The seducing of Amazon has turned into a litmus test of sorts for me. I've made a (sadly) very long list of cities below I don't plan to ever reside in — places that have shown a pathetic level of desperation. I'm actually proud of Minnesota. Our governor, who never met a subsidy he didn't like, who thinks success is subsidizing businesses to move from one community to the other, initially expressed enthusiasm over putting a package together for Amazon. Props to Minnesota's business leaders for pressuring him to do otherwise. We put together a modest bid just to be Minnesota Nice, but we're not mortgaging our future for a nice headline today.
My least favorite example (which is the way my daughters describe things that they loath) has to be Frisco, Texas. I've been to Frisco. It is clearly in the grips of the Illusion of Wealth, including all of the feelings of superiority — as if their unique brilliance created the massive wealth they live with — and not recognizing the pattern around them suggesting both the accidental origin and the inevitable end.
I posted something in the Strong Towns Facebook feed a while back about Frisco and was savaged on my own personal wall by a resident (the digital equivalent of putting dog feces on the front stoop of your enemy). Whatever you think of Amazon, they aren't stupid. There's no way they go to Frisco, or any similar dead-end suburb, regardless of their own estimation of themselves.
The best meme on this came from the Onion, which put together an article depicting Philadelphia razing their downtown in anticipation of landing Amazon. Their imaged quote was:
“We look forward to all the jobs and economic benefits that will be coming our way once Amazon decides to call what used to be Center City home.”
As many of you know, I'm not anti-Amazon. I think they have a role to play, particularly during the transition from a mall and big box economy to a Main Street economy. I'm also grateful that the ridiculousness of modern gambling....err....finance allows me to get subsidized toothpaste and boxer shorts delivered to my front step. Still, this whole Amazon HQ2 situation — which I originally wrote about earlier this year and which we're reposting today — has demonstrated for everyone how weak and desperate our local governments are. This is not a system that works. It needs to change. - Chuck Marohn
I have two daughters. It occurred to me early on that my behavior, especially towards my wife, would become a reference point for normalcy that would stick with them throughout their lives. I would define, with my actions, their expectations for what a spouse should be. That freaked me out and still does, especially as I struggle every day to be the parent that I think I should be for them.
As they've gotten older — my oldest turned 13 last month and the other is 10 — something else has started to dawn on me. My influence as a measuring stick for their future spouse is waning and their own decision-making and options are expanding. They're not at dating age yet, but from this point forward, the happiness and fulfillment of their future relationships is going to be far more dependent on who they are than what I am.
What kind of person will be attracted to them? Will it be someone who is intimidated by a confident, intelligent woman or someone who is drawn to such people? Will it be someone who values an independent thinker or someone who preys on the submissive and needy? Will it be someone who is superficial or who has great emotional depth?
The answer to those questions will depend on who my daughters become. If they are confident and assertive, they will tend to attract people who love to be with confident and assertive people. If they are thoughtful and well-read, they will be more likely to attract someone who appreciates their intelligence. In other words, as I think about their future happiness in their relationships, the best thing I can do for them is to help them become the kind of women that attract good people, the kind of future adults that command respect, invite kindness and seek to surround themselves with thoughtful, generous and loving people.
My greatest hope for my daughters is that they grow to be strong people.
Last week, Amazon announced that it plans to open a second headquarters — to court a second city, as it were. They issued an RFP and invited cities to submit marriage proposals. Suddenly, Amazon — one of the country's hottest companies — is also its most eligible bachelor.
To Amazon's surprise, they are finding out that's not how things work in America. American cities are strong. They're confident. They have a swagger that cannot be denied. When we look at America's cities, we see healthy balance sheets, strong social capital and a pervasive spirit of pragmatic independence. If Amazon wants a second city, it's going to have to prove itself worthy...
Yeah, who am I kidding? Like a bad Lifetime movie, desperate cities throughout the so-called Land of Milk and Honey predictably started groveling at Amazon's feet. "Choose me! Choose me!" they cried. The list of suitors is as long as it is pathetic. A small sample:
- Chicago confirmed that they are making a bid, because nothing suggests stability like a state teetering on bankruptcy. Never let a crisis go to waste.
- Memphis, a city doing so much right if they would only stop shooting themselves in the foot, will try to undercut Mexican wages to prove they won't cost as much as those other high-maintenance cities.
- There is no city who thinks bigger than Dallas and so they'll be submitting a bid hoping Amazon can keep them out of bankruptcy, at least until they can get a few more highways built.
- Kansas City is going to make a bid to put Amazon in a LEED-platinum, Smart Growth building in a cornfield 30-miles out of town. That is, if they can get the Missouri DOT to build them a new interchange.
- Cincinnati's mayor has said he will do whatever it takes, including allowing single family homes to be rehabbed and converted to a duplex in declining neighborhoods. (Okay, probably not that; there are limits).
- Oakland and San Jose will be hoping that their affordable housing market and fluid, non-committed work force will make them stand out in a bid.
- The beautiful, exciting city of Grand Rapids, Michigan (population 196,000), is planning to meet Amazon's 1 million people threshold by defining their metropolitan area to include Detroit (2.5 hours away) and Chicago (3 hours away).
- Connecticut is hoping the fact that its state capital is heading into bankruptcy doesn't put a damper on what is sure to be a competitive bid.
- St. Louis is "all abuzz" and is just hoping Amazon would like to operate out of the former St. Louis Rams stadium, which the state will still be paying for until 2022. Their bid will include naming rights for what will become the Gateway Amazon Arch sitting in the Prime Plaza.
- San Diego is going to do likewise with their empty stadium site. Plus, San Diego.
- Irvine, California, where the council recently noted that online shopping is hurting their sales tax-dependent budget, is hoping to cut out the middleman.
- Greensboro, Charlotte and Raleigh are all looking to submit bids unaware that Amazon's requirement is for a "stable and business-friendly environment" (emphasis added). I love all those cities but they have a serious stability problem at their state capital.
- And my own home state of Minnesota, where the children are all above average, will be submitting a bid. Our governor's name is Dayton, as in Dayton-Hudson, as in Target Corporation. The wheels on the bus go round and round.
In the reaction to Amazon's announcement, there has been excitement from the CNBC/Bloomberg crowd, but it has been countered by disgust from people who loathe Amazon as well as those who see this as the proverbial race to the bottom we so often witness with professional sports franchises.
Here's an excerpt from a piece by Hamilton Nolan that captures the disgust narrative:
This is a method that completely forsakes all of the benefits of public cooperation and planning in favor of chaos and desperation. This is crabs in a pot. These corporate attempts to play state and local governments against one another at taxpayer expense should be made illegal. Instead, they are treated as fun competitions to be “won,” exhibitions of civic pride. They’re not.
They are exhibitions of the grotesque power imbalance between private and public capital in America. Elected officials routinely brag over winning these degrading competitions for corporate locations without ever admitting the enormous public costs. Whichever city “wins” Amazon’s headquarters will do so by ceding to the enormously powerful company money that should, by normal laws, be going into the public till, to build schools and roads and pay firefighters and do things that support everyone. Instead that money will support Amazon and its shareholders. This is not a desirable system.
It's been a while, but in prior years I frequently received calls and emails asking me to come to a city and help them stop a Walmart. I always turned these down. I'm not anti-Walmart. I'm also on the record as not being anti-Amazon. I see them both as players in the game, the natural outcome of what happens when we become slaves to growth, centralize power to that end and transform our people from citizens to consumers. If it wasn't Jeff Bezos and Amazon, it would be someone else. This is the outcome of the game we've created.
What should be astounding is how desperate our cities are — how weak and fragile they appear, yet how normal that seems to everyone. It's hard to blame America's cities for lining up to compete for Amazon's love and affection; they desperately need it.
In pursuit of growth, we've spent the last seventy years robbing the strength and resiliency of our cities, towns and neighborhoods. We've induced them to take on more debt and obligations than they can ever hope to repay just so GDP can hit the next quarter's target number. Our cities are fragile and desperate. Long ago, we exposed them to the predators. We should not be surprised by any of these efforts to pursue Amazon.
You're right to be disgusted by this, but pragmatically, you should be looking more towards the cities than the predators. To go back to the Lifetime movie analogy, they often end with the wife beater getting killed or arrested, with the wife and kids free to start anew. What isn't included is the fact that many women who are abused in one relationship end up in another similarly abusive relationship. It's a cycle and, for a variety of reasons, they are often easy prey.
People who help abuse victims understand that, to break the cycle of abuse, victims need to become independent of their abusers. They not only need physical separation, they need an ability to independently feed and shelter themselves, to buy clothing and transportation, to have a supportive network of friends, to stand up for themselves, to have their own legitimate sense of self worth, and so on. While I'm not a fan of the American brand of a social safety net, I understand that a large component of it — and a large reason why it has ongoing support — is that it empowers those who would otherwise be victims to stand independently.
There aren't enough prisons to lock up all the abusers and, in reality, most things that should be considered abuse are not punishable crimes anyway. One big way to end abuse is to help people become stronger, more confident, more supported and more capable in their own right.
The way we are going to stop our cities from being abused is to help them become financially strong and prosperous — to become Strong Towns. My dream is that someday in the future, a major corporation issues an RFP and nobody cares. My dream is that a business shows up looking for a subsidy and our cities — collections of Strong Citizens working together — refuse to sacrifice their own strength and prosperity.
I dream of the day when a business will want to move to my city because my city is awesome, not because I'm willing to throw everything away just to get them to pretend they love me.
(Top photo by Steve Jurvetson.)