Ron Kim was in complete shock. It was November 2018, and the assemblyman had just heard details of the deal which would give Amazon more than $2 billion in taxpayer-funded subsidies to locate part of its second headquarters in Long Island City, Queens. A Democratic member of the New York State Assembly, Kim felt that giving taxpayer money to this trillion-dollar supergiant was “unfitting,” to say the least.
By inviting open bids in the search for a location for HQ2, Amazon ignited a year-long frenzy in which American cities fell over themselves to offer enormous tax breaks. In the process, Amazon didn’t just gain an enviable deal for its new headquarters — it also gained an incredible amount of corporate intelligence. “Amazon, which is a growing corporation, has now accumulated a massive database of what people were willing to offer to get a particular project,” says Steven Strauss, a professor at Princeton focusing on urban development who served as managing director of the New York City Economic Development Corporation under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The then newly-elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said she had been receiving calls from “outraged” Queens residents. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand tweeted, “One of the wealthiest companies in history should not be receiving financial assistance from the taxpayers while too many New York families struggle to make ends meet.” On November 27, protesters stormed Amazon’s store on 34th Street.
“You walk out in New York City, in any corner you can see people identifying a million ways to spend their money better than giving it to Jeff Bezos,” Kim told me. “Amazon doesn’t need our money. It’s a trillion-dollar company.” The phrase he kept coming back to — that most of the opponents of the HQ2 deal kept coming back to — was “corporate welfare.”
Corporate welfare — the practice of trying to lure companies to a location by offering incentives like tax breaks — is not new. The first documented example dates back to 1160, when a wool-weaving facility was offered…