from the city of Indianapolis, which would be paid back with about $5 million annually in tax increment financing funds that the city had been passing through to government units such as schools, libraries, parks, police and fire protection. Those entities would no longer receive those funds while the notes are being paid off.

The council voted 18-7 to approve the deal. Democrats Zach Adamson and Stephen Clay voted against the plan as did Republicans Jeff Coats, Danielle Coulter, Janice McHenry, Jefferson Shreve and John Wesseler.

Even council members voting yes weren’t happy.

“It’s not the best deal; I’m not excited about it,” said Democrat Jared Evans. But he said the long-term benefit of keeping the jobs in the community outweighed the short-term harm to the taxing units.

Zach Adamson characterized the incentives as “nothing short of extortion;” he was exactly right. Far too much of what passes for “economic development” is better described as bribery and/or blackmail. “What will you pay us to come?” and “What will you pay us to stay?”

These deals steal money that would otherwise be used to improve the local quality of life. And as the Urban Institute study reaffirmed, the quality of life–good schools, good parks, convenient transportation, effective public safety, etc.–is what really drives job growth and economic development.

When you rob Peter to pay Paul, you just make both of them poorer.

 

This Isn’t Capitalism

A number of people who comment on this site are consistently critical of capitalism. I, on the other hand, am a committed capitalist, provided that economic system is properly defined and provided it is limited to economic areas in which competitive markets work.

The system in America today–the system that pisses off so many contemporary Americans– isn’t capitalism. It’s corporatism.

In a capitalist system, it is true that some people will do better than others. There is nothing wrong with that; the promise of a bigger reward for building a better mousetrap spurs innovation and benefits us all. It’s only when the rewards are disproportionate to the value of the activity involved– and  especially when those rewards become disconnected from actual economic productivity– that capitalism devolves into corporatism, and things get seriously out of whack.

Competitive markets have numerous advantages in the areas where they work. Unfortunately, in the United States, we have insisted on “competition” in areas where markets are demonstrably inappropriate. From health care to education to prisons, we have pursued a privatization agenda that benefits the entitled and well-connected without delivering any of the benefits of a true market.

That may be crony capitalism, but it sure isn’t the real deal. As I wrote a few years ago,

When what people make is a reflection of their connections and/or the success of their lobbyists, it’s time to consider whether we still have a capitalist system, or whether what America  currently has is corporatism–a system where power is exercised through large organizations in pursuit of their own economic agendas, to the detriment of the common good.

Capitalism creates opportunity; corporatism keeps it “all in the family,” exacerbating inequality.

If you have any doubt that the United States no longer practices capitalism, take a look at the recent, high-profile (arguably obscene) “competition” for Amazon’s second headquarters. As the Intercept recently reported,

Amazon’s announcement thisweek that it will open its new headquarters in New York City and northern Virginia came with the mind-boggling revelation that the corporate giant will rake in $2.1 billion in local government subsidies. But an analysisby the nation’s leading tracker of corporate subsidies finds that the government handouts will actually amount to at least $4.6 billion.

But even that figure, which accounts for state and local perks, doesn’t take into account a gift that Amazon will also enjoy from the federal government, a testament to the old adage that in Washington, bad ideas never die.

Enterprise Zones, one of those ideas that the Intercept characterizes as “bad,” has been resurrected in the GOP’s 2017 “gift to rich people” tax bill.

Under the tax overhaul signed by President Donald Trump last year, investors in opportunity zones can defer paymentsof capital gains taxes until 2026, and if they hold them for seven years, they can exclude 15 percent of the gains from taxation. If investors carry the opportunity zone investment for 10 years, they eliminate taxes on future appreciation entirely. Investment managers have been salivatingat the chance to take advantage of opportunity zones. Special funds have been built to cater to people holding unrealized capital gains — such as Amazon employees with large holdings of company stock.

The article details the goodies taxpayers are providing one of the most successful companies in the country, and notes that  Amazon has already received $1.6 billion in state and local subsidies for its warehouses and data centers.

On the same day as the New York and Virginia announcements, Amazon also announced a new “Operations Center of Excellence” in Nashville, Tennessee, a 5,000-worker facility for which the city gave Amazon $102 million in subsidies.

The report notes that these cash handouts don’t take into account “regulatory leniency and accelerated permitting” that Amazon projects routinely get.

We can quibble over what we should call an economy in which there is nothing remotely like a level playing field; an economy that enriches the already well-to-do at the expense of the rest of us and routinely socializes risks and privatizes profits, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of calling it capitalism.

 

Blue City, Red State, Home Rule

In the wake of Amazon’s choice of location for headquarters #2 (and the announcement that it was breaking the choice into two, one to be located in Queens and one in Crystal City–essentially, Washington, D.C.), Robert Reich wrote a provocative essay for Newsweek.

What does Amazon’s decision have to do with America’s political tumult? Turns out, quite a lot.

Amazon’s main headquarters is in Seattle, one of the bluest cities in the bluest of states. New York and metropolitan Washington are true-blue, too.

Amazon could have decided to locate its second headquarters in, say,  Indianapolis, Indiana. Indianapolis vigorously courted the firm. It’s also a Republican city in a bright red state.

Actually, Indianapolis–like every other sizable city in the country–is unambiguously blue. But we are located in a very, very red state.

Reich’s main point was that technology is a process of “group learning,” and it advances best in geographical clusters. Those clusters are primarily found along the coasts, where the digital economy has been a real boon. But Reich says that economy has left behind much of the rest of the country, with the result that we are facing what he calls “the widening inequalities of place.”

As money pours into these hubs, so do service jobs that cater to the new wealth—pricey lawyers, wealth managers, and management consultants, as well as cooks, baristas, and pilates instructors.

Between 2010 and 2017, according to Brookings, nearly half of the America’s employment growth centered in just 20 large metro areas, now home to about a third of the U.S. population.

Relative to these booming hubs, America’s heartland is becoming older, less well-educated, and poorer.

I think the reality of “America’s heartland” is more complicated than Reich recognizes. And that takes me back to his mistaken assumption that Indianapolis is a Republican city.

Cities in even the brightest red states have been blue for some time. We form what has been dubbed an “urban archipelago.” Furthermore, the inhabitants of these cities are engaged in a multitude of creative place-making, job-creating and poverty-reducing efforts.

Here in Indianapolis, for example, Community Development Corporations partner with the City, the Chamber of Commerce and a variety of nonprofit organizations to improve transit, health, education and job training, and to remove barriers to self-sufficiency. People may disagree about the likely efficacy or unintended consequences of this or that initiative, but the range of activity–and the good will motivating it–is impressive.

Indianapolis’ problem (which is not shared by every blue island swimming in a rural sea of red) can be found in Reich’s second descriptor: our red state. It isn’t Republican control of Indiana that’s the problem; it’s the fact that we are a state in which there is no meaningful home rule. Public officials in Indiana cities must go hat-in-hand to the state legislature (currently governed by an unimaginative GOP super-majority) to pursue many of the policy initiatives that other cities have authority to pursue as a matter of course.

Want to charge extra for plastic bags? No can do, sayeth our legislative overlords. In just the last few years, the Indiana legislature has also prevented cities from setting local minimum wages, and  from regulating housing, agricultural operations and worker schedules, among other things.

Perhaps the most egregious example of legislative arrogance involved Indianapolis’ proposal to tax ourselves to upgrade our inadequate transit system. It took three years just to get the legislature’s permission to hold a vote on the matter, and even then, the enabling legislation prohibited us from considering light rail. Why? Who knows?

As a column in the Indianapolis Star noted,  

A move to preempt local rules for services like Airbnb failed to get out of the Indiana House, but it was a rare setback for the never-ending march to scale back home rule. This year legislators successfully banned local zoning rules for certain utility poles and undermined so-called “good neighbor ordinances.”

(“Good neighbor” ordinances hold tenants accountable when they repeatedly inflict crimes and nuisances on their neighbors.)

The attorney who authored the column shared a number of other examples, and made a compelling case for giving greater authority to the people elected to govern municipalities.

The lack of ability to make our own decisions, based on the needs of our own residents, isn’t just making us less competitive for Amazon-sized sweepstakes.It is preventing us from improving everything from education to infrastructure to the quality of life in our city. Legislators who mostly represent the Indiana hinterlands consistently prevent us from reaching our full potential as a thriving urban oasis in a rural state that isn’t doing so well.

Urban residents of Indianapolis suspect that’s intentional.

 

Economic Development Develops

Every so often, we need to take our eyes off the clown show in Washington, D.C., and consider what’s happening elsewhere. For example, the much-hyped competition for Amazon’s second headquarters.

I hate to be Debby Downer, but that competition is an excellent example of what’s wrong with current approaches to economic development. Economic development offices around the country participate in what is nationally a zero-sum game–attracting businesses from one locality to another, and spending lavishly to do so. (According to several sources, states and counties have awarded over $1.3 billion in incentives just to attract Amazon’s fulfillment centers.)

As a Brookings Institute report recently noted, this approach to job creation is problematic.

The most obvious is that in each of these cases, Amazon was going to come with or without incentives. It is a core tenet of Amazon’s strategy to be able to rapidly deliver products directly to people’s homes, increasingly with same day service, so they must have a major presence in every large region. Seemingly every metro area we’ve worked in over the past several years has highlighted the attraction of an Amazon facility as a major local economic development success story. (A quick web search confirmed the presence or recent announcement of one or more major Amazon fulfillment centers in or near each of the 40 largest US metro regions.) In these cases, state incentives make no sense. And county incentives are used only to influence selection of the actual site within a region, thus pitting local jurisdictions against each other to claim a political win, with no actual competitive benefit to the regional economy….

Another issue is spatial mismatch. In our work across the country, many employers such as Amazon express frustration in not being able to find enough workers—while at the same time, workers complain of not having access to good jobs. This problem is predictable. While traditional retail jobs are spread throughout metro areas to be near customers (and by default, the workforce), warehouse and logistics operations (such as Amazon’s) consolidate employees under one roof on the periphery of the metro…. The Amazon jobs that replaced these are less accessible to many of the lower-skilled employees that are best suited to fill them because workers do not live nearby. Lack of access to transit, zoning decisions that limit nearby affordable housing, and childcare responsibilities severely limit the number of workers in a given region for which this type of job commute makes sense.

The Amazon Headquarters frenzy highlights what economic development has become; a system that revolves around government giveaways to corporations.

There’s a better way. And the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce has recently partnered with Brookings to research that better way, culminating in a report titled “Rebuilding the Dream: Inclusive Growth in the Indianapolis Region.” It begins with a recognition that the economy is “misaligned between employer needs and workforce capability, and riddled with barriers to upward mobility,” and it urges policymakers to focus on removing those barriers and creating the conditions for inclusive and sustainable growth.

Rather than a competition to bring new employers to the region, the report advocates an emphasis on expanding companies that are already here, especially but not exclusively in so-called “advanced” industries (tech, very broadly defined). If those companies are to grow, however, they need access to a workforce capable of doing the jobs they are creating. The report enumerates the multiple barriers those potential employees face, and recommends a comprehensive and strategic approach to their removal: improved transportation, childcare,  health care innovations, language and training opportunities, etc.

This makes so much sense.

Rather than prospecting for companies willing to relocate and then bribing them with our tax dollars, the Chamber wants us to spend those dollars on measures that will reduce the mismatch between employer needs and the ability of unemployed or underemployed residents to meet those needs.

This is an investment that would pay real–rather than PR– dividends. Policymakers should endorse it.

Playing The Economic Development Lottery

Amazon’s recent announcement that it would be “accepting proposals” for a secondary headquarters has set off a predictable–and unfortunate– competition by cities all over the country.

“Pick me! Pick me!” Even Indianapolis and Fishers have teamed up for the hunt.

The Brookings Institution gets the dynamics right.

In the world of state and local economic development, Amazon is a whale. The possibility of 50,000 highly-paid jobs for professionals at a new $5 billion development is too tempting to pass up for any metro area with even the slimmest hope of courting one of the largest and most profitable companies in the world. Amazon’s unsubtle hint that tax incentives will play a big role in its decision helps ensure it will receive one of the biggest packages in history. Already, cities and states have rushed to announce their hope to entice Amazon with their distinct value proposition, and—in all likelihood—breathtaking handouts.

This begs important questions about the wisdom of state and local economic development strategies and their ability to remain focused on addressing the real challenges American communities face today.

Amazon’s shameless invitation to see who will offer the biggest bribe does indeed raise “important questions” about standard economic development practices–practices which assume a zero-sum competition to entice employers to relocate to the redevelopment officer’s city or state.

That competition is expensive for bidders, most of whom have no real prospect of securing the prize, and even more expensive for taxpayers of the eventual winner. As the Brookings article points out, Amazon undoubtedly narrowed its choices to two or three locations before it ever  announced its search for a headquarters site.

Amazon’s faux competition will lure one otherwise enviable place into handing over a huge amount of its taxpayers’ money to a fabulously wealthy corporation for something that place could have gotten for free.

As anyone who has ever been involved in one of these efforts can attest, cities will waste significant staff time calculating and crafting proposals, time and effort that could have gone into solving other problems.

It is past time to revisit economic development policies that center on these expensive efforts to lure employer A from location B to location C. Instead, we need to take a hard look at the strengths and weaknesses of our local economy, and determine what measures would help us grow the employers who are already here.

What are the jobs that are open? Why aren’t they being filled? Are there “skill gaps” keeping jobless Hoosiers from filling them? If so, what can we do to provide unemployed workers with the necessary skills? Is the problem transportation–the inability of workers to get to the places they are needed? Can we improve public transportation to solve that problem?

In other words, what are the unmet needs of Hoosier employers and workers, and how can we meet those needs?

Political figures love to cut ribbons and announce that manufacturer A or retailer B is moving to town and hiring X number of employees. Those announcements rarely include enumerations of the costly enticements (bribes) that accompanied the decision to locate here: tax abatements, infrastructure improvements, training grants and the like.

Efforts to grow the industries and other enterprises that are already here would not only be more cost-effective, they would also be fairer. These are employers who are already part of our community, after all–already paying taxes, already hiring local residents. They may not be as glamorous as Amazon, but in the real-world scheme of things, they’re much more important.

Amazon may be a whale, but we don’t have to emulate Ahab.