‘Outraged’ politicians hurting those they aim to protect
When historians describe our current Twitter-fueled era, a word they may well use is “outrage.” It seems that there’s a lot of it out there, filling Twitter feeds and Facebook walls, particularly in the Western world, and one of the targets of that rage has increasingly become “the rich,” or large corporations.
The Seattle-based tech giant Amazon felt the wrath of our outrage era recently, when a small but vocal group of local New York politicians loudly protested Amazon’s pending arrival in Queens, an eastern borough of New York City.
Never mind that polls indicated that a majority of New York residents welcomed the arrival of Amazon and the 25,000 jobs it would potentially create over two decades, not to mention the $27 billion in tax revenues for the city and state and the transformative economic multiplier effects the company would create across the small business ecosystem. Forget all of that: A large corporation led by the richest man in the world was getting tax breaks. Let’s burn the house down.
We have seen this before. “Outraged” opposition politicians take to Twitter and organized protestors take to the streets, and corporate leaders genuflect, make promises and receive withering abuse from people who have never created a job in their life. At some point, a compromise is reached, concessions are offered, the corporate leaders thank the “outraged” opposition politicians for raising their concerns, and business moves forward, while the politicians post self-congratulatory messages about “the people” on social media.
There is no cost to this outrage because, eventually, 25,000 jobs are created, tax receipts flow into the municipality, the corporation sponsors all sorts of philanthropic activities in the region, house prices go up and small businesses thrive on rising demand. To be sure, there are always losers in this scenario: Families priced out of their own neighborhood, small businesses that fail to adapt, and competitors gobbled up. As for the opposition who were outraged by the deal, they can claim honorable defeat after wringing a few concessions from “the evil corporation.”
'The people' don’t need yellow-vested protesters smashing windows or opposition politicians scaring away investment
But this story turned out differently. On Valentine’s Day, Amazon officials simply said: Enough is enough. They pulled out of their headline-grabbing decision to jointly base their second headquarters in New York (the other chosen destination is a suburb of the Washington DC metropolitan area in Crystal City, Virginia). Suddenly, the outraged politicians were on the defensive, as New Yorkers began to realize what just happened: They had lost the potential of 25,000 jobs, major economic multiplier effects, and rising tax receipts. What did they get in return? Well, not much. You see, for all the talk of a tax break for Amazon, that money will not be “returned” to New York because it never existed in the first place — it was an incentive to get America’s second-largest employer to choose the city.
While this may seem like a particularly American melodrama, it is not. Outrage against large corporations and the wealthy is a growing phenomenon worldwide. French President Emmanuel Macron is still struggling to shake the moniker “President of the Rich” that was tagged on him for his efforts to support the private sector. Across Europe, populists from the left and the right are storming the center’s gates. While they stress different messages, they tend to agree that “the elites” must go, and they posit an “Us” (the people) versus “Them” (the powerful elites like Jeff Bezos) duality.
The reality is often messier than the clean lines posited by the populists. The reality is that what “the people” really need are jobs, healthcare, education, security, opportunity, and dignity, and they want practical solutions to get there. They don’t need yellow-vested protesters smashing windows or opposition politicians scaring away investment.
When Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit and vegetable vendor who triggered the so-called Arab Spring, was unjustly stripped of his license to sell goods in December 2010, his plaintive cry to authorities before setting himself on fire was simply this: “How do you expect me to make a living?” He is not alone. There are Mohammad Bouazizis across the Arab world, Asia, Africa, and in major Western cities, including New York. For them, yes, the global elites and the structures they have created have genuinely failed them and they deserve better. The trouble is that those speaking on their behalf, on behalf of “the people,” don’t have the answers either. They simply bask in their outrage, their tweets and their slogans, and the question on the minds of the global Mohammad Bouazizis, from New York to Nairobi, of “how do you expect me to make a living?” lingers.
- Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and editor and founder of the newly relaunched The New Silk Road Monitor. Twitter: @afshinmolavi