Bezos could change the dynamic

He should think not about cash but the public good

THERE WAS A TIME when the idea of government serving the public good meant something in our country. Government was the means by which people who wanted to pursue transcendent, historic, collective goals could channel their ambition. It’s how Americans took on visionary projects like building the interstate highway system, or fighting for civil rights, or sending Americans to the moon.

But today, awash in corporate money, and inspired by a political philosophy that says “it’s the economy, stupid,” our government’s idea of the public good is narrow, and focused on short-term goals. State of the Union addresses are mainly a list of data on the economy, with lawmakers cheering the results of individual companies like sports fans rooting for their favorite team.

In this system, it’s easy for big, successful companies like Amazon to get governments across America to compete to give it billions of dollars in subsidies. It doesn’t matter that Amazon is worth nearly three quarters of a trillion dollars, or that it has billions of dollars in the bank, or that it is demanding that governments negotiate with it in secret. It’s promising to bring jobs, and that means government priorities must shift.

It doesn’t have to be this way – and Amazon has before it a remarkable opportunity.

Amazon is going to build a new headquarters, whether it gets government subsidies or not. So what if Amazon – instead of chasing after those subsidies – could be part of re-imagining America for the 22nd Century? What if Amazon told cities and states across America that they were going to pick their new headquarters not on the basis of who gave them the most money, but rather on the basis of which community had set out the best vision of that community’s future? Imagine the creativity a process like that could unleash across America, and how much of an impact it could have on our shared future.

Massachusetts could lure Amazon with a vision for a new, intercity and metropolitan transit system connecting all corners of the state. It could move to regional planning for smarter, faster housing production. It could promise to end the monopolistic practices that drive up health care costs, and offer to develop a Massachusetts-based internet that wouldn’t be subject to the abuses that will be caused by the repeal of net neutrality. It could lay out plans for a new civil service to fix decaying roads and bridges, schools and other government buildings, and inspire the next generation of leaders through election reforms that make it easier to run for office. In short, the message would be that Massachusetts will be the hub of America’s 22nd Century economy, and we invite you to be a part of it.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, is a brilliant man. Before him, today, is an opportunity. He should scrap the effort to extract cash from taxpayers to support his hugely successful business and instead start over and help change the country by getting its leaders to think, as he does, about the public good, and our shared future.

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Until our elected officials force change upon themselves, Amazon – and every other big company looking for government handouts – can grab this opportunity. Lawmakers would be compelled to think beyond the next election cycle, and to look ahead to the next 75 or 100 years, benefiting all Americans, including Jeff Bezos . As ever, the old proverb rings true: “Society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.” Let us plant some trees together.

Evan Falchuk is a former third party candidate for governor of Massachusetts and was a leader in the effort to stop the use of tax dollars to pay for the proposed 2024 Boston Olympics.