It was easy enough to understand that Amazon’s decision to abandon its plan to put a second headquarters in New York City was fake. Anyone following the story could tell that the terms “abandon” and “plan” and “second headquarters” were all essentially meaningless. Cities had competed in what they thought was a winner-take-all contest for Amazon’s second headquarters, trying to offer the most abject giveaways to an unimaginably wealthy company, only to have Amazon declare it was splitting the prize between two places it wanted to expand anyway.
Then, when local politicians and residents in the area of the planned giveaway objected to the terms, Amazon made a big deal out of announcing it was not going to do the thing it was already not really going to be doing—although it was going to keep on doing the thing it really had been planning to do, namely adding more office space and hiring more people in New York City. The conflict was theatrical; politics and economic development imitates the logic of pro wrestling now.
Thus the editorial board of the New York Times chose to execute a remarkable heel turn. On November 14, after Amazon announced its half-choice of New York, the Times published an editorial under the headline “New York’s Amazon Deal Is a Bad Bargain.” The subheadline added: “The city has what the company wants, talent. Why pay them $1.5 billion to come?”
Exactly three months later, on February 14, the Times editorial board responded to Amazon’s announced withdrawal by withdrawing its own previous position: “New York Returns 25,000 Jobs to Amazon,” the new headline package read. “As the company cancels its plans for a major Queens campus, anti-corporate activists got what they wanted at a great cost.”
Anti-corporate activists such…the New York Times editorial board? The board blamed “bumper-sticker slogans” and lamented that “reasonable criticism of the deal was overwhelmed by opposition to the company itself.” Local officials and activists had been too harsh and unwelcoming, the Times wrote: “Perhaps they thought the city’s pool of skilled workers and many other attractions made it so irresistible that there was no need to negotiate.”
Where would Amazon’s critics have gotten the idea that the city had the talent Amazon wants, and that there was no reason to pay the company $1.5 billion to come?
The insincerity by the Times was obvious—as obvious as Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs tweeting about Amazon’s opponents being “anti-progress” and “anti-democratic,” after Goldman thought it had made a huge winning real-estate bet on Amazon-inflated Long Island City real estate. We are in the midst of a capital tantrum, in which people and corporations come completely unhinged at even the mildest suggestion that they should slow down their unchecked looting of the economy.
So Jeff Bezos flipped out at the prospect of having to negotiate a slightly less predatory deal, and the Times joined him in flipping out, in a tone that seemed snippily mismatched with $1.5 billion and a supposed (if vaporous) 25,000 jobs being at stake:
“We have the best talent in the world, and every day we are growing a stronger and fairer economy for everyone,” the mayor said. “If Amazon can’t recognize what that’s worth, its competitors will.” Because, you know, Amazon’s competitors have a great track record of seeing the future more clearly than Jeff Bezos.
Pow! Too bad they don’t have the technology to put a reaction gif on newsprint yet. A less snotty reading of history might note that Amazon’s competitors—the poor saps who used to try to sell books, for instance, among other New York industries—mostly have seen exactly what Jeff Bezos has been up to, and have spoken up about it, and have been crushed anyway while regulators declined to save them.
But here “Amazon’s competitors” meant Google and Facebook, who compete with it for workers and for world domination. And Google and Facebook are, in fact, eating up New York real estate, without making a game show out of it. As the November version of the Times editorial board put it:
[T]he requirements of job creation and retention now favor big cities such as New York. Throughout the world, such cities have become economic powerhouses because of their ability to concentrate the resources that global corporations increasingly need. The days when companies such as General Electric, IBM, AT&T and Mastercard fled the city for boring suburban campuses, where innovation goes to sleep, are over.
How did the Times editorial board lose its faith in the strength of the big city, or in the necessity of vigorous community engagement, in three short months? How did it go from wondering if “the promised 25,000 jobs will materialize” to treating those jobs, in a headline, as a real thing Amazon had been forced to confiscate from the city? What happened to all its warnings about “flimsy promises of job training” or the mayor and governor “doing an end run around the City Council and steamrollering the land-use process” or economists’ conclusions that “these job development payout schemes aren’t worth it” or Queens politicians seeing “another neighborhood sacrificed to the tech elite”?
The answer was at the very end of that first editorial: “So welcome, Jeff. Hope you enjoy your helipad.” The Times editorial board felt free to criticize the deal because it presumed the deal was done. They could put on a show of wanting Amazon held to account, as long as they were confident that Amazon wasn’t at any real risk of being accountable.
The only thing that changed from November to now was that Jeff Bezos made it clear he would not put up with even the performance of disagreement. Amazon was not willing to be seen renegotiating or cutting a modified deal. So it was time for a new performance, about how loony leftists and parochial politicians had ruined things for everyone. It didn’t matter if it was phony. The old argument against corporate power was phony too.