Is Foxconn a Con?

July 27th, 2017 by Phil Mattera

It’s common for governors to stage publicity events to announce major job-creating investments in their state. This allows them to take implicit credit for a project that was probably helped along with tax breaks and other financial giveaways.

When it came to the Taiwanese company Foxconn’s plan to build a $10 billion flat-screen plant in Wisconsin, the hype was taken to a new level. Gov. Scott Walker and Foxconn’s Chairman Terry Gou made the announcement not at the state capitol but at the White House, where they were joined by President Trump, Vice President Pence, Speaker Paul Ryan and a host of other high-level officials of the federal government.

As you might expect, the event quickly turned into a celebration of the Trump Administration. Walker, Pence and Ryan, in whose Congressional district the massive plant is to be sited, gushed about Trump’s economic leadership, with Pence declaring: “Under President Donald Trump, America is back.”

That apparently was not enough for Trump, who found it necessary to celebrate himself even more. Referring to Gou, the President declared: “If I didn’t get elected, he definitely would not be spending $10 billion” in the United States.

The creation of numerous new manufacturing jobs is something that will be welcomed by the working people of Wisconsin, but there are reasons, beyond Trump’s political exploitation of the deal, to remain suspicious.

The first matter of concern is the company itself. Foxconn has a long history of abusive labor practices in its overseas plants, including those used to supply Apple. Conditions in the company’s Chinese plants were so bad that in 2010 there was a rash of suicides among overworked employees. The company installed nets on its plants to discourage workers from jumping to their deaths. Foxconn later claimed to improve its labor conditions but the company is far from a high-road employer.

Then there are the claims about the terms of the Wisconsin deal. Gov. Walker claimed that the plant would directly create 13,000 jobs. That was good for generating excitement, but it is a dubious figure. Manufacturing establishments no longer employ anything close to that number of workers.

Out of curiosity, I checked with the Bureau of Labor Statistics to see how many plants currently exist with 10,000 or more workers. It turns out the BLS does not have that information because, as an analyst told me, there are so few facilities of that size. The trend, of course, is toward higher levels of automation and much smaller workforces.

Then there’s the issue of who is paying for the plant. While Trump and the others praised the deal as an example of private sector vitality, Foxconn’s plant will be underwritten in large part by the taxpayers of Wisconsin. Walker said that the state would “invest” $3 billion in the project. That would be the fourth largest economic development subsidy package ever offered by a state.

Despite the promises of public officials, extravagant subsidies rarely provide economic benefits equal to the loss of tax revenue. Wisconsin has a particularly bad record in this regard. The Walker Administration and its privatized economic development agency have been at the center of a long string of controversies about cronyism and poor job-creation outcomes.

The Foxconn deal will provide political benefits for Walker, Ryan and Trump, but it is unclear how much good it will actually do for the people of Wisconsin.

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