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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Saturday Soother – Amazon Bails on NYC Edition

The Daily Escape:

Marijuana Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands – 2017 photo by Wrongo

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Michael Bloomberg agree on something, it’s worth taking seriously, and neither wanted the Amazon deal with NYC. And this week, Amazon scuttled its plans to build its HQ2 in Long Island City, (LIC) Queens, New York City, citing opposition by “state and local politicians.”

Amazon’s abrupt announcement to withdraw from the deal came after it was roughed up at two City Council meetings along with enduring the indignity of having to contend with anti-gentrification protestors and union leaders.

There were two big problems that Amazon faced in LIC. First, they were getting a huge tax subsidy, about $2.8 billion. The tax subsidy looked even worse when we learned this week that Amazon nearly doubled its profits to $11.2 billion in 2018 from $5.6 billion the previous year and, once again, didn’t pay a single cent of federal income taxes.

It didn’t help that the state and city announced the massive subsidies when both are also contending with large budget deficits. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, citing a shortfall of $1 billion in revenues, told city agencies to cut their budgets by $750 million by April. And these cuts would have to be recurring.

This helped build outrage about the nearly $3-billion corporate welfare program for Amazon.

The second problem was gentrification in the LIC neighborhood. Immediately after the announcement, real estate prices zoomed, precisely when Manhattan prices were falling. The NY real estate industry was to be one of the primary beneficiaries of the HQ2 project, but local residents would be driven out of their neighborhoods.

Amazon has a poor track record in Seattle. They had fiercely opposed a local tax on large companies to fund housing for the homeless, and got it reversed one month after it had taken effect. Microsoft, after the tax law was scuppered, pledged $500 million to fund affordable housing for the low and middle income in the Puget Sound area, and encouraged other companies to make similar efforts.

Amazon didn’t join with Microsoft.

All is not lost. Amazon says it will still be expanding employment in NYC. And LIC has been a hot real estate/development market for several years, long before Bezos started playing his urban version of the Hunger Games. If the commercial construction in LIC over the past five years was happening in a second-tier US city, it would be equivalent to an entirely new business district.

A third problem was Amazon’s sense of entitlement. They expected zero push back, and their New York City campaign was inept. Amazon seems to have thought that since it had the governor and mayor in its pocket, all it had to do was show up for photo ops. The NYT points out Amazon didn’t even hire a native to grease the wheels:

“…the company did not hire a single New Yorker as an employee to represent it in discussions with local groups. Its main representatives traveled between Washington and Manhattan, and only one had moved into an apartment to work with community members and foster support.”

Amazon’s leaving was celebrated by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who represents the district. She complained about the “creeping overreach of one of the world’s biggest corporations“, and maybe that was the final straw for Bezos.

So props to AOC, and to the local politicians for standing up to this example of corporate welfare.

It’s possible that Jeff Bezos’s sudden change of heart was that he couldn’t stomach the idea of not being able to push around NYC the way he bullied Seattle into dropping its homeless tax. In NYC, he’d have to curry favor, feign interest in the concerns of locals, and make occasional contributions to the city.

Bezos may have felt all that was too high a price. But we should assume Amazon penciled out the deal, and didn’t like the result. For Amazon, it may have been a prudent business decision, artfully dressed up as a response to the political opposition the incentive package was facing.

Maybe, it’s no longer business as usual in America. AOC and other young people may not have money, but that doesn’t mean they can’t use power.

These corporate tax subsidy deals never add up for the cities that make them. Maybe people in other cities will learn from this NYC moment, and fight against the selling of our cities and towns to the uber-wealthy.

Now, it’s time to let go of Amazon, AOC, and Trump’s National Emergency. It’s time to get some Saturday Soothing.

Start by brewing up a vente cup of Roasting Rabbi Coffee, where the company slogan is: “Releasing the Holy Spark in Each Bean!” Try their Breakfast Blend.

Now settle into your most comfy chair and listen to Valentina Lisitsa play Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, recorded live in May, 2010 in Leiden, Holland:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

 

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United Airlines: Try Doing The Right Thing

The Daily Escape:

Kravica waterfall in Bosnia Herzegovina -photo by Vedrana Tafra

Wrongo needs to start by saying that he has nearly 800,000 lifetime air miles on United Airlines (UAL) and, after the forcible removal of a paying passenger, he will try to avoid flying them again.

You know the story: United Express in Chicago loads passengers on a plane heading to Louisville. Then four employees arrive, needing seats. United was unwilling to offer enough compensation to induce passengers to give up their seats, and ordered four passengers off of the aircraft. Three left, but one refused, saying he had to be in Louisville in the morning.

United officials called the Department of Chicago Aviation, (part of the City of Chicago), the type of government agency that you never even knew existed, to remove him. Officers grabbed his arms, dragged him screaming across the armrests and along the floor and off of the aircraft, apparently injuring him in the process.

Unusual situations like this test organizations and their leadership. The key information here is that UAL wanted to make space to carry their own staff. The flight was not “overbooked”, UAL wanted to take back seats of a few paying passengers to accommodate their own staff. Apparently, UAL had bungled its own logistics, and then looked to its paying customers to solve the problem.

Poor customer service like this exists because of corporate culture, and because the company rarely has to pay a price for it.

In Wrongo’s past, he managed 1000 employees who had technical support and/or customer service contact with the public. We had a mantra: Know when to Do The Thing Right, and know when to Do The Right Thing. 95% of the time, the job is to follow established procedures, to guide the customer to a pre-established solution that had been vetted, one that was company policy.

Our staff’s job was to “do the thing right” in those cases, to follow our processes.

5% (or less) of the time, our people would see something novel, outside the scope of established policy. Something that called for reaching an equitable solution that wasn’t in any manual.

Then, our employees needed to “do the right thing”.

These aren’t difficult concepts to instill, they are entirely consistent with most people’s personal experience, and usually with their views about fairness.

United should try empowering people to do the right thing, when going by the book fails the customer. Whatever it might have cost to compensate volunteers, it would have been far cheaper than what UAL will now pay to this passenger.

This also illustrates how America is changing: Large corporations are willing to use the police to enforce their policies. The passenger’s choice was to comply with police demands, or face physical intimidation, or worse. And Chicago’s sub-contracted police were too eager to jump into the fray.

We should ask: Did the injured passenger break any law by refusing to give up his seat? If that’s the case, the plane was filled with lawbreakers. If not, why was an element of the Chicago police doing UAL’s dirty work?

The Seventh Amendment of the Constitution guarantees a jury trial for civil cases in the federal courts:

In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved

The $20 amount is trivial in today’s economy. But that idea of a jury trial has been killed by corporatist judges on the Supreme Court, and other courts, and has been replaced the company’s terms of service. When you agree, it takes away most of your rights — disputes are resolved through arbitration that the corporation almost always wins. In this case, UAL’s terms of service gives them almost unlimited authority when dealing with its passengers, including a rule regarding “refusal of transport” (Rule 21) and “denial of boarding compensation” (Rule 25).

But that doesn’t justify bad corporate behavior. Or violence.

But, thanks to Congress’s bipartisan policy of ignoring anti-trust laws for several decades, just four firms now control the vast majority of domestic flights, and they don’t really compete with one another. This is from the DOT’s report on airline competition:

Less competition means you don’t have to worry as much about annoying people with delays or overbooked flights. It also means you can make a lot more money. There’s less pressure to cut ticket prices — even when the price of oil, an airline’s biggest cost, is plummeting — and it’s easier to introduce ever-more obnoxious fees and charges.

UAL isn’t worried about you sharing a video of a passenger being dragged off their plane, because you have no real choice when you fly from certain cities.

Ultimately, the responsibility to blunt this trend is ours. Replace Citizens United. Remove corporatist judges. Keep our police on a short leash.

Don’t just upload a video, organize your neighbors and vote!

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