Buried in a November 3 New Yorker piece about the possibility of Amazon’s HQ2 coming to DC, there’s a telling anecdote from the Economic Club of Washington’s Milestone Celebration Dinner last month. You may remember this meeting because it was in the news at the time; the keynote speaker and guest of honor was the world’s (publicly) richest man, Jeff Bezos. A year ago, he announced a prize in the form of a second Amazon Headquarters.
Hundreds of city managers across the US view HQ2 as a golden ticket, but it’s a decidedly less clear proposition to the rest of the people living in the possible recipient cities. Many of these places are grappling with sky-high housing prices, deferred transit backlogs, and ever-steepening inequality, and it seems unlikely that Amazon will solve these issues.
Nevertheless, hope springs eternal in modern America that the whims of the wealthy will improve the lives of the many. In this case, the hope comes in the form of home equity (if you’re lucky and wealthy enough to already own), better job prospects (if you have the necessary training and background to apply), and improvements to the physical infrastructure of the region.
Let’s examine that last one.
The unprecedented regional agreement on dedicated funding for Metro appeared to be at least partially motivated by local jurisdictions’ pursuit of HQ2. Many took the dedicated funding as a positive sign that there would be more transit improvements and agreement to come.
So what happens if we don’t get HQ2 and there’s no longer that incentive for these leaders to invest in infrastructure? Back to that anecdote:
“David Rubenstein, the billionaire co-founder of the Carlyle Group, a Washington-based private-equity firm, and the chairman of the Economic Club, welcomed public officials, including Jack Evans, a city councilman and the chairman of the board of Washington’s beleaguered Metro. “How many people came on the Metro?” Rubenstein asked, to laughter. No more than half a dozen hands in an audience of fifteen hundred people went up. “This does not look like a Metro crowd,” he said.”
To be fair, DC is not Manhattan. You can drive here, and the Washington Hilton is certainly not the most Metro-accessible location. Nonetheless, Rubenstein clearly intended this to be (and the audience perceived it as) a joke, and the crux of it was that there’s an “us” and “the rest.” If you’re wealthy enough to be in a room with Bezos, how could you imagine yourself as someone who would take public transit?
In this particular case, the in-group includes DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, and of course, Metro board chair, parking perk champion, and bike lane blocker Jack Evans. (Virginia Governor Ralph Northam had a scheduling conflict.) That’s the very same group ultimately in charge of local decision making related to Metro.
While these leaders are secretly promising financial manna that would make a stadium-seeking NFL owner blush, they’re at an event where the speaker openly derides a transportation system with the power to improve lives across the socioeconomic spectrum—not to mention the class of “others” who rely on it. They were there to lure an entity whose tangible benefits are most likely to accrue to those already in a position to take advantage, and realistically, Amazon itself.
Recently, Maryland board member Michael Goldman compared basic service improvements to shopping at Whole Foods. General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said he would be fine making late-night service cuts permanent and relegating Metro to a “commuter system,” apparently forgetting (or dismissing) all of the people who work outside of 9-5 hours and otherwise rely on a robust train system to get around.
Given these private displays of derision and classist comments, why should local residents trust that same group of elected officials, appointed board members, and the fabulously wealthy in general to adequately address Metro? Or housing? Or inequality? Or even public restrooms?
If it’s any consolation, the same movers and shakers are just as low as the rest of us to the Amazon colossus. It appears they may have been mortgaging their kingdoms for half a horse.