In the biggest ever defeat for a subsidized project in history, Amazon announced February 14th that it was canceling its planned half of HQ2 for New York City, which was to receive subsidies worth at least $3.133 billion. After facing months of public opposition, the company provided a Valentine's Day present in the form of capitulation. Amazon showed that, like Electrolux, its efforts to extract maximum subsidies from 238 cities constituted corporate rent-seeking on a grand scale. Not only did Amazon conduct an exploitative public auction for the supposedly single HQ2 facility, it furthered the impression that it was engaging in rent-seeking by its refusal to discuss alternatives with New York officials, by its absolute insistence on opposing a union for its workers, and by its sudden though not unexpected cancellation announcement. Activists scorched the firm, too, for the fact that for the second year running, Amazon will pay 0 in federal income tax despite earning $11.2 billion in profits in 2018 and $5.6 billion in 2017.
This is not to be confused with Foxconn, which is looking more and more like an economic development failure. There, it appears that the company will not be able to provide the investment and benefits it promised in Wisconsin. With Amazon, what we have is a case of the company being unwilling to continue the political battle to obtain its $3+ billion in incentives. While Amazon is by far the largest project ever defeated, such defeats are not unprecedented. I participated in two successful campaigns in the late 1990s and early 2000s against abusive tax increment financing (TIF) projects in the St. Louis suburbs of Olivette and O'Fallon, but these were on the order of $40 or $50 million, not $3 billion. Alas, I was also on the losing side of an exceptionally bitter battle against a TIF-funded mall in Hazelwood, Missouri, which still hurts to think about. The residents lost their homes to eminent domain, the city administration was high-handed and manipulative, and the new mall contributed substantially to the death of at least two nearby malls, part of the $2 billion retail subsidy merry-go-round during 1990-2007 documented by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments.
In addition, as Richard Florida reports at Citylab and Good Job First points out at length, the victory has also energized reformers around the country searching for a solution to the problem of corporate bidding wars. I myself have received inquiries from multiple elected officials' offices about the European Union's systematic control of investment incentives, and I know of other efforts to make the shocking subsidy and perhaps even more shocking victory against it into a national teachable moment. For the first time in the over 20 years I have been fighting wasteful corporate subsidies, which is to say the vast majority of them, this is the first time it feels like it's possible that we could really see reform take place -- though not without a political battle royal. Buckle up!