Opinion: Nothing new in Amazon’s game of musical chairs

So I saw the Amazon list. And what’s really interesting is that without my saying more, you know exactly what list I mean. Not the list of Amazon’s best-sellers or best deals. The list of cities that are finalists for HQ2, the fabled El Dorado sought by local politicians across the country — the second Amazon.com Inc. headquarters that carries among its rewards 50,000 high-paying jobs and $5 billion in investment.

And, like lots of people who’ve taken a look, I was left underwhelmed. Because what immediately struck me is how conventional it is. Amazon has pretty much picked the same finalists that any company with an eye toward building a new headquarters would pick.

I mean, seriously. New York. Duh. Boston. General Electric (or what’s left of it) is already heading there. Washington, D.C., and its environs. Like they need more jobs and pricey real estate. Atlanta, Dallas and Raleigh, North Carolina. Where everybody else is moving.

Utterly conventional. Yet we’re all talking about it. Writing about it. Arguing about it. Amazon has accomplished an enormous act of public relations. Companies move headquarters all the time. They choose where to invest. But usually it’s a semi-private process. They talk to the right city and state officials, presentations and offers are made, and then comes the announcement. The news is a two-day story, if that.

Only Amazon could have turned the process into an extravaganza, full of millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity, as the news media cover the story with the breathless anticipation one usually associates with the opening of a new Star Wars movie. Or perhaps the better comparison is an election. Because I can remember no time when both “winners” and “losers” in the competition for corporate offices have been so public.

A lot of money has already been spent by the contestants. Although municipalities have been cagey about exactly how much, one suspects that the amount is more than in the usual fight over a siting decision. Why? For one thing, Amazon, by publicly releasing its criteria, likely encouraged a significant investment from cities that might otherwise not have bothered. Beyond that, Amazon is Amazon. What local officials could resist the chance to lure one of the Big Four? Politicians excitedly claim credit for bringing much smaller Amazon projects to their states and cities. As they should. But that we might call business as usual. The publicity that will attach to landing HQ2 will be several orders of magnitude larger than landing a warehouse or fulfillment center. Just imagine being the mayor or governor who can go on television and say, over and over, “I brought Amazon here.” The prestige could make a political career.

But the process is humiliating. Victor Luckerson of The Ringer has mocked the quest for HQ2 as “Amazon’s megalomaniacal game show.” Maybe that’s a smidgen over the top. Still, one sees his point. Amazon has towns and cities across the country dancing to its tune. The real game is musical chairs. And, as you may remember, each time the music stops there are fewer chairs left.

In grade school, the game’s fun — at least if you’re sufficiently sharp-eyed and quick-witted. What I remember, though, is that there were some kids who always lost. Always. They were too slow, or too clumsy, or too easily distracted. The same kids, every time, failing to find a seat in time.

In Amazon’s game, after all of that dancing and running around, the result is an entirely conventional list of cities. What’s wrong with that? Arguably nothing. In principle, Amazon should do what’s best for Amazon. If HQ2 winds up in Boston or Dallas or Northern Virginia, well, that’s where companies are going these days. Decisions about headquarters investment tend to be guided by the decisions of peer companies, even when the peers are in different industries. When we cut past the hoopla, there’s no reason for Amazon to be different.

On the other hand, I find it a little surprising that there’s been no great outcry from the left about Amazon’s corporate responsibility in siting its second headquarters. Consider what the company could have done for income inequality by selecting Detroit or Hartford, Connecticut. An unfashionable city that rarely sees positive headlines would suddenly have become the hot new place for hip young professionals and the shopping, restaurants and housing that follow in their wake.

But no. The only even mildly unusual choice on the final list is Newark, New Jersey. Except that Newark isn’t unusual at all. The city’s gentrification is well underway, and (given the explosive growth of the New York metropolitan area) will likely rush onward, with or without Amazon.

By one estimate this week the favorites to land HQ2 are now Atlanta, Boston and Washington. The rich, it seems, are likely to get richer. Maybe it’s not Amazon’s job to help out the cities that are struggling. It’s sad, though, that a contemporary left that other times obsesses over inequality is content to let the same swift kids keep hogging the chairs.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and the author of several novels and nonfiction books.

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