By Patrick O’Hannigan
Jeff Bezos is not Victor Frankenstein, striving to animate a monster in his laboratory. That said, local leaders doing a happy dance over the idea that his company might build a big new campus in North Carolina would do well to remember that the rest of us have sound reasons to keep pitchforks and torches in good repair.
The Triangle made the finalist list of 20 metropolitan areas vying to host Amazon’s second corporate headquarters. Most of the reservations from people who do not welcome that announcement revolve around negative economic impact. More specifically, skeptics question what 50,000 white-collar workers and their families might do to worsen problems we already have with rising home prices, overcrowded schools, and substandard roadways.
Dazzled by visions of a boost to regional prestige, Gov. Roy Cooper and Mayor Nancy McFarland seem loathe to admit that an Amazon project of that size would be a mixed blessing at best.
Last September, Brian Balfour noted that Amazon executives were looking for big tax breaks in any region they might commit to. In January, just after the finalists were announced, Donald Bryson turned a gimlet eye on what he called the “national bribing war among states and cities” that Amazon had provoked. His key question then was, “If Governor Cooper and Commerce Secretary Tony Copeland were willing to offer $1.5 billion in taxpayer dollars for 4,000 automotive workers in Randolph County, what will they offer Amazon for 50,000 jobs in Raleigh?”
The self-consciously progressive Indy Week speculated about incentives with which Amazon could be courted, and turned rather surprisingly to libertarians at the John Locke Foundation for sobering thoughts about why a huge influx of well-heeled workers to the Raleigh area might be problematic (Note, please, that the median home price in Seattle, where Amazon has its original headquarters, is $730,000 and rising). Along similar lines, the Wall Street Journal predicted that a hidden cost of incentive packages is that “other companies will demand the same hefty tax breaks conferred on the online retail giant.”
Two months after the finalist announcement, the basket of goodies being offered has not yet rounded into focus, so Rick Smith of WRAL TechWire wrote a column complaining about traffic in the Triangle. By way of fixing things like the exodus from RTP on Interstate 40 every weeknight, he plugged a project featuring “autonomous two-person cars” on a “guideway railing system” developed by NC State University alumni.
What many pundits have not mentioned are potential Amazon impacts to “bedroom” communities like Pittsboro, Wake Forest, and Holly Springs. Fifty thousand employees and their families won’t all fit into Raleigh neighborhoods. If you think the kerfuffle in Five Points over whether to bulldoze six old homes for the sake of a church parking lot is entertaining, you can count on larger and louder arguments over Amazon initiatives.
For example, alternative energy seems gentle and responsible when it means using vegetable oil to power a bus used as a coffee delivery vehicle, but there’s nothing gentle about constructing 100+ wind turbines, each of which has a propeller diameter more than twice the wingspan of a Boeing 747. (Amazon is doing that in West Texas).
Proud as local leaders are of the fact that one in five Raleigh-area workers are already employed in technology, science, or professional services, they seem incapable of wondering whether the bloom is off the rose for parts of the tech sector. As Glenn Reynolds observed for USA Today, “Your computer and phone used to be ways for you to learn more about the world than had ever been possible before in human history; now your devices have turned into tools for governments and corporations to keep tabs on you in ways that have never been possible before in human history.”
If they arrive here in force, Amazon executives will be working closely with politicians to the detriment of freedoms that most of us take for granted, such as the freedom to tell ourselves that local policies are set with at least a nod toward impartiality. For example, model airplane enthusiasts are accustomed to frustration at hearings over public park usage, where their interests do not always coincide with those of hikers or cricket players. For the most part, however, no single hobbyist group dominates the others. That dynamic would almost certainly change if a company known for experimenting with things like drone delivery inserts itself into the mix. Suppose Amazon donates drones to every sub-station in the Raleigh police department, or zoning boards look more kindly on Whole Foods than on other grocery chains because Amazon Prime memberships earn discounts there? With an employer that size calling the shots, the relationship between business and government is more likely to be conspiratorial than adversarial. And the impacts wouldn’t stop at business. Amazon’s footprint would extend to the need for schools, staffing and building sites – all potentially expensive questions for taxpayers. Those who think Amazon wouldn’t have significant influence over that process are misguided. Piper, meet paycheck – and play that tune. Get the picture?
Amazon has yet to suffer the facepalm embarrassments for which Uber and Facebook made news, (Uber when a self-driving car with an unresponsive human observer in it killed a woman in Arizona, and Facebook when it was caught sharing user data with a political research firm). Nevertheless, it’s only a matter of time until the company is embroiled in controversies bigger than whether it strong-arms publishers to release e-books in Kindle-compatible formats to the detriment of the Nook e-reader sold by Barnes & Noble. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has the same overweening ambition common to other successful technocrats (“Our goal with Amazon Prime, make no mistake, is to make sure that if you are not a Prime member, you are being irresponsible,” Bezos says).
The Human Rights Campaign, a group advocating for LGBTQ rights, has yet to forgive the North Carolina legislature for House Bill 2, and people there seem to hope that Bezos feels the same way. While the Amazon CEO keeps philanthropic impulses close to the vest, any entrepreneur who buys controlling stakes in Whole Foods and The Washington Post can surely be described as an activist, also. Were Amazon to build a headquarters campus in the Triangle, its employees would be courted as hard as its money has been, and the jockeying for position among partisans for competing causes would stoke resentments rather than calming them. The better outcome would be for Amazon to plant its giant footprint elsewhere.
Patrick O’Hannigan is a Civitas contributor, a father of two, and a technical writer and editor. He resides in Morrisville, North Carolina.