Sunday, May 6, 2018

The New Robber Barons

Amazon has done more than any other company to contribute to Seattle's affordable housing crisis.  Now the city is coming to collect Amazon's share, and as a result Amazon is now openly threatening to leave its new downtown building unfinished and take 7,000 jobs elsewhere if Seattle makes the company pay a dime.

On Wednesday, Amazon announced the company would halt the construction of a new building in downtown Seattle it was planning to build, jeopardizing some 7,000 jobs.

Why? Because the company opposes a tax being considered by the City Council.

The tax targets 500-600 businesses in the city that gross at least $20 million a year. The companies would be charged a “head tax” at $500 per employee. In 2021, the head tax would be replaced by a 0.7 percent payroll tax. The payroll tax would windup costing Amazon more than the initial head tax, considering Seattle Amazon employees are paid about an average of $110,000 per year, according to data from job-reviews site Glassdoor.

“I can confirm that pending the outcome of the head-tax vote by City Council, Amazon has paused all construction planning on our Block 18 project in downtown Seattle and is evaluating options to sub-lease all space in our recently leased Rainer Square building,” a spokesperson for Amazon told The Seattle Times.

The city council is expected to vote on the tax on May 14.

The city estimates the tax would raise an estimated $75 million annually, with Amazon paying roughly $20 million in 2019 and 2020. One might think for a company that pulled in $1.6 billion last quarter, they could afford to help out the city of Seattle and its most vulnerable residents, especially considering the extent to which Amazon’s presence in the city has exacerbated the housing crisis there.

Since 2010, when Amazon opened its first headquarters in the South Lake Union area of Seattle, housing costs have skyrocketed.

The median cost of a single-family home has more than doubled to $820,000, and rents have increased 64 percent, according to the Seattle Times. The average two-bedroom home in Seattle costs more than $2,000 per month. Only a third of condominiums in Seattle are priced below $500,000.

Amazon is willing to wreck everything over $20 million a year, and why shouldn't it be this obnoxious when dozens of cities are willing to destroy their local economies just to get Amazon's second corporate HQ?

Here's an idea.

Maybe stop shopping at Amazon?  Maybe cancel your Prime subscription?  Maybe let them know they already have more money than Walmart or Target ever had and that that they're too big to be allowed to continue?

Just a thought here in the feudal tech era.

Sunday Long Read: That Kansas Tornado Again

Kansas GOP Gov. Sam Brownback is on his way out as the state's chief executive, but his legacy of economic destruction will continue for a generation as the combination of red state austerity policies, production-at-all-cost agriculture, and rural-to-urban population shift has left the state's farm counties all but completely broken. The New Food Economy's Corie Brown:

My journey began last December, with a journalistic lead—a story I felt sure would confirm my belief in the power of good food.
I’d learned that a group of nonprofits led by the Kansas Health Foundation had spent years studying the depopulation of rural Kansas. Their research had yielded one central finding: local food stores selling fresh produce help to stabilize struggling communities. Last November, the consortium unveiled an initiative implemented by Kansas State University that could deliver up to $10 million through a mix of grants and loans to support such stores (the majority of those dollars will be provided in loans). 
The spark for this initiative came from Marci Penner, a self-starter in Inman, Kansas (population 1,353) who publishes state guidebooks through her Kansas Sampler Foundation. After twice visiting each of the state’s 626 incorporated towns—half of which have fewer than 400 people—she has doggedly tracked the success of their food stores. In her view, a town’s ability to survive hinges on whether residents can buy healthy food there. 
Penner’s goal is to get urban Kansans out to rural areas to support these struggling communities. “No one knows how to wrap their heads around these little towns. We are invisible,” she told me. “It’s time someone said, ‘I’m from Kansas. I’m sticking up for this state.’” 
My bags were packed the minute I got off the phone. A story about Kansans determined to keep America’s breadbasket from becoming a food desert would write itself, I thought. But it was also an excuse to go back home. A fourth-generation Kansan on both sides, I found myself looking for a reason to return, and longing to drive through parts of the state I haven’t visited in decades. I could almost smell the Flint Hills wildflowers and see the wind’s invisible fingers moving through that ocean of bluestem grasses. 
With a list of Penner’s favorite stores in hand and my daughter along to share the journey, I flew home. 
We sensed the missing plot points in Penner’s folktale early on. Too many storeowners knew nothing about the grants. When we asked rural officials about the importance of grocery stores, they shrugged. Affordable housing, jobs, schools and hospitals topped their lists. Everyone wanted to talk about Kansas’s depopulation crisis, but a lack of healthy food, they all agreed, was not why people left. 
Reality snapped into focus the morning we drove into Downs (population 844). I’d been in a close friend’s wedding there in the 1980s, and the tiny, one-street downtown had teemed with life back then. My friend’s father owned, edited, and published the local newspaper. Another friend’s dad ran a successful real estate company. It took those girls forever to walk anywhere; everyone wanted to stop and chat. Downs had 1,324 residents in 1980—36 percent more than it has today. 
Thirty years later, the blank faces of empty storefronts line the main drag. Oddly, one of the last remaining businesses we found was a well-stocked grocery store, though no one was shopping inside the brightly lit aisles. When we asked where we could get a cup of coffee, the cashier directed us to the gas station outside of town on the two-lane state road. A pot of brown water on a quick mart hot plate was the best the town had to offer.
Everywhere, I felt the absence—of people, of commerce, even of sound. The silence was broken only by a vintage pickup truck pulling up to the Downs grain elevator, huge mounds of excess grain piled high on the ground all around it. 
That image—abundance at the center of a depopulated landscape—sums up the reality of rural Kansas. Yes, the harvest continues to be bounteous. But it masks a harder truth: Kansas’s plentiful grain crop has come at the expense of nearly everything else.

Some 90% of Kansas's land is devoted to production of food.  Farms are massive automated systems that produce hundreds of acres of grain.  There's nothing but the local economy, and the local economy is dying.  The closest Mickey D's or Starbucks is 60 miles away from Downs.

This is exactly why red states in particular need more of a safety net on some issues, especially basic infrastructure, than more urban blue states.  But Republican austerity policies have robbed them of even that.

Kansas has so super-specialized with agriculture that it's increasingly tough to get businesses to move there or people to stay.  In a sense it's like a desert.  The state doesn't need to serve Big Ag the way it does, but it does anyway.

It may not be the code cubes of Silicon Valley or the mines of West Virginia, but the farms of Kansas can be just as much a corporate profit sweatshop.
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