We’re taught to believe that government is a system for protecting the country, ensuring justice and helping people pursue happiness. For large corporations, on the other hand, government amounts to a big investment opportunity.
One of the most detailed assessments of the return on that investment has just been produced by the Sunlight Foundation. Not surprisingly, it turns out that the interaction big business has with the public sector is very profitable. What’s amazing is Sunlight’s estimate of the magnitude of those gains.
In its report called Fixed Fortunes, Sunlight takes great pains in estimating both what 200 of the largest and most politically active firms spend on government – in the form of campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures – and what they receive in benefits. Sunlight puts those benefits in two categories: federal business and federal support.
The first includes federal contracts as well as foreign sales enabled by the Export-Import Bank and certain transactions involving commercial banks in the wake of the financial meltdown. Federal support includes grants, loans and loan guarantees as well as other forms of assistance to banks following the meltdown.
Sunlight finds that the 200 companies spent $5.8 billion on political influence during the period from 2007 to 2012 while receiving $1.3 trillion in federal business and $3.2 trillion in federal support. This shows, Sunlight says, that for every dollar spent on influencing federal policy, these corporations received $760 in benefits. And that’s just the average. Some of the big banks got vastly more. Goldman Sachs received about $229 billion in business and support combined, more than 6,000 times what it spent on influence. For Bank of America it was more than 10,000 times. These are rates of return even the most successful hedge funds couldn’t imagine.
In some ways, Sunlight’s benefit numbers are understated, since they do not include the payoff from lobbying for corporate income tax reductions. The report includes figures from Citizens for Tax Justice showing the low effective tax rates most large companies enjoy, but Sunlight does not attempt the probably impossible task of estimating the dollar value of the tax benefits individual companies have gained from their lobbying efforts. Sunlight points out other examples of unquantifiable benefits corporations receive from Uncle Sam, such as those deriving from the artificially low rates charged to petroleum companies for drilling on federal land.
Moreover, Sunlight acknowledges that its estimates apply only at the federal level, though in its summary list of the results for the 200 companies it includes links to the state and local subsidy totals my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have assembled in our Subsidy Tracker database.
On the other hand, one could take issue with the way in which Sunlight calculates some of the categories of federal support. For loan and loan guarantee programs, for example, it apparently uses the face value of the funding, whereas the actual cost (except in cases of default) is much lower. It would have been helpful if Sunlight had listed the totals derived from each form of assistance; it is not always clear which numbers it used in the underlying spreadsheets it makes available.
Despite these quibbles, Sunlight has performed a great service in documenting the extent to which the federal government functions as a giant ATM for corporate America. We at Good Jobs First will soon be contributing to this effort by extending Subsidy Tracker to the federal level. We’ve been gathering data on many of the same programs examined by Sunlight, plus others, and we will be including entries for all companies, both large and small.
Let’s hope that as more light is shined on the ways government benefits corporations, we can shame elected officials into remembering who it is they are supposed to be serving.