business news in context, analysis with attitude

This commentary is available as both text and video; enjoy both or either ... they are similar, but not exactly the same. To see past FaceTime commentaries, go to the MNB Channel on YouTube.

Hi, Kevin Coupe here, and this is faceTime with the Content Guy.

I’d like to suggest that there is a lesson to be learned from the Amazon-abandons-New York City story that broke a week ago, and continues to get attention in the media, including here on MNB. I’m sure there are are bunch of members of the MNB community who are sick of this story, in fact are sick of every story about Amazon.

But as I say, there are lessons to be learned.

As I read all the postmortems about the situation, I kept thinking of the great writer and journalist, Pete Hamill, who once wrote that “ideology is a lousy substitute for thought.” I think that the reactions to the Amazon story - both before and after the company decided not to build part of its HQ2 project in New York City because of hostility to its plans from some political circles - have generally fit within ideological boundaries.

For example, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio called Amazon’s decision “an abuse of corporate power,” saying that the company “just took their ball and went home and confirm people's worst fears about corporate America.”

Which strikes me as a load of crap.

First of all, it isn’t an abuse of corporate power for a company to say that it would rather go where it is wanted … in fact, it would be imprudent for a company to spend a lot of time and money trying to go somewhere it isn’t wanted.

My problem with all this has more to do with the fact that I don’t think anyone - not Amazon, and not the politicians who were in favor of the project - did a very good job of telling the story about why this was important.

Which makes no sense to me … since New York City is, after all, the place that is so resistant to the charms of certain kinds of companies that it has fought Walmart’s desire to open stores there. How could Amazon and local government officials NOT realize that they had to tell their story in a way that was specific, relevant, and completely transparent?

To me, a perfect example of this is in the references by HQ2 opponents in New York to “corporate welfare,” to the point that there have been a number of stories about the episode is likely to change the way many municipalities think about tax incentives because they are, after all, a kind of corporate welfare.

I don’t think of it this way. To me, an intelligent and nuanced way to think about these kinds of opportunities is to think of them as a time when it makes sense to make a public investment in growth-oriented private businesses. Sure, to some degree this means that governments end up choosing winners and losers, but it would be on the basis of which investments are going to pay off best for the future of the community.

I think people have a right to ask why billions of dollars of incentives are being made available to corporations - especially fabulously wealthy corporations - at a time when the subways, roads, bridges and schools all are falling apart, and when the infrastructure of the city is reaching the point of being dangerously obsolete at a time when affordable housing is less and less available. That’s a good question. It deserves a response. But it could’ve been answered, both by Amazon and the city, in a way that explained how the public investment would bear fruit and lead to a better city, one with greater resources for more people, not just a windfall for a few.

That case never was made. That story was never told. Both Amazon and the city lost control of the narrative. I don’t blame one side or the other … and I blame everybody for not understanding the importance of telling the story in an honest and compelling way.

Amazon and New York City both will, I expect, survive. But I hope there is a greater lesson here about how to create public-private partnerships in which one plus one can equal three or four or five or one hundred or one thousand.

That’s a story that, if properly told, will make sense to a lot of people. Frankly, I think it is a story that people are dying to hear … because it would reflect leadership and compassion, and might actually engender trust in our institutions.

But it requires nuance. It requires thinking. And not just falling back on ideological tropes.

That’s what is on my mind this morning. As always, I want to hear what is on your mind.

KC's View: