In 1914, former President Theodore Roosevelt embarked on a journey of exploration deep into the Amazon rainforest. As chronicled by author Candice Millard in her book “River of Doubt”, Roosevelt and his fellow adventurers were unprepared for the hardships their expedition would encounter. They took with them the wrong boats, the wrong supplies, and the wrong attitude.
As was his wont, T.R. saw no problems ahead; only excitement and adventure. After all, the former president was a famed soldier and explorer. He had charged up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American war, and had roughed it living on his grit, intelligence and determination on expeditions to the plains of both North America and Africa. Why should he worry now?
But the Amazon proved to be different. All of Roosevelt’s previous experience had failed to prepare him for the unique challenges presented by the rainforest. He came very close to death; at one point he urged his companions (including one of his sons) to go on without him, but fortunately they refused. Roosevelt made it out of the Amazon alive, just barely, but the experience left him prone to debilitating bouts of malaria, and he died five years later.
And now a different kind of Amazon presents its own challenges to the people of New York, and while the potential perils are, of course, quite different, these are treacherous waters we are preparing to dive into nonetheless. As I’m sure all are aware, Amazon, the retailing behemoth, has tentatively agreed to build a new corporate center in Queens. Many cities around the country competed to host the new Amazon headquarters, and New York City (together with a site in northern Virginia) emerged victorious. It’s not hard to see the appeal of enticing Amazon into New York; there are estimates that the new Amazon facility will bring between 25,000 and 40,000 jobs with it. But to win the competition Governor Cuomo and the State have promised upward of $3 Billion in tax breaks to Amazon (whose CEO is widely considered to be the richest person on the planet). That’s quite a hefty price tag, even if it does come with Amazon Prime free delivery. Is it worth it?
The short answer is I don’t know for sure, and neither does anyone else. How this will all work out is pretty much anyone’s guess, but it is clear that there are potential pitfalls to be wary of. How will the Queens neighborhood (Long Island City) where the Amazon Center will be located cope with the massive influx of new workers? What will be the effect on traffic and the already overtaxed mass transit system? Will rents in the immediate area rise, pricing out long-time residents and small businesses? These are all questions that need to be carefully considered.
Not to mention, what of the cost? Whether to sports teams or major conglomerates, many cities have offered lavish incentives to private businesses to move into (or remain in) their neighborhood, only to be burned years later when the supposed benefits were never realized. There was an article this week in the New York Times concerning tax breaks routinely given for decades to huge petroleum and chemical companies in Louisiana. Have these companies produced jobs? Absolutely. But the tax breaks have been so massive, and have left local municipalities so strapped for cash (Louisiana is the second poorest state in the country), that they are beginning to reconsider the value of pouring government largesse into large private enterprises.
And that doesn’t bring into the picture the ecological and health consequences of subsidizing Big Oil in your backyard. Jobs are great, but they don’t in and of themselves obviate the need for large corporations to be good citizens, which includes paying their fair share of taxes so that decent living standards can be maintained for their employees and for their neighbors. And Amazon’s history of fighting unionization for their employees doesn’t auger well for their long-term prospects in New York City either.
All of this is not a definitive argument that New York should reject the Amazon deal (jobs are surely important, after all), but it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement either. What it tells us is that we have to look very carefully at all of the consequences, good and bad, that will result from the Amazon deal. Theodore Roosevelt, with all his experience in rugged living and outdoorsmanship, was woefully unprepared for his Amazon adventure. New York City should not make the same mistake.