Could governments ever stick to “nonaggression pacts” involving companies?

As companies like Amazon look for good deals from local communities, one economist suggests non-aggression pacts:

It’s hard to draw conclusions about how much local economies gain from fulfillment centers and whether incentives are warranted from the experience of individual towns or counties, said Tim Bartik, senior economist at the Michigan-based W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

Fulfillment centers likely do benefit the surrounding community, but the gains may be modest compared with other types of economic development projects that could generate more business for local companies, Bartik said. The jobs have modest wages, limiting the amount workers would potentially spend at local retailers, and warehouses generally don’t patronize local suppliers, he said…

He advocates states form “nonaggression pacts” to contain costs of incentives that simply shift jobs from one part of the country to another, though he acknowledges those pledges are unlikely to stick.

“The next company comes along, and they decide it’s an exception,” Bartik said. “We haven’t seen one that’s really survived.”

Here are at least four arguments I could imagine people making against such pacts:

  1. Competition is central to the American economic system. Why shouldn’t local communities be able to offer whatever they want to attract a company or development? Having and sticking to such pacts is collusion by communities.
  2. If companies cannot get good deals from communities, they will leave the country. This would not make much sense to me as the American market is a pretty lucrative one but it could apply more for certain companies or industries.
  3. Local officials need to be able to show local results, not that they are cooperating with other places. They want to be able to say that they brought specific jobs or benefits to their community, not that the whole region is benefiting (though this may be true).
  4. What is good for companies is good for communities and America. This is a tricky argument all around: thriving companies are important yet it is much harder to figure out whether firms are helping communities in the ways they should. (This is an open question these days involving Walmart, Amazon, and tech companies.)

Perhaps the best argument that could be made for such pacts is that the general public – in the abstract – wins if companies are unable to obtain massive tax breaks or incentives for certain actions.

For better or worse, the decision Amazon makes about where to locate its second headquarter will keep this issue in the spotlight for a long time.

Can you be opposed to Walmart in your community but not Amazon?

Alana Semuels compares the fight of Greenfield, Massachusetts and other New England towns against Walmart and other big box stores to a struggle with shopping on Amazon. The story begins and ends with an activist who led the fight in Greenfield against Walmart:

Al Norman has been fighting to keep Walmart and other big-box retailers out of small towns like this one for 25 years. He’s been successful in Greenfield, his hometown and the site of his first battle with Walmart, and in dozens of other towns across the country—victories he documents on his website Sprawl-Busters, an “International Clearinghouse on Big Box Anti-Sprawl Information.” Partly because of Norman’s efforts to keep out such stores, Greenfield still has a Main Street with dozens of businesses, including a bookstore, a record store, and Wilson’s, one of the last independently owned department stores in the country.

But Norman and business owners in Greenfield are noticing that the Main Street stores are now struggling in the face of another force that’s become more and more powerful in recent years: e-commerce…

But the challenge posed by online shopping to local businesses is immense. Even Al Norman, who refuses to shop at Walmart, says he doesn’t have the same aversion to Amazon, in part because he thinks the internet is the future of shopping. His wife has a Prime account, and he recently ordered tea from the website when he couldn’t find it locally, he said, adding that he has no plans to organize protests or zoning meetings about Amazon. He doesn’t love the idea that some of his money is going to Jeff Bezos, “the richest human around,” as he refers to the Amazon founder, and so still shops locally whenever possible. He doesn’t know whether he’ll still be doing that in a decade. When he launched the first campaign against Walmart in Greenfield 25 years ago, he led activists with bumper stickers that said, “If you build it, we won’t come.” He knows the same can’t be said for Amazon, because shoppers, including him, are already there.

Can a community oppose Walmart and not Amazon? Here are some of the common complaints against Walmart and other big box retailers:

  1. Land use, particularly the large parking lots and the contribution to sprawl and driving as well as issues with water and open space.
  2. A negative influence on local businesses. Walmart’s prices and options made it an attractive place to shop compared to local small businesses.
  3. A detrimental effect on local social life, ranging from decaying downtowns that used to be at the center of civic life to low wage jobs affecting health care systems and local wealth.
  4. The wealth generated by large corporations located somewhere else with little visible impact on communities where stores are located.

Do these same concerns apply to Amazon? They could: Amazon’s warehouses and other facilities take up space, it certainly affects local businesses, it encourages less social interaction as you can shop from home, and Amazon has tremendous revenues (and its founder, like the Waltons, have tremendous wealth). But, it seems like the fact that Amazon is “somewhere else” compared to the big box stores – the physical footprint of Amazon touches fewer communities that all the locations of Walmart, Target, Home Depot, and others – means that people can support it without feeling as bad about its negative effects on communities. Because it is viewed as being online, Amazon is an issue for only some communities and not many.

Yet, I think an argument could be made that Amazon and other online retailers can shape local conditions even more than big box stores or other local retailers. The Internet makes it possible to act as if we are in a completely placeless world (even though this is not true) and to leave certain problems for others to solve in other places. Only in certain circumstances, like when cities fight to offer Amazon a great tax break or deal in order to become home to a second headquarters or groups in Silicon Valley express frustration about mammoth tech headquarters, are we reminded that even Internet companies affect communities.

To be consistent, big box retailers and Internet retailers both threaten local communities and smaller businesses. One may be more obvious than others and they offer different kinds of conveniences but both can contribute to a less civically minded and placed America.

Amazon jobs vs. no jobs in American cities and suburbs

With Amazon expanding in many locations across the United States, are these the kinds of jobs communities should seek? Here is the conclusion of one recent discussion of the issue:

It’s true that cities desperate for jobs may find it difficult to attract companies if they pass minimum-wage mandates or other labor laws. But the alternative, it seems, is jobs that don’t create a middle-class lifestyle for residents, which in turn affects local spending, the housing market, the tax base, and leads to a poor standard of living. Many cities, San Bernardino included, are calculating that any job creation is good news. They may soon find that with Amazon, that calculation does not apply.

This is not a new issue although Amazon might be the most visible manifestation of concerns right at the moment. Walmart has and still does face such questions. Fast food and retail jobs as larger categories attract this scrutiny at points.

For two reasons, I do not see most American communities during down these jobs, even if they are not ideal or even good positions of employment.

  1. Every politician from the local to federal level wants to promote job creation. It is still hard to have a deeper conversation about the kinds of jobs being created. What tends to matter are the numbers. If you are the politician who can claim adding jobs (and very rarely is this the result of one person or a short process), you have a powerful political weapon.
  2. What is the alternative to not accepting these jobs? Companies might move right over the border. This happened in Chicago when they insisted on certain with Walmart. The company responded by opening locations right over the border and the jobs and revenues went to other communities. If a community turns down jobs, will they be able to attract others? Until we have either regional cooperation where sets of communities set these conditions or states pass overarching regulations (or a third option of universal basic income?), individual communities will be forced to make tough decisions: promoting less than ideal jobs or possibly having no jobs.

This issue will continue whether with Amazon or other companies.

What the losers for Amazon HQ#2 might gain

Amazon may be leading the way to more highly public location searches and there is one way this could help the communities who lose out:

All may not be lost for the 237 also-rans, though. They’ll have thick books filled with available sites, potential incentives and glossy pages touting their best attributes, and they’ve learned lessons for their next big pitch.

“A positive outcome of this could be the self-reflection of communities throughout the country,” Sessa said. “They’ve had to be very honest about where their strengths are and where their weaknesses are. Only one is going to be selected, and the other 237 will have assembled a lot of good information. If the weaknesses are addressed, the beneficiaries will be the companies who reside there now and the companies looking to move there in the future.”

This is a positive takeaway from what promises to be a disappointing outcome for numerous major cities: they will be better positioned to make the next pitch. But, I can imagine multiple ways this self-reflection and self-improvement will not work in the long run:

  1. There are not many future large-scale searches like this for cities to participate in. Amazon is a special case both because of its size as well as its desire to add jobs (rather than relocate existing facilities and employees).
  2. It is unlikely there are enough major companies for every major city to win something in the coming years. Additionally, major companies tend to want to locate near other major companies and in hot areas.
  3. The tax breaks and incentives required to attract these companies may not be worth it, particularly in an era when many communities are struggling to generate revenues.

In my mind, honest self-reflection in many communities would involve the realization that fighting for the biggest companies is not in their best interest.

Several of the large tax breaks offered by cities for Amazon’s HQ2

One reporter went digging into the proposals cities made for Amazon’s second headquarters and some of the offers are extraordinary:

Example: Chicago has offered to let Amazon pocket $1.32 billion in income taxes paid by its own workers. This is truly perverse. Called a personal income-tax diversion, the workers must still pay the full taxes, but instead of the state getting the money to use for schools, roads or whatever, Amazon would get to keep it all instead…

Most of the HQ2 bids had more traditional sweeteners. Such as Chula Vista, California, which offered to give Amazon 85 acres of land for free (value: $100 million) and to excuse any property taxes on HQ2 for 30 years ($300 million). New Jersey remains the dollar king of the subsidy sweepstakes, having offered Amazon $7 billion to build in Newark…

Boston has offered to set up an “Amazon Task Force” of city employees working on the company’s behalf. These would include a workforce coordinator, to help with Amazon’s employment needs, as well as a community- relations official to smooth over Amazon conflicts throughout Boston. (Surely Amazon can handle these things itself?)…

Fresno promises to funnel 85 percent of all taxes and fees generated by Amazon into a special fund. That money would be overseen by a board, half made up of Amazon officers, half from the city. They’re supposed to spend the money on housing, roads and parks in and around Amazon.

And he has not even been able to see a significant minority of the proposals. It is as I suggested: a tax break bidding war is underway. It would be great to hear public leaders questioned about these offers and why they are willing to give up so much. How might such offers change their communities? How much will a city really benefit from the second headquarters if they give so much away?

A side thought: what if Amazon’s call for a second headquarters is really a way to flesh out what big cities are willing to offer for a major headquarters? The project has to have enough size and prestige that cities would make big concessions. Once they fall over themselves for this, can’t other corporations ask for similar deals?

Imagine corporate highways with autonomous vehicles

Pair self-driving vehicles with highways that can coordinate their movement and corporations may be interested. More on those highways:

Amazon was awarded a patent for a network that manages a very specific aspect of the self-driving experience: How autonomous cars navigate reversible lanes…

In the patent, Amazon outlines a network that can communicate with self-driving vehicles so they can adjust to the change in traffic flow. That’s particularly important for self-driving vehicles traveling across state lines onto new roads with unfamiliar traffic laws…

The patent also indicates that the roadway management system will help “assign” lanes to autonomous vehicles depending on where the vehicle is going and what would best alleviate traffic…

The main difference is that Amazon’s proposed network would be owned and operated by Amazon, not each individual automaker. It also appears to be designed so any carmaker’s vehicles can take advantage of the technology.

We’ve seen highways funded or operated with private money. But, imagine a highway built and run by Amazon for the primary purposes of moving Amazon traffic. With the traffic management capabilities and the autonomous vehicles, you could reduce the number of required lanes, increase speeds, and cut labor costs. Roads still aren’t cheap to construct but this may be feasible monetarily in particular corridors.

Even better: an Amazon Hyperloop.

Can you plan suburban growth around an Amazon distribution center?

Thanks to state tax breaks, Amazon will soon begin construction on a new distribution center in northeast Aurora. The new facility is said to bring 1,000+ jobs. The latest newsletter from the City of Warrenville discusses the new facility. The facility is located near the border with Warrenville and the city thinks this will be a good for Warrenville:

warrenvilletifamazon

Can an Amazon facility be an economic boon for a suburb, particularly in a portion of the community that is underdeveloped? At the least, the 1,000+ workers will have to live somewhere. Could there be certain facilities that pop up to serve the workers – fast food places? Gas stations? Dry cleaners? Tattoo parlors (wait, Warrenville has enough of those)? Adding students to the school system?

I’m sure the city is either working on estimates of this and it would be worth sharing with the public. Connecting the dots between a warehouse/distribution facility and other community amenities is not obvious and what is Warrenville willing to do to capitalize on this opportunity?