Full disclosure: I live in Northern VA, relatively close to Arlington, so I am not completely unaffected by HQ2. Not directly impacted, but not unaffected either. It is also worth noting upfront that I am 100% opposed to corporate welfare of any kind, including subsidies to entice corporations to establish any sort of facilities in a given region. With that out of the way…
Amazon decided to give a special Valentine’s Day present to the people of New York City, a sort of “fuck you too” to the protesters and politicians who have been demanding significant changes to the deal that had been negotiated between their company and the city to bring 25,000 jobs to Long Island City in Queens. This has apparently thrilled some Amazon opponents such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who according to the Washington Post tweeted “Today was the day a group of dedicated, everyday New Yorkers & their neighbors defeated Amazon’s corporate greed, its worker exploitation, and the power of the richest man in the world.” If you say so Ms. Ocasio-Cortez. Personally I don’t see the benefit. But maybe I’m missing something, which is not surprising since (a) I’m not a progressive and (b) a tweet is hardly conducive to explaining nuanced policy views.
Let’s consider another quote from the Post:
“Amazon showed its true colors today and every American should be outraged,” Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said in a statement. “Jeff Bezos had the opportunity to listen to the voices of working families and support the good-paying jobs New Yorkers deserve.
“But now we can see this is all about blind greed and Jeff Bezos’ belief that everyday taxpayers should foot the bill for their new headquarters even as the company actively works to eliminate millions of American retail jobs. No company that refuses to invest in hard-working men and women should be allowed to stuff their pockets with taxpayer-funded subsidies. Make no mistake, this fight has only begun,” Perrone said.
This is at least more detailed, although hardly more nuanced. I’ll have to take it point by point, as there’s a bit here to unpack:
- “Amazon showed its true colors today and every American should be outraged.” I both agree and disagree. Yes, Amazon did show its true colors. It is a business, and one that is not interested in being held hostage or shaken down. Regardless of how you feel about the original deal, that was the deal that brought them in, the one they agreed to, and unless you have some very disturbing role models you don’t generally become “outraged” when someone pulls out of a deal when the other party decides to change the terms.
- “Jeff Bezos had the opportunity to listen to the voices of working families and support the good-paying jobs New Yorkers deserve.” Not sure exactly what this is supposed to mean. I guess I’m one of those libertarian nuts who doesn’t believe people are “entitled” to a job, good paying or not. But even if I did think people were entitled to a job, my understanding of the plan was that Amazon was going to build a campus with at least 25,000 jobs with an average salary of $150,000 a year. I realize that “average” doesn’t mean “every job will pay at this rate”, but I seriously doubt the intention was “one extremely well paying job and 24,999 crappy ones.” (Sidebar: this same article from the Post says that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez among others “protested that the influx of Amazon employees, to be paid an average salary of at least $150,000 a year, would cause housing costs to skyrocket, drive out low-income residents and worsen congestion on the subway and streets.” So I’m confused – is the pay too low or too high?)
- “But now we can see this is all about blind greed” – I’ll resist the temptation to take a cheap shot here and simply offer a rebuttal. I believe this is about two competing forces: corporate finance and local politics. And when push came to shove it turned out that the local political groups in NYC (including the labor unions, activists, and local and apparently national politicians) had not yet learned a critical lesson of negotiation: the next best option. When trying to push for more, consider what your opponent’s next best option is before you put your offer on the table; if walking away is their next best option, they will take it. And they did.
- “Jeff Bezos’ belief that everyday taxpayers should foot the bill for their new headquarters” – I specifically singled out this statement because this is the only sentiment I can unequivocally agree with. As noted at the outset, I am completely opposed to corporate welfare in all its forms, and this deal is no exception. Whether Mr. Bezos personally negotiated the deal or not is irrelevant; Amazon is his company, and he is ultimately responsible for the direction it takes. Certainly such a major decision as HQ2 would not proceed without his significant input, and he could not have been unaware of the massive “incentive” package involved.
- “Even as the company actively works to eliminate millions of American retail jobs.” And this is the kind of foolish statement that works to undermine practically anything of value Mr. Perrone might have had to say. I understand if he feels the need to defend his membership, but this smacks of defending buggy whip makers in the era of the automobile. Last I checked nobody was coerced into using Amazon, although the same cannot be said for unionized labor.
- “No company that refuses to invest in hard-working men and women” – According to an article at Business Insider, Amazon does invest in “hard working men and women”, with a benefits package for full-time employees that makes me envious, and even “[p]art-time employees who work more than 20 hours per week receive benefits, including life and disability insurance, dental and vision insurance with premiums paid in full by Amazon, and funding towards medical insurance.” But perhaps what Mr. Perrone had in mind was investing in their future: “Both full-time and part-time hourly employees are eligible for Amazon’s innovative Career Choice program that pre-pays 95 percent of tuition for courses related to in-demand fields, regardless of whether the skills are relevant to a future career at Amazon. The company has built dedicated Career Choice classrooms at more than 25 fulfillment centers to make it easier for employees to go back to school by offering classes onsite.” To be fair, this article is from 2017, and Amazon’s culture may have changed for the worse. But I’d be willing to take that bet against the likelihood this is simply more political posturing on Mr. Perrone’s part. Unless he had something else in mind for “investing in hard working men and women”.
- “Should be allowed to stuff their pockets with taxpayer-funded subsidies” – It actually feels misleading to separate this from the previous phrase, as this is a dependent clause, so let’s put them back together: “No company that refuses to invest in hard-working men and women should be allowed to stuff their pockets with taxpayer-funded subsidies.” This is actually a bit more uncomfortable for me than the previous incarnation, as the implicit contrapositive is that “Any company that does invest in hard-working men and women should be allowed to stuff their pockets with taxpayer-funded subsidies.” If we are to be generous and assume that is not his intent, I am right there with Mr. Perrone; however I am rather cynical given the company he keeps.
- “Make no mistake, this fight has only begun.” Which fight exactly? The fight to drive Amazon out of NYC? Fight’s over. You won. Congratulations. The fight to keep Amazon in NYC, on your terms? Sorry, not gonna happen. Short of nationalizing the company (something that I will not accuse anyone of seriously contemplating, no matter how many Atlas Shrugged comments are tossed my way) there’s nothing to be done. Amazon made their choice. Do you perhaps intend to shame them into coming back? Good luck with that. What I expect the rest of the country to see is that NYC won the lottery and then a small group of people decided to tear up the ticket because the jackpot wasn’t big enough. That won’t garner much sympathy outside of a vanishingly small circle, most of whom live in Manhattan.
For myself, I won’t dispute that there are flaws with the HQ2 deals. And I will freely admit that there are reasonable arguments to be made that one or both of them go past flawed and into the realm of bad. But none of the arguments that I have heard coming out of NYC strike me as reasonable, and most of them sound at best partisan and at worst childish and churlish. The fact that many of them are contradictory (either with facts on the ground or with each other) does nothing to enhance the position of those who are making them. Worst of all, the time to fight against a deal is before it is made, not after. And demonizing someone who pulls out of a deal that you have changed the terms of is quite literally blaming the victim, and does even more damage to your business reputation than your already shady tactics have done.
My advice to NYC and the people who created this mess? Shut up, suck it up, and learn from this mess. Before you create another one.
I’ve gone on at length before about young people starting out in jobs today, and truth be told my opinion hasn’t materially changed since then. I have been listening to stories from others, however, and I’ve noticed a disturbing trend: it isn’t just me. Everyone I talk to seems to feel the same way. And it isn’t just the employers, it’s the teachers too (I know more than a couple). This got me to thinking that maybe the problem, dear Brutus, lies not in our employees but in ourselves.
I remember back to when I was in high school and even elementary school (no, dinosaurs didn’t walk the Earth; we even had indoor plumbing), and I can remember being a part of the very leading edge of what has been cited by most of the teachers I have spoken with as the biggest issue of all: the Self-Esteem Movement. For those of you who are not familiar with this, it was the idea that no child should be made to feel bad about themselves, because children who have good self-esteem succeed. It should be self-evident that this is a matter of putting the cart before the horse, and if it isn’t then after a decade or so of bad results I would have expected they would have given it up, but from what I hear every child still gets a trophy (or a ribbon, or what have you).
I’ll admit, I was a little slow on the uptake with this one. I was thrilled to get a trophy at first. Granted, back then they still gave out different size trophies for first, second, third, and “congratulations, you showed up”, but still, I was thrilled to get one. Sue me, I was eight. A few years later when I got my first big boy trophy (for second place) I realized what a sham all the rest of them were, and the truth is it not only cheapened the “also ran” trophies, it even tarnished the big one a little. The idea that I had been feeling good about something that I never really earned took away from the real victory when I finally got it. I’ve heard some places get around this by giving everyone the same size trophies.
Likewise, I have heard tales of schools were students are not allowed to be given failing grades. I fail to see how this is in any way constructive. I was threatened with failure more than once in school, and let me tell you, it is an excellent motivator. Not only that, but life does not protect us from failure. Either we succeed or we do not, and while there may be a sliding scale of success in many cases, the absence of the possibility of failure is a luxury we are rarely afforded, so it is a poor lesson to impart at any age.
But I don’t want to reserve all of my vitriol for the school system. The fact is that as employers, in many cases, we are doing ourselves a disservice as well. When we interview employees, how often are we asked “what will this job entail?” To be honest, I get this question more often than you think, and to my shame, I don’t give nearly as honest a response as I should. Why? Because I actually want to hire someone, and if I told people what the job actually requires, nine times out of ten they wouldn’t take it. That’s not to say the job is abusive, but it’s not “big-thinking”, “creative”, “decision-making” stuff, at least in most cases. In most cases the work can be summed up in one word: spreadsheets.
So I do what everyone does: I soft-sell the job, try to oversell the good parts and downplay the bad parts instead of giving a full and honest accounting of what it’s going to be like, as if I’m a used car salesman and they’re the latest sucker – excuse me, customer to come on the lot. Then they take the job, because they don’t have the experience to ask the probing questions or see past the sunshine, and six months later they’re dissatisfied, disappointed, and despondent, and I’m none too thrilled with their performance. So who’s really to blame, them or me?
We’re saddling kids with an unrealistic understanding of how the world works before they enter the work force, and then giving them unrealistic expectations before they begin the job. After all that, we fault them for not succeeding. I’m not saying they shouldn’t take any responsibility for their own success (because it’s time we expect at least that much of them), but I do think it’s time we stop making it harder for them to succeed than it has to be.
Other posts you might like:
The Meaning of Education (guest post from My Not So Humble Wife)
Somehow, despite all my worst efforts, I’ve ended up supervising quite a few people over the past several years, as well as observing more than a few more come through this and other companies I’ve worked at. Between this and my own personal experiences (read: “the horrible mistakes I made and all the advice I never listened to just like you will not listen to me”) I’ve come to realize there are certain common traits that separate the people who will continue to advance and thrive from the people who will simply drift from one meaningless job to the next, only to inevitably end up complaining that the world isn’t fair. In order to empower you and prevent you, dear readers, from becoming one of those benighted souls, I offer these insights I have gleaned from my years on both sides of the managerial fence.
I Know It’s Boring, Just Do It Already. Here’s a little wake up call for you, sunshine: if your job weren’t 90% suck, I wouldn’t have to pay you to do it, you would do it for free. If it were 90% fun, YOU would be paying ME. So please, stop telling me how much the work I’ve given you sucks/is boring/is beneath you/is a waste of your time/skills/degree/god given talent/I honestly don’t give a rat’s ass. The simple fact is, the people who do what I ask them to do, do it well, and don’t complain are the ones I will come to when I need something else done, including the fun projects, and the complainers are the first ones to get cut when the budget axe comes down.
My Job Is Boring, Too. Bet you didn’t see that one coming, did ya? Yeah, cupcake, here’s the reality of the workplace: the reason I gave you all that boring stuff to do is so I could have time and mental capacity to focus on my own load of boring stuff. See, I have more experience, more institutional knowledge, more work relationships, and more understanding of how to get things done. That means that for every boring project you’re working on, I have three, only I don’t get to see them through to completion. Instead, I have to nurse them along just far enough that I can hand them off to someone else that I can only hope will bring them through to completion in a manner I find satisfactory, because if they don’t then I get yelled at for their failure. That’s called responsibility, and it’s what I really get paid for.
Take Responsibility. The people who get promoted are the people who get things done. If you can’t, come to me before the deadline and before you run out of money so we can come up with a solution. This makes you look like a problem solver. Why you didn’t get the project done on time, on budget, after the fact, is of no interest to me.
Do It Right The First Time. I shouldn’t have to say this, but somehow I do. I can’t count the number of people I have had to train in the simple fact that details matter. It’s not just about the task at hand, this goes to my overall perception of you. It’s like this: when I have a new project of critical importance, who do you think I’m going to give it to: the guy who treated his last project with a shrug and a “whatever” attitude, or the one who treated it like his job depended on it? Even if the project at hand is simple data entry, the next one might not be, and how you do on this one will shape my perception of how you will do every other task I give you.
This Isn’t Social Hour. Maybe you heard that “networking” was the way to get ahead. Maybe you never grew out of chatting with your friends in high school. Maybe you’re just naturally gregarious. Whatever it is, if every time I see you I see you talking to someone instead of getting something done, that’s the image I have of you. That’s not to say you can’t be sociable at work, but it is to say that you need to understand why you’re there, and socializing isn’t the number one reason. It’s not even in the top five.
Innovate, Don’t Inundate. Truth is I’m always open to a good idea. I welcome them. The problem is that everyone, and I mean everyone I’ve seen come into a new company throws out a new idea within a week of starting there. I’ve done it myself. I guess the urge to impress your new boss is just too strong, or maybe we all just feel like “Well, they hired me for a reason.” The problem is this is the height of hubris. This presumes you understand the company and position you are in so well within a week that your idea will have merit and strength sufficient to be worthy of consideration and implementation. Now take this hubris and multiply it by the number of ideas you’ve thrown out in the amount of time you’ve been at your current job, and divide it by the number of months you’ve been there. For most people who have been at a job for less than a year, this ratio will be roughly “holy/shit!” Even if there’s a good idea in there somewhere, I’m not going to notice it because I’m too busy ignoring everything you say. Wait for the right idea to come along, put it out there, and let others decide its relative merit.
Be Patient, And Have Realistic Expectations. There’s a great line in Fight Club that I think we can all learn from: “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t.” I take a different lesson from this than the movie intended, but I do take a lesson away from it, and I hope you will to: you can have the corner office, you can have the six figure salary, you can have the respect of your peers and the adulation of the masses… but you won’t have it today. Tomorrow’s not looking good either. You’re gonna have to work your way up to them, slowly, bit by bit, and even once you get there, if you get there, there’s no guarantees there will be anything more beyond it – or that it’s even what you wanted in the first place. Life’s like that. So think about it, now and along the way. Be sure you know what your options are, and know what you’re giving up, because there are damn few second chances, and nobody gets a third.