The case for expropriation

On Tuesday, Amazon halted construction of a new 17-story office building in downtown Seattle, Washington to protest a proposed city council tax that would fund housing for the homeless. Amazon also threatened to sublease office space it is presently using in another downtown building.

“I can confirm that pending the outcome of the head tax vote by City Council, Amazon has paused all construction planning on our Block 18 project in downtown Seattle and is evaluating options to sub-lease all space in our recently leased [Rainier] Square building,” Amazon vice president Drew Herdener said in a statement.

Seattle’s Democratic Party-dominated local government immediately promised Amazon it would negotiate to lessen the impact of any proposed tax. Mayor Jenny Durkan proposed new negotiations between Amazon, big business, and the trade unions. During the 2017 mayoral elections, a committee supporting Durkan received a $350,000 donation from Amazon.

“I’m deeply concerned about the impact this decision will have on a large range of jobs—from our building trades, to restaurant workers, to nurses, manufacturing jobs and tech workers,” Durkan said Wednesday.

Amazon’s protest and the sycophantic response of the city officials show how massive corporations dictate the policies of the government and block even the mildest reforms.

The city council proposal would tax large businesses in Seattle by a total of $0.26 per worker hour for those employed in Seattle (i.e. if an Amazon employee in Seattle makes $50/hour, Amazon will pay $50.26/hr, with $0.26 going to the city). This would generate $75 million a year to fund the construction of 1,780 affordable housing units within five years, as well as a modest expansion of social programs for the homeless. If enacted at a city council meeting on May 15, the tax would cost Amazon $20 million per year—roughly one sixth of what Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos makes each day.

Seattle has the third largest homeless population in the United States, at 11,643 in a 2017 count, behind Los Angeles and New York. The city has done little to expand shelter capacity, and as a result the total of unsheltered homeless increased by 21 percent from 2016 to 2017. Over the same period, housing prices have risen 19 percent in downtown Seattle as workers are priced out of the area or made homeless.