Amazon: America’s Lottery

We’ve all seen it… we stop at the local convenience store to pick up a couple things on the way home from work, only to see the guy in line in front of you who doesn’t look like he has two pennies to rub together purchase a lottery ticket.  Somewhere in our minds, we scoff at the thought that this man would throw his money away rather than take practical steps to lift himself up.

There’s a reason social scientists dislike gambling.  In short, it is often seen as a tax on the poor, praying on the desperation of people who think winning it big is the only way to transcend their situation.  The thrust is that people are more likely to take reasonable paths to upward socioeconomic mobility if they see a clear path to success.  For so much of our population, that path is tremendously clouded and full of obstacles, leading to a feeling of hopelessness that only that winning ticket can cure.

When I look at the countless cities and counties vying for Amazon’s second headquarters, which promises 50,000 jobs with an average salary of $100,000 for the “winning” region, I can’t help but think of this as America’s lottery.  It is the ultimate “get rich quick” solution for every struggling community, stumbling city or hemorrhaging region, reinforcing the false belief that our communities can only reach prominence if we woo a gagillion-dollar employer to our area.  Like that feeling we have when we see a struggling man purchase a lotto ticket, urbanists are shaking their heads as millions of people ignore practical ways of improving their communities in favor of the belief that only a mega-giant like Amazon can save us.

Will the “winning” city reap some incredible benefits?  Of course.  Just like the winner of every state’s lottery drawing or scratch-off card, there is a chance our hometown will find itself holding the golden ticket.  And by no means would I suggest that a city or region not apply, as reasonable attempts to land responsible employers should be a focus of any local government.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves… most likely, your city will not win the bid, and when you don’t, the question is whether we as populations will use this opportunity to see where we can make improvements, or whether we will simply blame a scapegoat and wait for the next big employer sweepstakes.  Amazon or not, we still have communities to build, and while outside jobs are great, we must not lose sight of the fact that the real progress happens when we work to enact sensible change in our communities.

One last thing.  The city that does win?  Ironically, it will likely be a place where local government, local businesses and residents have worked hard to create a practical, beautiful, proud, navigable, vibrant and livable community, even before “HQ2” was a regular conversation piece.  The winning city will likely be one that decided not to wait for a major employer to save them, rather it will be one that recognized early on that a lean, strong, intelligent and healthy community that puts people first is where residents and employers want to be.