Archive for August, 2012

We Subsidized It

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

We Built It. The Romney campaign and the wider conservative movement believe they have a winner in a slogan designed to refute President Obama’s comment about the role of government assistance to business in favor of an idealized Ayn Rand-style entrepreneurship that needs no stinkin’ public infrastructure.

They are so confident, in fact, that they asked a strangely inapt group of messengers to promote the theme at the Republican Convention: a slew of governors. Since Ronald Reagan, the right has ignored the incongruity of having public officials play a leading role in denouncing the public sector. Yet the GOP governors who took to the stage in Tampa to celebrate up-by-one’s-bootstraps free enterprise raised this hypocrisy to new heights.

Despite their frequently expressed laissez-faire beliefs, they have each presided over deals in which huge sums of taxpayer money have been handed over to large corporations in the name of economic development. The Romney campaign, which has been making deceitful allegations about Obama Administration changes in welfare work requirements, chose to have its big convention theme delivered by some of the biggest proponents of corporate welfare.

Take South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. She used her convention speech to honor her immigrant parents and the clothing company they created, adding: “So, President Obama, with all due respect, don’t tell me that my parents didn’t build their business.” She also gave praise to Boeing, saying that her state “was blessed to welcome a great American company that chose to stay in our country to continue to do business.” She failed to mention that Boeing’s decision to locate its second Dreamliner assembly line in Charleston was more than a little influenced by a state and local subsidy package estimated to be worth more than $900 million.

That deal was originally negotiated by her predecessor Mark Sanford but Haley enthusiastically carried it out and went to great lengths to defend Boeing against Machinists union charges that the move to South Carolina was prompted by anti-union animus. Haley has also made subsidy deals of her own, including the $9 million recently given to Michelin for a tire plant (photo). Haley subsequently told a tire industry conference: “We want to help you do more business in South Carolina and we want to make sure that you grow. That’s our job.”

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell—who told the convention “Big government didn’t build America: You built America!—agreed to give up to $14 million in subsidies to Northrop Grumman to relocate its headquarters to northern Virginia. The move was motivated by a need to be near the company’s dominant customer, the Pentagon, so the subsidies were probably unnecessary and could be seen as a reward for the large contributions the company made to his election campaign.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, another member of the we-built-it chorus, has given in to job blackmail demands by companies threatening to move their operations out of state unless they got big subsidy deals. Kasich’s administration negotiated $100 million packages with both Diebold Inc. and American Greetings Corp.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a rightwing hero for his campaign against public worker collective bargaining rights, used his convention speech to emphasis the importance of letting people “control their own destiny in the private sector.” In July, Walker announced that the state had awarded $62 million in tax credits to Kohl’s to get the retailer to expand its headquarters in the Milwaukee suburb of Menomonee Falls.

And then there’s conservative bad-boy idol Chris Christie, who gave the keynote address at the convention. The New Jersey governor’s administration has been handing out lavish tax credit deals to companies moving from one location in the state to another, including $250 million to Prudential Insurance, $100 million to Panasonic and $81 million to Goya Foods. Since taking office in 2010, Christie has given away more than $1.5 billion in subsidies to corporations.

The examples above focus on bigger deals involving larger companies, since those are the ones with the biggest giveaways of taxpayer funds. Yet many state subsidy programs also serve smaller firms. My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have assembled data on more than 200,000 subsidy awards from state and local governments around the country in our Subsidy Tracker database. Most of the recipients are not in the Fortune 500.

I cannot resist mentioning that one of those small recipients is First State Manufacturing, a business run by Sher Valenzuela, who is running for Lt. Governor in Delaware on a tea party platform and who was given time at the Republican convention to tell her “I built it” story. In addition to the federal contracts and Small Business Administration loans revealed by Media Matters, information gathered for Subsidy Tracker shows that First State has received more than $29,000 in reimbursements for training costs through Delaware’s Blue Collar Training Grant program—a modest amount but another indication of business dependence on government.

Claims about the autonomy of the private sector are one of the Big Lies of modern conservatism. The real objective of the Right is along the lines of what Gov. Haley told that tire industry conference: to make sure government serves business through subsidies, deregulation, tax minimization and weakening of unions.

To the companies receiving these forms of assistance to expand their business, one could easily adopt the language of President Obama and say “you didn’t build that alone.” The truth is that both liberals and conservatives believe that government should aid the private sector. The difference between the two is in what is expected in return. Liberals make an effort (albeit inadequate) to impose some accountability, whereas the Right believes that business should be able to take all it wants with no strings attached. The debate over whether to limit government should really be one on whether there will be limits on corporate power.

Extraction and Disclosure

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission often behaves like a watchdog with no teeth, but it has just stood up to intense pressure from big business and finally approved two rules that will shine a light on dealings between some of the world’s largest corporations and the poor countries from which they extract vast amounts of natural resources.

One of the final rules will require companies engaged in resource extraction to report on all payments to foreign governments, such as taxes, royalties, fees and presumably bribes. The other will require companies to disclose their use of certain resources originating in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where warring groups that have committed frequent human rights violations finance themselves through the sale of what are known as conflict minerals, which can end up being used in the production of goods ranging from jewelry to iPhones.

These rules derive from some of the lesser known provisions of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation, which the corporate world has been seeking to undermine in the rulemaking process after losing in Congress. Business lobbyists have fought the same kind of rear-guard action against the disclosure requirements that they have mounted in opposition to the central portions of Dodd-Frank.

Comments submitted to the SEC by companies and trade associations were filled with the usual kneejerk criticisms of regulation and far-fetched claims about potential harm. The American Petroleum Institute warned that public disclosure of “unnecessarily detailed information” on foreign payments would place companies at a competitive disadvantage and “jeopardize the safety and security of our member companies’ operations and employees.”

Exxon Mobil seconded API’s positions but also threw in the preposterous argument that the disclosure rule could be harmful by “inundating and confusing investors with large volumes of data.” Chevron argued that the information should be submitted to the SEC on a confidential basis, and the agency would then make public only aggregate amounts by country. It also urged the SEC to limit reporting to payments of a “material” amount, which would have meant that only huge ones would be revealed.

It takes a lot of chutzpah on the part of Chevron and Exxon Mobil to resist greater transparency, given that predecessor companies of theirs were at the center of the scandals that first brought the issue of questionable foreign payments to national attention in the 1970s.

Congressional investigations of the Nixon Administration’s Watergate crimes also brought to light widespread corruption by major corporations in the form of illegal campaign contributions and payoffs to foreign government officials. Under pressure from the SEC, these companies investigated themselves and disclosed what they found.

Exxon (prior to its merger with Mobil) admitted to making more than $50 million in foreign payments that were illegal, secret or both. Gulf Oil (which later merged into what is now Chevron) admitted to more than $4 million in such payments, including $100,000 used to purchase a helicopter for one of the leaders of a military coup in Bolivia. Smaller oil companies also spread around the cash. Ashland Oil, for example, paid $150,000 to the president of Gabon to retain extraction rights.

Foreign payoffs were not unique to the oil industry. Aerospace giant Lockheed disclosed more than $200 million in questionable payments, while its competitor Northrop admitted to $30 million. The revelations extended to numerous other sectors as well.

These revelations seriously tarnished the image of big business and paved the way to the enactment of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. They were also a big part of the impetus for the modern corporate accountability movement, which has put expanded disclosure at the center of its reform agenda.

It is thus no surprise that corporate accountability and human rights groups—many of which participate in the Publish What You Pay coalition—promoted the inclusion of the disclosure provisions in Dodd-Frank and welcomed the SEC’s vote to move ahead with the rules. Yet there is frustration that on several points the agency caved in to industry pressure. Global Witness, for instance, said it was “extremely disappointed” that the final rule concerning conflict minerals gives larger companies two years and smaller ones four years to determine the origin of the minerals they use.

The SEC also acceded to the demands of giant retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target that they be exempt from conflict minerals reporting requirements relating to products sold as store brands but produced by outside contractors not operating under the retailer’s direct control.

Efforts by large companies to weaken the disclosure rules are yet another sign of how they resist serious regulation in favor of less onerous industry initiatives. Many of those arguing against the proposed SEC rules said they were unnecessary given the existence of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. The EITI is laudable, but it is voluntary and less than fully rigorous.

Business never gives up on its effort to make us think that, despite the prevalence of corporate crime, it can police itself. It has never done so effectively and never will.

Corporate Greed is the Real Threat to Medicare

Thursday, August 16th, 2012

Now that fiscal hatchet man Paul Ryan is on the Republican ticket, the presidential race has turned into a free-for-all over the future of Medicare.

Recognizing the unpopularity of their goal of slashing entitlement spending, Ryan and Romney are instead straining credulity by painting themselves as defenders of Medicare against $700 billion in cuts scheduled under the Affordable Care Act.

This, of course, is a reprise of the tactic long used by opponents of healthcare reform of deliberately conflating Obamacare’s negotiated cuts in payments to healthcare providers with cuts in actual services to seniors.

Such obfuscation can have some success because most people continue to view Medicare solely as a government social program, when it is also a massive system of contracts that transfer more than $500 billion in taxpayer funds each year to the private sector. Medicare took the profit out of providing health insurance to seniors but it left untouched the profit motive in the delivery of their medical services. In fact, Medicare’s billions have played a central role in building the commercial healthcare industry into the leviathan it is today.

Not content with making a reasonable amount of money from serving this huge market legitimately, providers regularly try to bilk the system for more than what they are entitled to. This is not just a matter of the proverbial Medicare mills in which individual physicians or small operations charge for services provided to imaginary patients or else overbill when treating real ones.

Some of the biggest instances of Medicare fraud have been perpetuated by Fortune 500 companies such as for-profit hospital operators, medical device manufacturers and pharmaceutical producers.

Let’s start with the drugmakers, since they have been at the center of several recent cases involving the illegal marketing of their pills for unapproved purposes, which among other things results in more high-priced medications getting prescribed for Medicare patients, thus inflating system costs. A few weeks ago, Glaxo SmithKline agreed to pay $3 billion to resolve federal criminal and civil charges relating to the improper marketing of its best-selling anti-depressants.

In May, Abbott Laboratories agreed to pay $1.5 billion to settle similar charges relating to the off-label marketing of its drug Depakote. Although Depakote was approved only for treating seizures, Abbott created a special sales force to pressure physicians to use it for controlling agitation and aggression in elderly dementia patients. This was both a safety risk and an added financial burden for Medicare and Medicaid. Illegal marketing charges had previously been settled with companies such as Novartis, AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Eli Lilly—in other words, pretty much the whole industry.

Medical device makers also contribute to escalating Medicare costs by pressing doctors to use their expensive products in place of cheaper alternatives or perhaps when they are not really medically necessary. Last December, Medtronic paid $23.5 million to resolve federal charges that it paid illegal kickbacks to physicians to induce them to implant the company’s pacemakers and defibrillators. Several months earlier, Guidant paid $9 million to settle federal charges of having inflated the cost of replacement pacemakers and defibrillators for Medicare and Medicaid patients.

And then we have the for-profit hospitals. A decade ago, HCA, one of the pioneers of the industry and still its biggest player, paid a total of $1.7 billion in fines in connection with charges that it defrauded Medicare and other federal health programs through a variety of overbilling schemes. Chief executive Rick Scott—now the Republican governor of Florida—was ousted but managed to avoid prosecution.

It now looks HCA is at it again. The New York Times just published a front-page exposé of how the company—now controlled by a group of private equity firms including Bain Capital—is making fat profits through “aggressive” billing of Medicare as well as private insurers. The Times reported that HCA’s tactics are now “under scrutiny” by the Justice Department.

The debate over Medicare’s supposedly out-of-control costs is surprisingly devoid of discussion of how much of the problem is the result of aggressive billing or outright fraud by the likes of HCA, the device makers and the pharmaceutical producers. Seniors cannot be expected to suffer cuts in their benefits as long as the giant corporate healthcare providers continue to gouge the system.

Regulators Draw Flak Meant for Corporate Perps

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

When a mobster or street criminal declares “I was framed” and expresses disdain for police and prosecutors, we dismiss it as part of their sociopathic tendencies. Yet when corporate transgressors do essentially the same thing by criticizing government regulators, they are taken much more seriously. All too often, business perps succeed in portraying themselves as the victims.

This charade is being played out yet again amid the current wave of scandals involving major U.S. and British banks. In the latest case, Britain’s Standard Chartered has been accused by New York State banking regulator Benjamin Lawsky of scheming with the Iranian government to launder billions of dollars in funds that might have been used to support terrorist activists.

Rather than being outraged by the fact a major financial institution may very well have provided substantial material support to a regime that the governments of the United States and other western countries spend so much time vilifying, most of the criticism seems to be aimed at Lawsky.

Some of this criticism, not surprisingly, is coming from Standard Chartered itself, which insists that 99.9 percent of its dealings with Iranian parties were legitimate and that it was already cooperating with other regulatory agencies in investigating the matter. Those other agencies, including the Federal Reserve and the Office of Foreign Assets Control, seem to be siding with Standard Chartered. An article in the New York Times served as a conduit for allegations by unnamed federal officials seeking that Lawsky’s case was seriously flawed.

The accusations against Standard Chartered are hardly unprecedented. Only two months ago, the Justice Department announced that the Netherlands-based ING Bank had agreed to pay $619 million to settle charges of having violated federal law by systematically concealing prohibited transactions with Iran and Cuba. Last month, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations issued a report of more than 300 pages on the poor record of the British bank HSBC in avoiding money-laundering transactions linked to terrorism and drug dealing.

The unfriendly response to the Lawsky allegations is not just a matter of the usual tension between federal and New York State regulators when it comes to financial sector investigations. Disapproving comments have also come from officials in Britain, with one member of parliament making the ridiculous suggestion that anti-British bias was involved.

There’s something much larger at stake. We’re in the midst of an ongoing corporate crime wave, with major banks among the most prominent perpetrators. As the Times points out, large corporations are on track to pay as much as $8 billion this year to resolve allegations of defrauding the federal government, a record amount and more than twice the amount from last year.

We should be focusing our criticisms on the companies involved in these and other cases that have not yet reached the settlement stage—not the regulators and prosecutors trying to control the corporate misconduct.

If there is any criticism to be made of regulators, it is that too few of them resemble Lawsky. They are more likely to treat corporations with kid gloves, given that too many of them either come from the private sector or end up there after their stint in government. Or else they simply fail to take decisive action. In the other major financial scandal of the day—the manipulation of the LIBOR interest rate index by Barclays and other major banks—regulators such as the Federal Reserve Bank of New York knew of the abuses years ago and were slow to do anything. The inaction was brazenly used by former Barclays CEO Bob Diamond as a way of spreading the blame for the rate-rigging.

No discussion of regulation would be complete without mentioning the problem that many of the rules are too weak to begin with. The individual most responsible for this during the Obama Administration—Cass Sunstein—recently announced that he will be leaving the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs to return to academia. An indication of the damage inflicted by Sunstein can be gauged by the fact that both the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce bemoaned his departure. Hopefully, Sunstein’s successor will make it harder for corporate malefactors to ply their trade.

The Risks of Being Employed

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

For those out of work for an extended period, unemployment can feel like a slow death.

Perhaps the only thing worse is the rapid death or serious injury experienced by many of those who have jobs but are forced to toil in unsafe conditions. As the ongoing economic crisis makes it difficult for workers to resist speed-ups and the hazards that go along with them, workplace accidents continue to mount. More than a dozen people are killed on the job each day.

New evidence of employer abuse comes in the latest statistics for the Occupational Safety and Health Administrations’ Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP). According to the August 1 issue of Bloomberg BNA’s Labor Relations Week, the number of workplaces that have egregiously bad safety records has doubled in the past year, reaching 330 establishments.

OSHA created the SVEP in 2010 in an effort to focus attention on those employers that expose their workers to the most dangerous conditions, as indicated by the occurrence of serious accidents and citations for significant violations of safety and health standards.  This is a laudable initiative, but it is likely that OSHA’s list includes only a small fraction of the corporate malefactors.

One of the companies missing from the compilation is BP, with which OSHA recently reached a $13 million settlement relating to the remaining unresolved violations at the company’s notorious Texas City refinery. BP previously paid more than $70 million in connection with hundreds of violations at the facility, where 15 workers were killed and more than 170 injured in a 2005 explosion (photo).

BP’s payments are far from the norm. In fact, the 2012 edition of the AFL-CIO’s overview of safety and health practices concludes that typical penalties—which after a recent increase still average only $2,100 for serious violations cited by OSHA and only $942 for those brought by state agencies—are too low to serve as a real deterrent to employer negligence.

Most of the firms on the SVEP list are smaller companies, with the largest number in the construction sector.  One larger corporation is Cooper Tire & Rubber. In November 2010 Cooper was cited by OSHA for 10 violations for failing to provide adequate protection from hazardous chemicals at its plant in Findlay, Ohio. The following June, Cooper was cited for similar violations at its plant in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Failure to provide a safe work environment is not the only way that Cooper mistreats its workers. The tire maker is also among the large employers that have used the recession as a pretext for taking a hard line on collective bargaining. Last November, Cooper locked out workers in Findlay represented by the Steelworkers union after they rejected a contract offer from the profitable firm that eliminated wage guarantees and increased healthcare premiums. Back in 2008, when Cooper was losing money, the union agreed to $30 million in concessions that helped it survive. The lockout ended in February after workers approved a somewhat less onerous offer.

Cooper’s strategy is similar to that being employed by Caterpillar, which despite enjoying record profits, is seeking deep concessions from its union workers. In May more than 750 workers at Cat’s plant in Joliet, Illinois, took what is a rare step these days—they went on strike. They were willing to take the risk in the face of a company proposal to freeze wages for six years for workers with more seniority and to set wage rates for newer employees according to labor market conditions rather than collective bargaining. There appears to be no end in sight for the walkout.

Long-term unemployment can take a terrible toll on families, but many of those with jobs go to work each day facing risks to their life or their livelihood. The recession, intensified by corporate disregard for workplace safety and labor laws, weighs heavy on all of the 99%.