Amazon and Austin

Austin is on the list of 20 finalists for the site of Amazon’s second headquarters (HQ2). I have a strong interest in the outcome of the competition because I live in Austin, and I hope that Amazon puts HQ2 somewhere else.

Why? Because the Austin area — which already has terrible traffic, rapidly rising real-estate prices, and high property taxes — will just get worse with the addition of 50,000 employees (i.e., perhaps 100,000 more residents) and a $5 billion investment in HQ2.

It is de rigeur for persons who have lived in Austin for a long time to bemoan its changed character. And they should. Thanks to growth-oriented politicians who have governed Austin for the past few decades, its character and quality of life are as faded as Warren Beatty’s looks.

What was once a rather laid-back “town”, dominated by the government of Texas and the University of Texas (before it became UT-Austin), has become part of the 31st largest metropolitan statistical area in the U.S., as of 2016. The population of the city proper has quintupled from 200,000 to 1 million since I first came to the city as a visitor in the 1960s. It has been only in the last decade or so that Austin’s skyline has sprouted a flock of towers as high as 80 stories. Until then, it had been a low-lying city, with only a few 15-story buildings, which weren’t even tall enough to challenge the dominance of the State Capitol, perched atop a modest hill. Austin’s hippies, who are still around but rather the worse for wear, are almost invisible among the vast army of yuppies which has come to Austin from other locales — California being a leading supplier of the rude, SUV-driving jerks who clutter roads, stores, and restaurants.

Several locales among the 20 finalists are less populous than the Austin area. Raleigh, the smallest of the lot, would seem to be an ideal choice. Any of them would be ideal from the point of view of most of Austin’s current residents, who need more traffic and higher property taxes like a hole in the head. It is mainly Austin’s lame-brained “progressive” politicos who seem to want HQ2 in Austin, as if a bigger (more crowded, more expensive) city would somehow make them more manly, womanly, or it-ly (as the case may be).

In case you have some influence over Amazon’s decision about where to locate HQ2, I would like to point out some things about Austin — in addition to traffic, real-estate prices, and property taxes — that ought to push you in an another direction:

Austin’s summers, which last from April to November, are very hot. In 2011, for example, there were 90 100-degree days, 27 of them consecutive. And when there’s a prevailing wind from the Gulf of Mexico (as there often is), Austin is also quite humid. Not as humid as Houston or Washington, D.C., but the combination of heat and humidity is “challenging”.

Only a hardy few bicyclists will be seen doing something stupid, like bicycling, in the the heat of the day. And in most of Austin they will not be using bicycle lanes that take up valuable road space for naught.

Austin has some attractive areas, including a traditional downtown on the 10 blocks of Congress Avenue south of the Capitol, and some parks and hike-and-bike trails along and near the wide spot in the Colorado River called Lady Bird Lake, which is geographically in the center of Austin. The rest of the city is a mixed bag, which ranges from mostly flat and ugly (east of Loop 1) to somewhat attractive and hilly (west of Loop 1). But Austin isn’t in a truly scenic area like Pittsburgh (which is among the 20 finalists).

Those Amazonians who aren’t in the higher echelons will end up in the ugly parts of the city and surrounding area because they won’t be able to afford to live in the nicer parts. In fact they may not be able to afford to live in the ugly parts of the city proper. Pittsburgh is much more affordable, and it’s hard to find an ugly area in and around the city.

Loop 1, mentioned above, isn’t a loop. It’s one of Austin’s two, limited-access, north-south highways. There are no limited-access, east-west highways, and nothing resembling a loop around Austin. All of which is why Austin’s traffic is incurably terrible.

Austin has no “culture”, unless you think of bars with live music as culture. Its orchestra is third-rate; whatever passes for opera and ballet is almost unnoticeable; and its museums and art galleries are fourth-rate. It is decidedly philistine for a university town. Many of the 20 finalists, including Pittsburgh, are culturally superior to Austin. The prevalence of burnt orange (the color worn by UT athletes) should tell you all you need to know about the level of culture in Austin.

And about those live-music bars — and theaters and upscale restaurants: They’re mostly downtown, which has become practically inaccessible except to people who already live downtown. That’s Austin’s traffic for you. There’s no subway, and the dinky commuter rail line is about as useful as a table-top model, so the alternative to driving and searching in vain for a parking place is to hire a cab or ride-sharing service. But the ride won’t be cheap, and it will still take quite a while to travel a few miles (or more) to your downtown destination.

A p.r. person dubbed Austin the “Live-Music Capital of the World” — an accolade that I dispute. A more authentic title would be “Allergy Capital of the Word”. As a life-long allergy sufferer, I can tell you that Austin has more allergens in its environment than any other place I have encountered. And there’s something going on year-around. Mold spores are almost always in abundance, thanks to southerly winds from the Gulf of Mexico. But the granddaddy of them all is the pollen of the so-called mountain cedar tree (really the Ashe juniper), which grows profusely in central Texas. Pollen outbursts begin in December and peak in January. And when you’ve lived in Austin for more than a few years, you’ll probably come down with an attack of what’s called cedar fever — an extreme allergic reaction to the pollen that reduces you to a wheezing, sneezing, lethargic puddle of humanity. It’s like a cross between flu and pneumonia. Enjoy!

I would leave Austin in a trice, but house-selling, house-hunting, and moving are daunting tasks at my age. Luckily, I am long-retired, so commuting isn’t a problem for me. As for the rest of it, I patronize only those restaurants that are easy to get to, shop online for everything but groceries, avoid bars and theaters altogether, and give thanks that I enjoyed Austin’s few nice parks in the years immediately after I arrived here.

What else can I tell you about Austin? Perhaps some readers who know the place will comment. For now, I’ll leave you with links to some related posts:

Driving and Politics (1)
Life in Austin (1)
Life in Austin (2)
Life in Austin (3)
Driving and Politics (2)
AGW in Austin?
Democracy in Austin
AGW in Austin? (II)
The Hypocrisy of “Local Control”

Why Liberty of Contract Matters

UPDATED 10/19/15

I wrote this four years ago “In Defense of Wal-Mart“:

There are no goon squads dragging unwilling people in from the streets to work in Wal-Mart stores. There are no Wal-Mart employees caged in their work areas. There are secret prisons in Arkansas where they send Wal-Mart employees who elect to move on to more highly compensated jobs at other companies.

People work at Wal-Mart because it offers them the best combination of pay, benefits, and working conditions available to them. In other words, employment at Wal-Mart usually is a step up, not a step down.

The attention of the worrying classes turned recently to Amazon, as John O. McGinnis notes:

The New York Times has recently portrayed Amazon as a workplace somewhere between the first circle of hell and a bad section of purgatory, with harsh supervisors and backbiting colleagues that are the inevitable consequence of the company’s management practices. I did not need Jeff Bezos’s demurral to doubt the accuracy of portrait. In a company this large, there will always be bad supervisors, intriguing colleagues and disgruntled employees that can support a lot of wild anecdotes. And the New York Times, a newspaper that even a former ombudsman has admitted is on the left, has an agenda of attacking business the better to justify an intrusive state. [“The Liberty to Work Under Tough Bosses,” Library of Law and Liberty, August 19, 2015]

McGinnis continues:

But let us suppose for moment that the Times portrait is more accurate than Bezos’s denial that overall these anecdotes capture the reality of the company.  Is it really any cause for concern? The employees chose to work there and can leave at any time: it is not a case of indentured servitude. The white collar jobs portrayed here pay good wages. And most important of all, we have a competitive labor market that serves the needs of employees and consumers alike. Even the Times’ description shows that many employees find the culture empowering and thrilling. Some employees stay for a long period. Others use the skills they learn to start their own businesses. It may well make perfect sense for some people to endure upfront unpleasantness—even of the kind that leads to occasional tears—to gain discipline and knowledge that will later stand them in good stead.

I couldn’t have said it better.

UPDATE:

The Atlantic reports on Amazon’s response to the Times story.  I gagged when I read this:

The company, in its post Monday, also did not challenge the other claim made in the Times story: that Amazon can be a challenging place for its female employees. One female employee, Molly Jay, who had received high ratings for years, found herself being called “a problem” after she began traveling to care for her father, who was stricken with cancer. Another, Michelle Williamson, a 41-year-old mother of three children, was told, in the words of the newspaper, “that raising children would most likely prevent her from success at a higher level because of the long hours required.” A third, Julia Cheiffetz, wrote in Medium, about being sidelined after having a child and being diagnosed with cancer. [Krishnadev Calamur, “A Blistering Response from Amazon,” October 19, 2015]

Life is full of choices. If you choose family over work, don’t expect your employers’ customers to pay you (or your employer) for time you spend away from work.

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Related posts:

A Short Course in Economics
Law and Liberty
Creative Destruction, Reification, and Social Welfare
“Buy Local”
Substantive Due Process, Liberty of Contract, and States’ “Police Power”