Summing Subsidies

My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First were excited at the publication of the New York Times series on the “United States of Subsidies,” since it brings a great deal of attention to a problem—corporate abuse of economic development assistance—that we have been working on for more than a decade.

We were also pleased to see the online database that the Times posted to go along with the articles. We had provided a copy of the master spreadsheet for our Subsidy Tracker database to Louise Story, the author of the series, and she made extensive use of it. Although the Times obtained some information from other sources, it appears that about 98 percent of their company-specific listings come from Subsidy Tracker. (SEE UPDATE BELOW.)

Now that we have had a few days to examine the Times database, we see that there are some flaws in the way the paper used our data.

First, a few words on Subsidy Tracker. In recent years, a growing number of states began to put company-specific information on at least some of their economic development awards—grants, tax credits, tax abatements, etc.—online. This was often in response to the subsidy accountability movement that we and our allies have built.

The problem was that these disclosures usually happened via hard-to-find reports and web pages that were often difficult to search even when you did locate them. Good Jobs First decided to collect all these disclosures and combine them into one national search tool. We introduced Subsidy Tracker in December 2010 with 43,000 listings from 124 subsidy programs in 27 states.

Over the following two years, we have expanded that to the current total of 247,000 listings from 409 programs in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. That expansion was not due entirely to wider official online transparency. Using open records requests, we also obtained unpublished data on scores of additional programs (the total is currently 89). By posting this information to Subsidy Tracker, we became, in effect, the original online disclosure source for these programs.

In recent months we’ve begun applying this approach to city and county subsidy programs, which are far behind their state counterparts in terms of online disclosure.

Despite all this effort, we recognized that we still could not claim to have captured anywhere near all the subsidy awards that have been made across the country. Not only did we still lack many programs, we also have irregular numbers of years of data among programs.  That’s why we have not yet built into Subsidy Tracker a feature that enables instant aggregation of all the awards going to a particular company.

Along with the remaining gaps in the data, there is much that needs to be done with regard to the listings we do have to allow accurate aggregation. This includes the standardization of the variations in company names in our source materials, linking of parent and subsidiary companies, and accounting for mergers and acquisitions. There’s also the problem that some states report subsidy amounts for single years and others for multiple ones. These challenges are all part of our future work plan.

After getting our raw data, the Times did not consult with us on exactly how it would be used. We thus had no opportunity to warn the paper against the perils of aggregation. Specifically, we were not aware of the paper’s plans to create what it calls its $100 Million Club.

It is with this listing that the pitfalls in the Times approach become most apparent. The companies that receive the largest subsidies often get them in the form of packages negotiated with state and local officials. These packages usually consist of awards from various programs and may also involve project-specific awards outside established programs. Some of these pieces of packages are not included in state disclosure channels. It is part of our plan to research packages through other means and add them to Subsidy Tracker as a separate category. We’ve already begun the process in the Key Deals section of the state pages of the Accountable USA section of the Good Jobs First website.

The Times supplemented the roughly 154,000 entries it took from Subsidy Tracker with about 2,000 listings the paper obtained on its own or from an expensive subscription service produced by a company called Investment Consulting Associates. This enabled the inclusion of entries that were gleaned from press releases but had not yet been reported in the official program lists we rely on for Subsidy Tracker.

Yet the $100 Million Club still ends up with numerous instances in which the totals understate the true amount the big subsidy grabbers have received.

For example, the Times lists a total of $338 million for Boeing, including $218 from South Carolina. Yet it has been estimated that the package Boeing got by locating a new Dreamliner assembly line in the Charleston area could be worth some $900 million.

Apple is said to have received a total of $119 million, yet the Times fails to include more than $60 million in subsidies the company got for a data center in North Carolina.

The Times $100 Million Club also misses some major recipients entirely, including Volkswagen, which got more than $500 million in connection with an assembly plant in Tennessee, and ThyssenKrupp, which got more than $1 billion in subsidies for a steel mill in Alabama.

And these only include deals dating back to 2007, which is the period the Times used in compiling its $100 Million Club. The larger Times database seriously understates the size of major deals that took place earlier. For example, it lists only $19.3 million for GlobalFoundries in New York State, even though the company took over a $1.2 billion deal originally offered to Advanced Micro Devices (which isn’t listed at all).

We applaud the Times for the great reporting that went into its United States of Subsidies articles, but the paper fell short when it came to the compilations featured in its database. Good Jobs First will continue to build our Subsidy Tracker tool and in the future will create what we hope will be a more accurate and complete version of a $100 Million Club.

UPDATE

After this blog was posted, Louise Story contacted us with some concerns. She confirmed that 98 percent of the entries (a total of 152,729) in the Times database came from Subsidy Tracker, but she says the number of entries that came from other sources was actually 3,844 rather than the 2,000 we estimated. She added that in dollar terms, a subject we did not address in the blog, Tracker entries account for 67.3 percent of the total in the Times database. However, we cannot verify that number because the Times has not given us its underlying spreadsheet.

Story also believes that the blog should have mentioned the fact that she contacted me several weeks ago to say that the articles and database would be published soon and in effect told me about her aggregation plans. She did indeed contact me but gave the impression that her work was completed, meaning that an effort to suggest any changes in methodology would have been moot at that point.

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New in CORPORATE RAP SHEETS: A dossier on Swiss drug giant Novartis and its history of selling unsafe drugs, price-gouging, toxic dumping and gender discrimination.

The Corporate Entitlement Problem

To the extent that the United States has a real fiscal crisis, it has been exacerbated by aggressive tax avoidance on the part of big business. Now the chief executives of many of those same giant corporations are inserting themselves at the center of the current fiscal cliff debate, claiming they know what is best for the country.

The Campaign to Fix the Debt, whose “CEO Fiscal Leadership Council” now has more than 100 members from the corporate elite, is not, of course, proposing that the Fortune 500 start paying its fair share of federal taxes. In fact, the group is pursuing an agenda that may very well result in their companies’ paying even less to Uncle Sam.

As the Institute for Policy Studies has pointed out, companies represented in Fix the Debt stand to save tens of billions of dollars from the territorial tax system the campaign seems to be promoting. IPS has also shown the hypocrisy in the fact that the Fix the Debt CEOs calling for “reforms” in Social Security have fat personal retirement assets from their companies, while many of those firms are underfunding their employee pension plans.

There are numerous other ways in which the companies represented in Fix the Debt are far from honest brokers in dealing with the fiscal cliff—and in actuality engage in practices that exacerbate the country’s fiscal and economic problems.

Take the fact that among those companies are some of the most anti-union employers in the United States, beginning with Honeywell, whose CEO David Cote is on the steering committee of Fix the Debt and is one of its main spokespeople. After members of the Steelworkers union at a uranium facility in Illinois balked at company demands for the elimination of retiree health benefits, reductions in pension benefits and other severe contract concessions, Honeywell locked them out for 12 months.

Also on the council is Lowell McAdam of Verizon Communications, which for years has fought against union organizing at its Verizon Wireless unit and took a hard line in its most recent round of contract negotiations covering its unionized workforce.

Then there is Douglas Oberhelman, the CEO of Caterpillar, which has one of the most contentious labor relations histories of any large company, including a 15-week strike at one plant earlier this year prompted by management demands for far-reaching contract concessions.

Not to mention W. James McNerney, Jr. of Boeing, which was accused of opening an assembly plant in right-to-work South Carolina as a form of retaliation against union activism at its traditional manufacturing center in the Seattle area.

These anti-union crusaders have helped bring about a climate of wage stagnation that not only undermines the living standards of their employees but also weakens businesses that depend on their purchasing power.

Fix the Debt CEOs also seem to think that their companies deserve to be lavishly rewarded when they make investments that create jobs. While it is difficult to discern these rewards at the federal level, where they come through the fine print of the Internal Revenue Code, the payoffs are abundantly clear in the lucrative subsidy deals the corporations receive from state and local governments.

For example, that Boeing plant did not only get the promise of a workforce that in all likelihood will remain unorganized. South Carolina also bestowed on the company a state and local subsidy package that has been valued at more than $900 million.

Verizon has received more than $180 million in subsidies from state and local governments around the country. Caterpillar got an $8.5 million grant from Gov. Rock Perry’s Texas Enterprise Fund as well as local subsidies when it eliminated jobs in Illinois and opened a new plant in the Lone Star State. Honeywell has received subsidies in at least 14 states.

The subsidy recipients represented in Fix the Debt are not limited to that anti-union group; there are many others. For example, Goldman Sachs, whose CEO Lloyd Blankfein has been a frequent spokesperson for the campaign, took advantage of $1.65 billion in low-cost Liberty Bonds when building its new headquarters in Lower Manhattan.

The refusal of these companies to deal respectfully with unionized workers and their insistence on taking lavish taxpayer subsidies they don’t need are two symptoms of a flawed business culture. The United States does have an entitlement problem, but it is not related to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. It is the notion held by too many large corporations and their CEOs that their narrow interests are synonymous with the national interest. Rather than presuming to fix the debt, big business needs to fix itself.

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New in CORPORATE RAP SHEETS: a dossier on drug giant GlaxoSmithKline, including its $3 billion fraud settlement with the federal government.

Wal-Mart’s Other Sins

The job actions taking place at many Wal-Mart locations around the United States have brought new attention to the abysmal labor practices of the country’s largest private employer. More than any other company, Wal-Mart depends on low wages, meager benefits, overtime abuses and gender discrimination to keep its labor costs artificially low while quashing any efforts by workers to rectify those conditions.

Two weeks ago, I used this blog to recount Wal-Mart’s labor and employment track record. Here I want to remind readers of some of the company’s many sins outside the workplace, using information I assembled for the new 5,000-word Wal-Mart entry in my Corporate Rap Sheets series.

Corruption. Wal-Mart doesn’t seem to mind its hardline reputation on personnel matters, but it has tried to otherwise paint itself as a squeaky-clean operation. That image was shattered last spring, when the New York Times published an 8,000-word front-page exposé about moves by top management to thwart and ultimately shelve an investigation of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations, focusing on extensive bribes paid by lower-level company officials as part of an effort to increase Wal-Mart’s market share in Mexico.

That story made a huge splash and reportedly undermined the company’s urban expansion efforts. A major public pension fund, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, sued the company for breach of fiduciary duty in connection with the bribery scandal. It and other institutional investors showed their discontent with top management by opposing the official slate of directors at Wal-Mart’s annual meeting. About 12 percent of the shares outstanding were voted against the slate, an unprecedented level of dissent by the company’s previously quiescent shareholders. The company, apparently still trying to deal with the fallout, has just announced an overhaul of its compliance department.

State income tax avoidance. In 2007 the Wall Street Journal published a front-page story revealing that Wal-Mart was using a real estate gimmick to avoid paying many millions of dollars in state corporate income taxes each year. It was doing this by putting many of its stores under the ownership of a real estate investment trust (REIT) controlled by the company. The stores would pay rent to the captive REIT and deduct those payments as a business expense.

This trick, essentially paying rent to itself, reduced the company’s taxable income and thus lowered its state tax bill (the REIT was structured so its income wasn’t taxed by any state). A report by Citizens for Tax Justice estimated that Wal-Mart had thereby avoided some $2.3 billion in state income tax payments between 1999 and 2005–an average of more than $300 million a year.

Local property tax avoidance.  A 2007 report by my colleagues and me at Good Jobs First found that Wal-Mart has sought to reduce its property tax payments by frequently and aggressively challenging the assessed value attached to its U.S. stores and distribution centers by local officials.  The report examined a 10 percent random sample of the stores and found that such challenges had been filed for about one-third of them; an examination of all of the distribution centers found challenges at 40 percent, even though many of the latter had been granted property tax abatements when they were built.

Sales tax “skimming.” In a 2008 report by Good Jobs First entitled Skimming the Sales Tax, we found that Wal-Mart was receiving an estimated $60 million a year as a result of the little-known practice in some states of compensating retailers for collecting sales taxes and calculating the amount of that compensation based on total sales. This, in addition to the estimated $130 million in sales-tax-based economic development subsidies, means that Wal-Mart is depriving hard-pressed state and local governments of at least $73 million each year. This is just a small part of the more than $1.2 billion in state and local subsidies that Good Jobs First has documented on our website Wal-Mart Subsidy Watch.

Environmental violations. Wal-Mart has tried very hard in recent years to depict itself as a pioneer of sustainability by wide-ranging initiatives with regard to energy efficiency and the addition of organic foods and other green products to its shelves. Wal-Mart is largely silent about the environmental impact of the millions of customers who in most cases must still drive to the company’s retail outlets. It also wants us to forget that the company itself has had its share of environmental violations. For example, in 2004 the U.S. Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency announced that Wal-Mart would pay a $3.1 million civil penalty and take remedial action to resolve alleged violations of the Clean Water Act in connection with storm water runoff from two dozen company construction sites in nine states. The following year, the company agreed to pay $1.15 million to the state of Connecticut to settle a suit alleging that it had allowed rain water to carry fertilizer, pesticides and other harmful substances stored outside its retail outlets into rivers and streams. It also signed a consent decree with the EPA to resolve charges relating to diesel truck idling at its facilities.

Undocumented Workers. When talking about Wal-Mart it is difficult to avoid the workplace entirely. Aside from its mistreatment of its own employees, the company takes advantage of exploited contract workers. For example, in 2003 a federal racketeering suit was filed against Wal-Mart by lawyers seeking to represent thousands of janitors who cleaned company stores and were reported to be working seven days a week and not receiving overtime pay. The filing took place 18 days after federal agents raided 60 Wal-Mart stores in 21 states to round up about 250 janitors described as undocumented aliens. In 2005 Wal-Mart agreed to pay $11 million to settle federal immigration charges. Documents later emerged suggesting that Wal-Mart executives knew that the company’s cleaning contractors were using undocumented immigrants.

“Dead Peasant” Insurance. Wal-Mart has not only worked people to death but also continued exploiting them after their demise. The mega-retailer is one of the large companies that engaged in the repugnant practice of secretly taking out life insurance on low-paid employees and making itself the beneficiary. The polite term for this is corporate-owned life insurance, though critics have labeled it “janitor’s insurance” or “dead peasant insurance.” In 2004 Wal-Mart settled one case brought in Houston for an undisclosed amount. Two years later it agreed to pay $5.1 million for a class action brought by the estates of former employees in Oklahoma, and in 2011 the company agreed to pay just over $2 million in a class-action suit filed in Florida.

The list could go on. In fact, it is difficult to find a form of corporate misconduct Wal-Mart has not exhibited. Yet it is probably the labor arena that counts the most in determining whether the company will be reined in. Support your local Wal-Mart “associates” in their efforts to stand up to the bully of Bentonville.

Are Free Market Ideologues and Big Business Heading for a Divorce?

Conservatives are feeling smug. The recently completed Supreme Court oral arguments on the healthcare law were replete with skepticism about the powers of the federal government and glorification of personal liberty, though what was being celebrated was the dubious right of a person to be uninsured against the risk of a catastrophic medical event.

We’ve come to assume that modern conservatism is a stalking horse for an expansion of corporate power. Yet were the interests of big business really being served by the evisceration of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act?

First, in their desire to invalidate the individual mandate to purchase coverage, lawyers opposing the law and conservative justices went out of their way to distinguish it from what they had to admit were the valid powers of Congress to impose taxes and regulate commerce. Nary a negative word was said about the provisions of the act that impose dramatic new restrictions on the health insurance industry relating to pricing and the denial of coverage to those with pre-existing conditions. Although the justices seemed more inclined to throw out the entire law than to simply carve out the individual mandate, they suggested they would have no problem if Congress subsequently passed new legislation that reinstated the regulations without the hated mandate.

What the justices downplayed is that the Affordable Care Act was a grand bargain with the health insurance industry in which it acceded to the new regulations in exchange for being guaranteed a vast new pool of customers whose premium payments would be heavily subsidized by the federal government. The Right has gotten so carried away with its denunciations of the Act as a government takeover that it has forgotten it is really an enormous boon to private insurers.

One member of the court who chose not to ignore this was Justice Ginsburg, who during the second day of the hearings said she found it “very odd” that the opponents of the law were conceding that the government had every right to take over entire portions of the healthcare insurance market, as with Medicare, but rejected an arrangement designed to “preserve private insurers.”

The point also came up in an exchange the same day between Justice Kennedy and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli in which Kennedy seemed to acknowledge that Congress would have the right to create a single payer system, and Verrilli responded that it was “a little ironic” that the Act was being criticized because Congress had instead decided to “to rely on market mechanisms and efficiency and a method that has more choice than would the traditional Medicare or Medicaid-type model.”

Of course, there is no guarantee that if the Affordable Care Act is struck down in its entirety, Congress will reinstate the most significant regulations on the insurance industry, much less that it will embrace single payer. But one has to wonder what the industry thinks about the position in which it will be put.

Once they made their deal with the Obama Administration, the big insurers largely stayed on the sidelines as the Right assailed the Act, purportedly in the name of free enterprise. Now those companies seemed to be confused about the law.

In its most recent 10-K filing, giant UnitedHealth Group acknowledges that the new law “may create new or expanding opportunities for business growth” but also warns that it “could materially and adversely affect the manner in which we conduct business and our results of operations, financial position and cash flows.” Its rival Wellpoint expresses the same ambivalence in its 10-K, saying: “As a result of the complexity of the law…we cannot currently estimate the ultimate impact…on our business, cash flows, financial condition and results of operations.”

Yet they seem even more worried about the possibility that the law may be overturned. UnitedHealth writes: “Any partial or complete repeal…could materially and adversely impact our ability to capitalize on the opportunities presented by the Health Reform Legislation or may cause us to incur additional costs of compliance.”

Apart from the insurance companies, there are other major corporate players that have been intending to “capitalize on the opportunities” created by the Affordable Care Act’s infusion of lots more federal money into the medical sector. For example, for-profit hospital operator HCA writes in its 10-K that the Act “may result in a material increase in the number of patients using our facilities who have either private or public program coverage,” though it also worried about intended reductions in payments to Medicare providers. On the issue of partial or complete repeal, it also admits that the impact would be “unclear.”

Healthcare is not the only arena in which corporate interests may be having second thoughts about their direct (as with the Kochs) or indirect encouragement of junkyard dog-style conservatism. Tea party types in Congress recently decided to challenge the continued existence of the Export-Import Bank, an institution that has long been relied on by major companies such as Boeing and General Electric to sell their big-ticket items to foreign customers.

That move features prominently a New York Times front-page story reporting that some business interests are wondering if they made a mistake in heavily supporting the far-right Republicans who seem to call the shots on Capitol Hill these days. The article quotes a spokesman for the Club for Growth, which promotes “economic freedom” as admitting that “free market is not always the same as pro-business.”

Hopefully, those are not the country’s only choices. If we’re lucky, the clash between these two tendencies will open up more space for changes that promote economic and social justice while putting restraints on both the market and the corporations.

The Price of a U.S. Manufacturing Revival

A few decades ago, U.S. factory jobs began moving offshore to countries that lured corporations with the prospect of weak or non-existent unions, minimal regulation, lavish tax breaks and other profit-fattening benefits. Workers in those runaway shops enjoyed little in the way of a social safety net, thus making them all the more dependent on whatever dismal employment opportunities foreign firms had to offer. Much of the U.S. manufacturing sector was left for dead.

Now, we are told, U.S. manufacturing is undergoing a resurrection. “Manufacturing is coming back,” President Obama told a group of blue-collar workers at a recent public event. “Companies are bringing jobs back.” Obama earlier used the State of the Union address to tout the recovery of the U.S. auto industry in the wake of the bailout he championed. One of the bailed-out firms, Chrysler, aired a Super Bowl commercial called “It’s Halftime in America” in which Clint Eastwood hailed the country’s industrial recovery.

It’s true that manufacturing employment has been on the rise after many years on the decline. But is this something calling for unqualified celebration?

Boosters of the industrial resurgence would have us believe it is a reflection of improved U.S. productivity, entrepreneurial zeal or, as Obama put it in the State of the Union, “American ingenuity.” In the case of Chrysler, that should be Italian ingenuity, given that the bailout put the company under the control of Fiat.

But it can just as easily be argued that domestic manufacturing is advancing because the United States has taken on more of the characteristics of the countries that hosted those runaway shops. Deunionization, deregulation, corporate tax preferences, excessive business subsidies and a shriveled safety net are more pronounced than ever before in the U.S. economy. If any of the Republican Presidential candidates get in office, those trends will only accelerate.

Even the Obama Administration is on the bandwagon to a certain extent. Its Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs has obstructed a slew of new environmental and workplace safety regulations. Now the President has legitimized years of conservative rhetoric claiming that companies are overtaxed by introducing a corporate tax reform plan that would reduce statutory rates in general and create an even lower rate for manufacturers. The plan has some good intentions—such as ending special giveaways to Big Oil and other loopholes while encouraging corporations to bring jobs back home—but it ignores years of evidence from groups such as Citizens for Tax Justice showing that big business will exploit any softening of the tax code to bring its actual payments down to the absolute lowest levels.

The perils of joining the manufacturing revival chorus can be seen by looking at heavy equipment producer Caterpillar. The company has been getting a lot of attention lately for expanding its domestic employment through moves such as the planned construction of a $200 million plant in Athens, Georgia that is projected to employ about 1,400.

This needs to be put in some context. According to data in Cat’s 10-K filings, the company’s workforce outside the United States soared from around 13,000 in the early 1990s to more than 71,000 last year, growing to some 57 percent of the firm’s total employment. The number of foreign workers in 2011 was greater than the company’s total head count in 2003.

Cat’s love affair with places such as China blossomed as the company was trying to escape its U.S. unions, which it had unsuccessfully tried to destroy. Cat’s hard-line approach to collective bargaining soured relations with its workers, resulting in a series of strikes and other confrontations, including a dispute in the 1990s that lasted for more than six years.

It appears that unions have no role in Cat’s limited back-to-the-USA plan. The company’s new domestic facilities tend to be located in “right to work” states. After recently trying to impose huge pay cuts at a factory in Ontario (photo), Cat first locked out the workers, then shut down the plant and is now reported to be shifting the work to a facility in Muncie, Indiana, the latest state to adopt a “right-to-work” law to hamstring unions.

By locating the Athens plant in a labor-unfriendly state such as Georgia, Cat is expected to be able to pay wages far below those in its unionized plants. It is also worth noting that Cat agreed to build the plant in Georgia only after it received $75 million in tax breaks and other financial assistance, one of the largest subsidy packages the state has ever offered.

The message of all this seems to be that the U.S. can enjoy a renewal of manufacturing if we are only willing to put up with a few minor inconveniences such as union-busting and big tax giveaways to corporations. That’s apparently what is really meant by American ingenuity.

Solyndra’s Fossil Fuel Cousins

Republicans show no signs of relenting in their effort to exploit the bankruptcy filing of federally-backed solar equipment company Solyndra to delegitimize not only the Obama Administration’s renewable energy policies but the very concept of green jobs.

A key element of the campaign is the depiction of Obama as having a hippie-like preoccupation with wind and solar energy. What the Republicans conveniently ignore is that Obama hedged his bets. While running for the presidency and after taking office he also promoted non-flower-power forms of energy such as nuclear and coal. Much to the chagrin of his supporters in the environmental movement, Obama embraced the industry-contrived idea of “clean coal,” otherwise known as carbon capture and storage (CCS).

It is widely forgotten that the 2009 Recovery Act (ARRA), now being vilified for appropriating funds for the loan guarantees given to Solyndra and other solar firms, also included a provision for subsidizing CCS projects. ARRA provided $3.4 billion for the Department of Energy’s Fossil Energy R&D Program. Of that amount, $1.52 billion was to support large-scale demonstration projects involving the capture of carbon emissions from industrial sources. “Stimulus Money Puts Clean Coal Projects on a Faster Track” was the headline of a March 2009 article in the New York Times.

The brave new era of CCS did not begin auspiciously. In August 2009 it was revealed that consultants working for an industry front group called the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity had forged letters from non-profit groups to members of Congress expressing opposition to a climate bill that was being considered at the time.

In October 2009 the Energy Department announced a set of modest-sized CCS grants to companies such as Archer Daniels Midland, ConocoPhillips and Shell Chemical. Two months later, DOE handed out a set of much larger grants totaling $979 million to American Electric Power Company, Southern Company and Summit Texas Clean Energy.

And in August 2010 the Energy Department awarded $1 billion in ARRA funds to a large CCS project operated by several companies under the name FutureGen Alliance. In a previous incarnation, FutureGen had been funded by the Bush Administration—largely to justify inaction on greenhouse gas emissions—but that money was cut off as the result of a cost study that later turned out to have a major math error.

So how has all this turned out? In July, the CCS movement was dealt a severe blow when American Electric Power announced that, despite the federal aid it was receiving, it would suspend work on its flagship Mountaineer carbon capture project in West Virginia. AEP said it based the decision on the weak economy and the uncertain status of climate policy.

Later that month, Bloomberg BusinessWeek published a report called “What’s Killing Carbon Capture,” which pointed out that the Mountaineer suspension was only one of a series of recent cancellations or postponements of CCS projects in the United States and other countries. Meanwhile, FutureGen 2.0 is years away from operation and may never justify the federal government’s huge investment.

In other words, renewables are not the only kind of energy alternatives that are in trouble. If Republicans want to use the Solyndra case to argue the failure of green job creation, they have to acknowledge that clean coal initiatives promoted by the fossil fuel sector are also going nowhere.

And if they really want to be honest, they would admit that the reasons for setbacks in wind and solar as well as in carbon capture go far beyond the handling of ARRA grants by the Obama Administration. The feeble economy presents a formidable obstacle for any new industry. A dysfunctional policy environment made even more toxic by the rise of climate change denialism creates even more turmoil for energy industry innovators, whether in the renewable or the CCS camp. It may also be the case that those innovators just don’t have a viable business plan.

Of course, the Administration’s critics are not going to concede any of this. Anti-green job demagoguery will be with us for some time to come.

Amazon’s Anti-Tax Crusade

When large companies complain about taxes, they are usually talking about levies they have to pay out of their own deep pockets. Amazon.com is engaged in a battle to make it easier for its customers to avoid paying their taxes – their sales tax, that is, on what they purchase from the giant online retailer.

The outcome of this dispute will have broad consequences for a U.S. economy in which state and local governments face ongoing revenue shortfalls and commerce increasingly takes place online.

At the center of the dispute is the question of whether web-based retailers such as Amazon have the same obligation as brick-and-mortar stores to collect sales tax from their customers. Sales taxes are essential to the finances of state governments, accounting for nearly half of all their tax revenue. Widespread corporate income tax dodging and business property tax breaks have made the sales levy all the more important.

While traditional retailers have no choice about collecting the sales tax mandated by state and local authorities, the story is more complicated when it comes to e-commerce. A 1992 U.S. Supreme Court opinion barred states from requiring catalogue and internet sellers to collect sales tax unless they had a physical presence (“nexus” in legalese) such as a distribution center in the customer’s state. The argument was that forcing merchants to keep track of varying tax rates across thousands of jurisdictions was too onerous.

That ruling, which was handed down before Amazon.com was founded, did not mean that online transactions were tax-free. Many states require residents to voluntarily report their online purchases and pay taxes directly to the government. Most people are unaware of these rules or choose to ignore them. The failure of online retailers to collect taxes thus results in revenue losses that a University of Tennessee study estimates will reach $11 billion next year.

The Supreme Court hinted that a solution to the problem should come in the form of federal legislation sanctioning sales tax collection on remote transactions along with efforts by the states to streamline and simplify their sales tax practices. Progress on these fronts has been slow.

As people spend more and more of their money in cyberspace, some states feel they cannot wait. They have been devising creative ways to establish nexus. New York led the way in 2008 with legislation, dubbed the “Amazon law,” that requires online retailers to collect taxes if they have affiliate websites in the state promoting sales on their behalf. A few other states followed suit in 2009 and 2010.

This year the issue has mushroomed. More than a dozen state legislatures have taken up the matter, and Amazon laws have been enacted in Illinois, Connecticut and California. Amazon is furious. It responds to the new laws by vowing to terminate its relationship with affiliates in the affected states and by threatening legal action.

The company’s aversion to sales tax collection is so strong that it carries over into states in which it should have a nexus obligation. As Michael Mazerov of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, Amazon has put ownership of its physical facilities in the hands of subsidiaries and then claimed there was no basis for the parent company to collect taxes. When that has not worked, the company has sought special exemptions by what amounts to bribing the state with promises of job creation. Such an effort just failed in Texas, but Amazon prevailed in a drawn-out dispute in South Carolina.

In early June, South Carolina legislators reversed themselves and approved a bill that gives Amazon a five-year exemption from its sales tax collection duties. The move came after the company upped to 2,000 the number of jobs it promised to create in the state in the course of building a $125 million distribution center.  Amazon had also been offered subsidies such as income tax credits and property tax breaks, but it is significant that the sales tax collection issue was the deal breaker for the company.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Amazon claims that its opposition to collecting sales tax is not driven by a desire to gain a price advantage over its competitors. Instead, the company insists that collecting sales tax in every state would be excessively burdensome.

It would be one thing for that claim to be made by a mom-and-pop operation. But this is Amazon—the online service that not only sells its customers a vast array of merchandise but also anticipates what they may want to purchase by offering an endless stream of targeted recommendations and by listing what customers who bought a particular item also purchased.

A company that has the computing power to predict the consuming habits of each of its tens of millions of customers could easily handle a few thousand different sales tax rates.

At stake are not only Amazon’s convenience and state revenue loss. By taking a hard line on sales tax collection, Amazon is contributing to the anti-tax sentiment that is doing so much harm to the country. Everyone likes a bargain, but it should not come at the expense of revenues needed to sustain vital public services.

The $100 Million Stickups

According to the FBI, the typical bank robber escapes with about $7,600. It would take more than 13,000 such capers to reach the amount that some individual corporations are netting in their own holdups, though of a legal variety.

This year has seen a series of cases in which large companies secure big subsidy packages by hinting that they may move their corporate headquarters to another state, and in several instances those packages have turned out to be worth an eye-popping $100 million.

The fact that state and local governments around the country continue to face severe budgetary shortfalls has not prevented them from offering—and companies from taking—these huge payoffs. Here are some new members of the $100 Million Club:

Motorola Mobility Holdings—one of the two spinoffs from the split-up of the old Motorola Inc. earlier this year—recently extracted $100 million in EDGE tax credits from Illinois as the price for keeping its headquarters and approximately 3,000 employees in the Chicago suburb of Libertyville. EDGE credits normally apply to corporate income tax payments, but the state legislature allowed the smart-phone company to keep employee income tax withholding payments instead. Motorola Mobility was awarded several million dollars more in job training and other grants.

When Panasonic Corporation of America let it be known it was considering moving its headquarters out of New Jersey, the state offered the company a tax credit worth just over $100 million to stay. But it couldn’t remain at its existing site in Secaucus. The Urban Transit Tax Credit required a relocation, so the state’s Economic Development Authority got the Japanese electronics firm to agree to move a few miles down the road to Newark. The arrangement was expected to provide a big boost in tax revenue for Newark (money in effect poached from Secaucus), but the struggling city for some reason decided it was necessary to give back a portion of that to Panasonic in the form of more subsidies, the amount of which has not yet been determined.

After raising the possibility of moving out of state in response to an increase of one half of one percent in local income taxes, American Greetings agreed in March to keep its corporate headquarters in northeast Ohio. All it took was a state package of grants, tax credits and low-interest loans worth an estimated $93 million over 15 years. Once the greeting card company settles on the exact site, it is likely to get additional local assistance that will put its total subsidies above $100 million.

A few weeks after the American Greetings deal, ATM manufacturer Diebold, which had made similar noises about a possible move to another state, was also induced to keep its headquarters in northeast Ohio. It, too, is slated to get total subsidies of about $100 million—$56 million in refundable tax credits from the state and anticipated local “incentives” of more than $40 million.

Sears Holdings could soon join the club as well. Actually, Sears is already a leader in it. Back in 1989 it got a subsidy package of $178 million for moving its headquarters from downtown Chicago to exurban Hoffman Estates, 29 miles away. The state and local tax subsidies from that deal are set to expire next year. Playing the we-might-move-out-of-state game, Sears has set off a frantic effort by Illinois officials to extend the company’s subsidies for another 15 years. No deal has yet been announced.

It is frustrating to see one company after another get away with job blackmail. If only we could get the FBI to take an interest in this kind of stickup.

Public Employees and the Public Interest

Chicago Tribune, January 29, 1900

Well before Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker began his unholy crusade, the Right was heavily promoting its claim that public employee unions are a threat to the public. The title of a 2009 book by conservative ideologue Steven Greenhut said it all: Plunder! How Public Employee Unions are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation.

What the union bashers are trying to obscure is that public employees have a long history of supporting policies that promote the broad public interest. This goes back to the very roots of the public employee union movement.

In the 1890s teachers in Chicago created a federation that became the first real teachers union and one of the pioneers of public employee unionism in general. When the federation, led by Margaret Haley and Catherine Goggin (illustration), was confronted with a move by the board of education to cut teacher salaries because of a purported fiscal crisis, the teachers responded to the claim of a revenue shortfall in a creative way. They launched an intensive investigation of tax dodging by some of the largest corporations in the city, finding that property tax underpayments amounted to some $4 million a year (serious money back then).

Tax officials were reluctant to crack down on powerful business interests, so the teachers sued, eventually winning a favorable ruling in the Illinois Supreme Court (though the U.S. Supreme Court later went the other way).

A cynic might say that the teachers were simply acting in their self-interest by finding a new revenue source that would help restore their lost wages. Yet their goal was also to find funds that could improve conditions in the schools—and those conditions were truly abysmal. In his 1975 history of the American Federation of Teachers, William Edward Eaton writes that in the 1890s:

The teachers of Chicago daily faced the horrors of overcrowded, unsanitary buildings stuffed with too many children and controlled by an impersonal bureaucratic structure. This they did with poor pay, no job security, and no pension system.

The efforts of teacher organizations to address these problems, through collective bargaining as well as tax justice campaigns, also redounded to the benefit of the students and their families.

The Chicago teachers were also an important force in the passage of the Illinois Child Labor Law of 1903. That cynic might say this was aimed at boosting school enrollment and increasing the demand for teachers. Maybe so, but can anyone deny that banning child labor was also a boon for society as a whole, aside from sweatshop proprietors?

In the decades that followed, unions of teachers and other government employees have been among the strongest advocates of a vibrant public sector. They have continued to be leading critics of corporate tax dodging and opponents of efforts to gut public services. Unions such as AFSCME have been at the forefront of campaigns to stop the contracting out of government functions and the privatization of public assets such as highways—practices that usually work to the detriment of taxpayers as well as public employees.

The state and local public employee unions accomplished this against all odds. Denied the protection of the National Labor Relations Act, they had to get states one-by-one to recognize their right to organize—the right that is at risk in Wisconsin and elsewhere. It took a period of remarkable militancy in the 1960s and 1970s—including defiance of laws banning strikes by public employees—before they made significant progress. Among those strikes was the 1968 walkout by sanitation workers in Memphis, where Martin Luther King Jr. was visiting to show his support when he was assassinated.

And even then there were often severe fiscal limits on the ability of public employees to bargain for substantial wage gains. To compensate, many public unions put more emphasis on securing better retirement benefits for their members. These pension rights—in effect, deferred wages—are now under attack as if they were some giant giveaway.

The real giveaways are the lavish business tax cuts and corporate subsidies that the likes of Gov. Walker promote at the same time that they are demanding severe concessions from government workers. The great confrontation of 2011 comes down a question of whose interests are more closely aligned with those of the public at large: those who teach our children, drive our buses and put out fires in our homes—or superwealthy individuals and large corporations that are reluctant to create new jobs.

With each passing day, the momentum is moving in favor of the descendants of the 1890s Chicago teachers who are fighting for their rights and for the public interest in Madison, Columbus and other capitals across the nation.

Note:  A new movement called US Uncut is organizing actions around the country calling for a crackdown on corporate tax dodging as an alternative to harmful cuts in government programs such as education.

Sucked Into the Offshoring Whirlpool

Critics of the $787 billion Recovery Act complain it is not doing enough to revive the economy, but they rarely ask why the companies that are receiving stimulus contracts and grants are not hiring more people. Now one of those recipients is facing a growing controversy over its employment practices in a case that helps explain why jobs remain in short supply.

Appliance maker Whirlpool is under fire from organized labor for its decision to shut down a 1,100-worker refrigerator plant in Evansville, Indiana and shift the work to a company factory in Mexico. The announcement was actually made last August, but it did not get national attention until recently, when union activists realized that Whirlpool had been given a $19.3 million grant by the U.S. Department of Energy to develop “smart appliances.” The funding was part of the Recovery Act’s $4.5 billion pot of money to encourage the development of the smart transmission grid.

The grant was not directed to the Evansville plant, but unions are nonetheless indignant that a company engaged in exporting jobs to a foreign low-wage location is receiving federal aid. The company made things worse for itself by warning workers not to participate in a planned protest demonstration featuring AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. The union at the plant, IUE-CWA Local 808, has filed an unfair labor practice charge over the warning.

This situation shows the difficulty of using stimulus funds or other incentives to generate employment at a time when so many large corporations no longer have an interest in producing things in the United States.

Consider Whirlpool. For decades its production activities were almost entirely located in the USA. In the 1980s that began to change as the company started to focus more on overseas markets. It bought large shares in the Canadian company Inglis, Mexico’s Vitromatic and then the European appliance business of the Dutch company Philips. In 1990 Forbes wrote that Whirlpool was “going global—with a vengeance.”

If Whirlpool’s foreign expansion was meant only to meet demand in foreign markets, that would be one thing. But the company began a process of reducing its manufacturing in the United States and other developed countries while increasing it in foreign low-wage havens. One of its favorite havens was Mexico. In the late 1980s the company closed numerous U.S. plants and shifted production to Mexican maquiladora plants. In 1996 the plant in Evansville lost about 265 jobs when some refrigerator production was moved to Mexico. In 2003 Whirlpool shifted some production from its facility in Fort Smith, Arkansas to a new plant south of the border.

The latter move came a decade after a bitter dispute between the company and the workers in Fort Smith represented by the Allied Industrial Workers union. In 1989 Whirlpool unilaterally imposed concessions on members of AIW’s Local 370, prompting the union to launch a national boycott of the company. In 1991 the head of the local confronted Whirlpool executives and directors at the company’s annual meeting, calling on them to abandon their “narrow-minded, shortsighted, union-busting behavior.” The dispute was not settled until 1993.

In 2006 the Evansville and Fort Smith plants lost a total of about 1,200 jobs to Mexico.  Or, in the antiseptic terms of Whirlpool’s press release: “The company also is adjusting its workforce levels at several of its North American manufacturing facilities to optimize production levels and take advantage of its expanded manufacturing footprint.”

In other words, the current shutdown plan in Evansville is just the latest in a series of “adjustments” by which Whirlpool is ridding itself of decently paid U.S. workers and replacing them with much cheaper labor abroad. The 1,100 losing their jobs are the remnant of a Whirlpool workforce in Evansville that back in the early 1970s totaled nearly 10,000 (photo). Companywide, 26 of Whirlpool’s 37 production facilities are now located outside the United States.

It did not seem to occur to Whirlpool that there was anything unseemly about accepting federal stimulus funds at a time when it was closing a domestic plant. In fact, something similar happened seven years ago. In 2003, during a period when the downsizing of the Evansville plant was already under way, the company accepted a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy – via the Indiana Department of Commerce – to help develop a new manufacturing process for energy-efficient refrigerators produced in Evansville (source: Associated Press, February 8, 2003 via Nexis).

Until the federal government is prepared to do something serious about offshoring, it should at least refrain from giving financial assistance to firms that engage in the practice, even if the aid is going to a different part of the company—and even if it is for a laudable purpose such as promoting energy efficiency. The federal government now has a (non-public) contractor misconduct database to help it avoid giving procurement awards to bad actors. Perhaps there should also be a list of job-exporting companies which would be ineligible for federal aid until they reaffirm their commitment to domestic production.