Voting With Its Wallet

Seattle is home to some of the largest corporations in the world, with one — Amazon — growing like crazy and fueling a boom in downtown construction.  But when Seattle politicians decided to impose a tax on large employers in the city to deal with a homelessness crisis, Amazon very publicly decided to pause work on a new downtown office building until after Seattle City Council votes on the tax.

03062018_amazongrowing_132746-780x513The proposed tax would have a real impact on businesses.  It would be a “head tax” of $500 per employee on approximately 500 businesses that gross at least $20 million annually in Seattle.  For Amazon, which currently has about 45,000 workers in Seattle, the tax would cost more than $20 million in 2018 and 2020, with that tab increasing when the form of the proposed tax would shift to a .7 percent payroll tax in 2021.  Even for a company that is highly profitable — Amazon recently reported quarterly income of $1.6 billion — $20 million a year isn’t chump change.

Amazon typically doesn’t mess with local politics in Seattle, so its pause in construction planning until after the City Council vote has had a real impact.   One City Council supporter of the tax accused Amazon of attempting “blackmail,” but other voices in city hall and in the real estate development community shuddered at the thought that the company might stop its investment in Seattle.  The concern is only heightened by Amazon’s announced search for a new city in which to build a second headquarters — a process that is already underway, in which Columbus and other cities have made the first cut.  Some people are concerned that Amazon might just direct its growth exclusively to the new home of “HQ2,” leaving Seattle in the dust.

Why should large employers, alone, pay a tax to address Seattle’s growing homelessness problem?  Supporters of the tax say that the large tech companies have contributed to the problem by bringing in highly paid workers who have caused a spike in home prices and rents — the median price for a house in Seattle is a whopping $820,000 — and that has contributed to the homelessness problem.  The sponsors of the tax also note that Seattle doesn’t have an income tax or tax capital gains, and claim that the city has few options to raise funds to address homelessness.  It’s curious, though, that the tax would be limited to only  large employers, as opposed to all employers, or that it doesn’t target various forms of real property transfers.  After all, a lot of people have presumably made a lot of money selling property that dramatically increased in value due to Amazon’s growth — why shouldn’t they contribute some of that profit to address the homelessness problem?

The reaction of the City Council member who characterized Amazon’s decision to pause construction as extortionate reminds me of the hubris that caused cities like Detroit to assume (wrongly) that large employers wouldn’t move away — or the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs.  As Amazon’s experience in its “HQ2” search proves, other cities would welcome a large employer that offers thousands of workers high-paying jobs.  The reality is that Seattle needs Amazon more than Amazon needs Seattle.  Does it really want to risk killing the goose?

Advertisements

A Blunt Instrument

As of January 1, 2018, Seattle has placed a tax — it’s officially called a “sweetened beverage recovery fee” — on sugary sodas and “sports drinks” like Gatorade.  Costco, the big box membership club retailer, has responded by placing signs showing consumers the specific impact of the tax on the Costco price for the product — and it’s a whopper.

video__sugar_tax_sticker_shock_0_10405324_ver1-0_640_360The Costco signs show that the Seattle tax adds $10.34 to a Gatorade 35-bottle variety pack — the kind you might buy if you were responsible for buying refreshments for your kid’s sports team to consume after a practice.  The price of the product was $15.99, but with the new tax the price is now $26.33.  The tax added $7.56 to a 36-can case of Dr. Pepper, bringing the price from $9.99 to $17.55.  Costco also helpfully added signage to explain the tax-related increase to its customers and remind them that they can avoid paying the additional cost simply by going to a nearby Costco located out of the city limits.  Some customers have told local TV stations they plan on doing just that.  There’s also been lots of social media chatter about the Costco signs and the impact of the tax on prices.

What’s the point of the tax?  Seattle evidently is concerned about obesity, which some studies have linked, at least in part, to the consumption of sugary soft drinks.  Seattle hopes that by imposing a substantial tax on soft drinks and “sports drinks,” it will incentivize people to make healthier choices.  But get this:  the tax exempts sweetened products from certified manufacturers with annual worldwide gross revenue of $2 million or less, and products from certified manufacturers with gross revenue of more than $2 million but less than $5 million pay a much smaller tax.  That exemption is a purely political decision that doesn’t make sense as a public health issue, because the size of the producer obviously doesn’t change whatever the impact of the product might be.  Seattle’s approach also focuses only on sweetened drinks, and doesn’t address products like ice cream, candy bars, “snack foods,” or frozen pizza that might also be said to contribute to “unhealthy lifestyles.”  And, of course, it doesn’t begin to address other issues that contribute directly to obesity, such as lack of exercise.

Other cities, like Chicago, have tried soft drink taxes and dumped them in the face of business opposition.  Costco is providing a salutary service by alerting its customers to the specific cost impact of the tax so they can factor it into their decision-making.  The Seattle experiment, as illuminated by the Costco signs, reminds us, yet again, that taxes are a pretty blunt instrument when it comes to trying to change behavior and achieve broader policies — and that taxes are always going to be affected by political considerations, too.

Amazon Primed

Amazon — that massive, gushing river of deliveries that has fundamentally and forever changed the modern retail business — has announced that it is looking to build a second corporate headquarters somewhere in North America.  Cities like Columbus are jockeying for position and hoping that they get picked to host the Amazonians.

amazonLanding Amazon and its “HQ2” has got to be tempting for just about any city.  You can look at what Amazon has done for Seattle, where its corporate headquarters is located, and see what having Amazon might mean.  Amazon employs 40,000 people on its Seattle campus, it uses an enormous chunk of the available Seattle commercial real estate, and it calculates that, since 2010, it has contributed $38 billion to the Seattle economy.  The proposed “HQ2” is being presented as a similarly enticing proposition for job-hungry municipalities.  It is supposed to create as many as 50,000 jobs paying an average of $100,000, and also produce $5 billion in capital investment in the first 15 years.

As Seattle’s experience demonstrates, these don’t appear to be pie in the sky numbers.  Instead, Amazon has a proven track record of doing what every city wants from a leading corporate citizen — it creates good jobs that are filled by people who pay their taxes and it injects money into the area, which in turn creates jobs at the companies that provide the services that Amazon and its employees need.  Sure, there might be some drawbacks — Seattle real estate has become pretty expensive — but most cities would gladly accept that problem in order to tap into the Amazon river of tax revenue.

Amazon has released a list of detailed criteria that will be applied in its search for the right location for HQ2.  It’s looking for a metropolitan area of at least 1 million people, close to an international airport, with good roads, schools, and mass transit.  Oh, and it also needs up to 8 million square feet of office space.  And the modern world being what it is, we can expect Amazon to look for competing cities to produce packages of tax incentives, tax deferrals, and available development funds designed to entice Amazon as it makes its choice.

Columbus, where several Amazon data and distribution centers have located in recent years, is expected to compete for the prize, and Richard has written about San Antonio’s hope that it wins the crown.   We can expect the big boys, like Chicago and Dallas, to put in significant bids, and struggling cities like Detroit would no doubt see the Amazon initiative as a chance to really turn things around.  And don’t forget that Canada is part of North America; Toronto is said to be interested, too.  In all, about 50 metropolitan areas meet the 1 million population cut-off and would be in a position to compete for the prize.  Bids are due by October 19.

Hey, Amazon!  Come to Columbus!  You’d like it here!

Global Nerd

IMG_1920I’ve always liked maps and globes.  I like the look of them, and I like the way that they can change.  I remember discovering an old atlas in my grandparents’ attic, leafing through it, and wondering about exotic places like the Ottoman Empire that could only be found on an outdated geography book.

I think maps are cool, so I was grinning ear to ear when Kish and I stumbled upon Metsker Maps in Seattle.  What a fantastic store!  It’s crammed stem to stern with standup globes, miniature globes, inflatable globes, wall maps, fold-out maps, ancient framed maps, hiking maps, and books about maps — as well as incidentals like a good pocket compass.

After wandering around for a while with a  kid-like look on my face, I went up to the guy behind the counter and said:  “This is the coolest store I’ve been in in years!”  He nodded knowingly, recognizing that I was just another globe geek who was letting my nerd flag fly.

Under The Needle

IMG_0401

Seattle’s Space Needle was built as part of the 1962 World’s Fair and was supposed to reflect the architecture of the future.  Fifty years later, it still looks so much like a backdrop from a Jetsons episode you expect to see a Spacely Sprockets sign on top.  Sure, it’s kitschy, but it’s also kind of cool, and it’s fun to check it out from different vantage points.

SAM, I Am

IMG_0372

Yesterday Kish and I visited the Seattle Art Museum — also known as SAM.  It’s located smack dab in the middle of Seattle’s bustling downtown, and it’s worth a visit.

I like going to art museums I’m not familiar with, because you’re almost always surprised.  Sometimes it’s a good surprise, sometimes it’s not.  SAM falls on the positive side of the ledger.  It’s a big, sprawling facility, with all kinds of nooks and crannies to explore.  Every time you turn a corner, you see something interesting.

During our visit, the displays included an extensive and compelling Joan Miro exhibit — boy, he sure liked to paint birds and women! — and a fabulous and beautiful collection of blown glass objects that included numerous pieces by Dale Chihuly.  The museum’s standard collection is impressive and includes an interesting early American section, which blends portraits, landscapes, furniture, and other objects, Italian and French rooms, modern pieces by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, and some whimsical and thought-provoking sculptures, including an untitled piece by American artist Marlo Pascual that featured a ’40s-style glamour shot of an unknown, sad-eyed woman on which a rock had been positioned to look like a hat.

My favorite part of the collection was a large array of indigenous art, including some fantastic masks and costumes and sculptures.  The masks in particular were riveting.  As I looked at the colorful depictions of serpents and wolves, I thought of the strong connection the indigenous peoples felt to the natural world and how we have largely lost that connection in modern America.  Maybe the piece featuring the well-dressed woman with the rock on her head speaks to that, too.

IMG_0380