New York's Amazon rejection exposes US opportunity gap and Democrats' political disconnect

Jim Kessler and Gabe Horwitz

It’s a high class problem to have. A mammoth company offers to set up a gleaming new headquarters employing 25,000 people in high-wage jobs. Most localities would crawl through broken glass to land that prize, and 238 did as they bid for Amazon’s second headquarters. But one of the two winners, the borough of Queens in New York City, just turned it away like a diner returning a Kobe steak cooked medium instead of medium rare.

In truth, it was a joint rejection. Activists in Queens didn’t want it, and Amazon wasn’t about to fight for it. But this rejection exposes a real but often overlooked economic crisis in America: the concentration of opportunity. The reason 238 cities and regions bid for the Amazon headquarters is that most of America is hungry for opportunity while enough of Queens and New York City is not.

To be sure, there are people and neighborhoods in Queens thirsting for the chance to earn a good life. But all in all, we should all be lucky enough to live where opportunity is growing and not shrinking.

At an Amazon office in New York on Feb. 14, 2019.

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And it is positively blooming in Queens. Between 2005 and 2015, this geographically tiny borough added more than 7,500 private sector businesses and nearly 80,000 private sector jobs. 

And then there’s the entire state of Michigan. Over the same decade, it lost more than 18,000 businesses and shed nearly 150,000 private sector jobs. In much of Michigan, opportunity is as scarce as it is bountiful in the five boroughs of New York. That is why community activists can throw away 25,000 jobs and people cheer in one place while much of the rest of the country is shouting “choose me.”

Dynamic urban economies aren't typical

This opportunity crisis has also become a political crisis for Democrats, because the three states that make up the heart of Democrats’ electoral and donor base — California, Massachusetts and  New York — are dominated by urban economies so dynamic and powerful that they are out of step with much of the country.

Compare the trajectories of these three Blue Bubble states with the so-called Blue Wall states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which had voted Democratic in every election since 1992 until they flipped to Donald Trump and delivered him the White House in 2016.

The Blue Bubble states added more than 1.2 million jobs over this 10-year period as the Blue Wall states added just north of 50,000 jobs, essentially treading water. That’s not much more than the number of jobs that Queens just cavalierly rejected.

Spread opportunity to forgotten places

And that poses a conundrum for Democrats, who need to reconcile these differences with their policy preferences and narrative. For example, while income inequality is a legitimate economic and moral concern, in America it fits the Blue Bubble more than the Blue Wall. In fact, in the Blue Wall states where opportunity is scarce and jobs are precious, this fixation sounds like a stodgy academic debate in the faculty lounge of an Ivy League college — not the kitchen-table economics that political parties strive for.

What leaders of most states desperately want is an assurance that opportunity will not bypass their urban, suburban and rural areas. Democrats should fight to make sure that those who have been denied equal opportunities  — women and minorities — have more opportunity to earn the life they hope for. And Democrats should talk about the myriad ways to spread opportunity to the places the digital economy has forgotten.

This could lead to a Democratic message and agenda that pave the path to winning in Queens, in Flint and throughout the country.

Jim Kessler is executive vice president of Third Way, and Gabe Horwitz is senior vice president for the Third Way economic program. Follow them on Twitter: @ThirdWayKessler and @HorwitzGabe

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: New York's Amazon rejection exposes US opportunity gap and Democrats' political disconnect