Welfare Spending: Medicare vs Corporate/Business Subsidies (or does the GOP really support WalMart’s behavior in Bangladesh?)

by Linda Beale

Welfare Spending: Medicare vs Corporate/Business Subsidies (or does the GOP really support WalMart’s behavior in Bangladesh?)

As most readers know, the federal government is currently in what passes for negotiations between the President’s Democratic Party Senate and House members and the GOP members that control the House.
The Tea Party and its right-wing rhetoric has of course had a radicalizing impact on the GOP positions, with members not only beholden to Grover Norquist and his anti-tax pledge (all strongly supported by various right-wing propaganda tanks like the Tax Foundation, Heritage, American Enterprise, and other organizations) but also to the anti-social welfare corporatists like David and Charles Koch, the Wal-Mart heirs, and other oligarchic families that constitute the top 1% of US income and wealth.  As a result of these two strong influences, the GOP now stands for

  • tax-cuts-no-matter-what (and for tax cuts that benefit the wealthy most of all, as reflected in the rigid position in favor of the “carried interest” scam used by private equity profits partners and the extraordinarily preferential rate for capital gains and dividends included in the “net capital gain” definition under section 1(h)(11)); and
  • so-called “entitlement reforms”, by which GOPers generally mean reduction in benefits and/or privatization of social welfare programs including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  (All of this is argued in terms of caring about “saving” the programs for the future, but the truth lies in the ways that the right proposes changes to the programs–not changes in costs related to profits taken out by Big Pharma and similar interests, but changes in benefits to ordinary Americans (such as raising the working age for eligibility even though those who work at the hardest labor need benefits earlier, not later, or lowering the cost-of-living-allowance adjustment to benefits for Medicare, even though seniors generally have a HIGHER cost of living because of their increased medical needs, including prescription drugs for diabetes, high blood pressure, and similar diseases particularly prevalent in the elderly population.)

The sum of those positions stands for a corporatist philosophy of benefitting the oligarchy and their business enterprises at the expense of everyday Americans who work for a living.

This is even more obvious when one looks at the same groups’ position on government subsidies for business.  The New York Times recently ran an article on this issue, noting that governments typically pay out a lot of money to support profits of companies and receive very little benefit in terms of tax revenues received and jobs created!  Louise Story, As companies seek tax deals, governments pay high price, New York Times (Dec. 1, 2012).

Over at MauledAgain, one of my fellow tax professors Jim Maule has, like me, long criticized the hypocrisy of supporting tax breaks for private enterprise and opposing earned benefits programs for ordinary citizens and has repeatedly pointed out that the economics of the tax breaks for business don’t work out for anybody but the owners and managers of the businesses.  They certainly don’t work for taxpayers of the jurisdiction providing them.  As Jim notes:

These tax breaks are nothing more than welfare payments to private enterprise. Opponents of social welfare spending defend these outlays with as much passion as they bring to their attempts to end government assistance for individuals in need of help.James Maule, The Hidden Government Spending Game, MauledAgain (Dec. 5, 2012).

Jim rebuts one of the sham arguments for corporate subsidies–that they are just “keeping what belongs to them.”  Those special subsidies to one private enterprise sector cause ripple effects throughout the economy–higher taxes to the other taxpayers to make up for the lost revenues, or cuts in important programs that can no longer be sustained without the revenues.  Prices and wages may change as well.  Id.
What I want to focus on is the hypocrisy of claiming an interest in ending “entitlements” but applying that philosophy only to programs that are intended to help ordinary citizens and not to those intended to beef up the profits of corporations or their managers and owners.  This is especially hypocritical for today’s right-wing, since they almost universally claim to ascribe to the view that competition is good and that businesses should fail when they cannot successfully compete.

Look at two cases involving WalMart, a multinational enterprise that fights unionization of its employees (and supports right-to-work laws that weaken worker rights) in every way imaginable.

1) In Champlain Illinois (personal experience), WalMart had a huge spralling complex on one side of the road.  It had gotten various tax support for the complex.  It decided to move across the road and down the block into another jurisdiction.  It got new tax subsidies there.  It abandonned the old building and left whatever environmental pollution there.  Who gained?  Mostly WalMart managers and owners.  Not the town and counties.  Not the employees.  Not even the consumers who shopped there, who had to deal with the blight of the abandonned building and the multiplication of vast expanses of ugly parking lots.

2) WalMart in Bangladesh.   WalMart delivers cheap goods because it outsources its clothing and other manufacturing needs to impoverished countries where workers can be paid almost nothing and get almost no protections.  In Bangladesh last month, a clothing factory burned, killing hundreds of workers.  It was a WalMart supplier. See  Natasha Leonard, WalMart’s Connection to Bangladesh Clothing Factory, Salon.com (Nov. 26, 2012), where a critic noted that:

“Wal-Mart is supporting, is incentivizing, an industry strategy in Bangladesh: extreme low wages, non-existent regulation, brutal suppression of any attempt by workers to act collectively to improve wages and conditions.” Id.

This was a modern-day repeat of the Triangle Shirt Factory incident in the early nineteen hundreds in New York City:  workers unable to escape burned to death in factory rooms without fire exits and yet dangerously littered with lint and other debris that made their workplace a fire hazard.

WalMart, in fact, has led the fight against workers’ rights and spending on safety at that factory and others.  See Natasha Leonard,  WalMart wouldn’t pay for Bangladeshi factory safety improvements, Salon.com (Dec. 6, 2012).

These things are all tied together: hostility to workers rights to bargain collectively for some fair share of the productivity gains that their labor brings about, hostility to workers rights to a safe working place; hostitlity to workers rights to decent health care; hostility to ordinary people’s rights to a sustainable lifestyle; and hostility to any effort to make the oligarchic uber-rich pay a fair share of the costs of the infrastructure to sustain an economy and a people.

Tax policy, spending policy, policy towards workers, policy towards the wealthy uber-rich–these are all closely intertwined and must be considered of a piece.  Tax policy needs to establish reasonable levels of contributions based on a progressive income tax that takes into account the marginal utility of the dollar.  Spending policy needs to set priorities based on something other than the lobbying by special corporate and oligarch interests for tax-and-spending provisions that privilege themselves.    Policy towards labor rights and workplace safety need to recognize that the worker is disemplowered within the workplace and needs some legal support to provide a reasonable share of productivity gains–minimum wage laws, unionization laws, workers safety laws need to protect workers rights against the all-powerful employer.

If the right succeeds in continuing to pass right-to-work laws (Michigan’s lame duck GOP is trying to do that right now), if the oligarchs succeed in capturing all the profits from workers’ labor–there will be social unrest on the scale of the Great Depression.  Everybody will suffer from that kind of austerity and class warfare policy.  Broad based economic growth that comes from workers sharing in the profits of their industry and those at the top not getting an unreasonable share of the productivity gains is better for all.

cross posted with ataxingmatter