Unreasonable Trade-Offs.

After seeing a headline by David Suzuki “Trading Water for Fuel is Fracking Crazy,” I started thinking about all of the trade-offs we’re being asked to make.  Yes, as Suzuki points out, we are being asked to trade the purity of fresh water in our aquifers that took hundreds and thousands of years to accumulate for the profits of gas and oil companies through the use of toxic chemicals for fracking.

And that’s only one of the trade-offs we’re being asked to make in order to benefit big business.

We’re being asked to trade the beauty of the Appalachians and the area’s pristine waters for the profits of the coal industry through the use of mountaintop removal mining. We’re asked to trade the natural taste and nutrition of fresh fruits and vegetables for the profits of Monsanto, Walmart and large agribusiness companies by allowing the increased use of herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) seeds. We’re asked to trade the effectiveness of life-saving antibiotics by allowing large cattle feeders, hog growers and poultry growers to increase profits by adding antibiotics to animal feeds.

In order to increase profits for manufacturers, we’re asked to purchase products made overseas that could be made by workers in the US. So that large corporations can pay employees less than a liveable wage, we are asked to help their employees with food stamps, child care and other safety net programs. In order to increase the profits of corporations, we are asked to lower their income taxes and increase ours.  In order to help billionaires avoid paying income taxes, we are asked to give them a large array of tax breaks, including greatly reduced capital gains taxes.

And, in what is probably the most questionable trade-off of all, we are asked to ignore the very real long-term consequences of climate change for the short-term profits of the fossil fuel industry.

All of these trade-offs and their consequences are avoidable. We simply need the will to change the way we allow corporations to operate. We should demand that they pay for all of the costs of their actions. And that the cost of government subsidies, including the costs to our environment and our health, be included in corporate expenses.

In other words, if corporations truly are people as the US Supreme Court has ruled, we should hold them accountable for their actions.

Holiday Spirit According To Walmart And McDonald’s.

Last week, several large retailers made headlines by announcing that they would be open on Thanksgiving Day. Not content with the usual mad rush to sell holiday gifts on Black Friday, the retailers are hoping to increase sales by dragging their employees away from their families and the dinner table.

Chief among the holiday scrooges is Walmart.

When Walmart first made its announcement, its public relations team assured the press that its “associates” (Walmarts euphemism for underpaid employees) would be treated to increased pay and a special dinner. They said the associates would have “fun.” What they didn’t say is that they would cut the hours for these associates before and after the holiday in order to prevent the associates from making extra money!

Such double talk is nothing new for anyone who follows Walmart. Last year, the corporation made $15.7 billion for its owners, the Walton family. Unfortunately, that money hasn’t trickled down to the employees. Indeed, in recognition of the low wages paid to associates, some Walmart stores have been holding Thanksgiving charity food drives for their own employees!

But Walmart is far from the only corporate scrooge.

McDonald’s also refuses to pay employees a living wage. It seems the company even recognizes that fact. But, instead of raising wages, the company has created a website to help its employees better budget their incomes. The site not only recommends that its employees get a second job in order to make ends meet, it shows a recommended budget that fails to include FOOD! (One can only assume that the company expects employees to rely on food stamps to feed their families.) And recognizing the financial stress of the holidays, the company suggests that its employees might save a little extra money by SELLING THEIR HOLIDAY GIFTS!

Yet these very same companies are fighting any potential increase to the minimum wage. That is an incredible show of hubris given that the executives of both companies pay themselves millions.

Subsidizing Millionaires And Billionaires.

For years, large corporations have whined that US corporate income taxes are “the highest in the world.” While it’s true that our maximum corporate tax RATE is the highest in the world, the EFFECTIVE tax rate paid by US-based multinational corporations is much, much lower.

In fact, as a percentage of GDP, US corporations pay the second lowest taxes in the developed world! And that doesn’t even include the many ways US taxpayers subsidize large corporations through the creation of specialized infrastructure, tax incentives, relocation incentives, government research grants and sweetheart rates on loans.

Those are just the direct subsidies. Indirect subsidies are often even more costly!

Consider the study recently released by Congressional Democrats which found that a single Walmart Supercenter in Wisconsin could cost taxpayers up to $900,000 a year as a result of Walmart’s notoriously low wages and minimal benefits. According to the study, most of Walmart’s employees qualify for food stamps, Medicaid, low-income housing assistance, energy assistance, and other forms of public assistance.

The authors of the study summarize the findings this way, “When low wages leave Walmart workers unable to afford the necessities of life, taxpayers pick up the tab.”

Of course, Walmart responds by saying that its policies benefit all Americans through lower prices. But Costco, another big box chain that competes with Walmart, offers low prices. It also offers full benefits to its employees and pays them an average annual salary of $45,000. There are millions of Americans like myself who try to never set foot in a Walmart store. So why should we be forced to subsidize Walmart’s bad behavior? What is the benefit to us?

There are approximately 4,000 Walmart stores in the US. If each of those cost taxpayers $900,000 a year, Walmart is costing US taxpayers a total of more than $3.6 billion per year!

And that doesn’t include other indirect costs such as the company’s impact on the environment, the impact on independent small businesses that are forced to compete with Walmart, lost revenue in personal income taxes from those forced to accept Walmart’s low wages…the costs are many. There’s also a moral and ethical cost created by Walmart relying on sweatshops in undeveloped countries like Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, the Walton family that owns Walmart enjoys undeserved profits through taxpayer subsidies. For 2011, the company’s net income was $15.4 billion.

Walmart is not alone in unfairly profiting from subsidies and loopholes. A recent study found that 18 of America’s largest corporations, including Abbott, Apple, Citigroup, GE, Google, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Microsoft, Nike and Pfizer, have stashed profits in off-shore tax shelters in order to avoid paying $92 billion in US income taxes!

We should demand more of corporations. We should demand that they pay all of the costs associated with doing business. We should stop the subsidies. We should require that they pay employees a living wage. And we should require them to pay their fair share of taxes.

From Kathie Lee To Bangladesh.

Nearly a decade ago, the media were awash with stories tying Kathie Lee Gifford to sweatshops in Honduras. It seems she had endorsed a line of clothing sold at Walmart and, when it was discovered that Walmart outsourced the clothing manufacture to sweatshops using children, Kathie Lee was vilified. Walmart, on the other hand, emerged from the scandal unscathed.

Of course, much has changed since then. Such clothing lines are no longer made in Honduras. They are now outsourced to countries with even cheaper labor and even more deplorable working conditions…countries like Bangladesh where more than 1,100 recently died while working in an unsafe building.

But one thing hasn’t changed. The retailer, clothing brand and contractors are still held blameless for outsourcing their brands to sweatshops.

As long as they offer clothing at low prices, we simply shake our heads at such tragedies and continue to shop for the next bargain. It doesn’t matter that the clothing is as disposable as the workers forced to make it. All we really seem to care about is price. We’re seemingly unconcerned that adding a few pennies to the cost of a garment would improve working conditions. Likewise, we seem unconcerned that the owners of Walmart and other large retailers pressure manufacturers to continue to cut costs in order to line their own pockets with millions more.

This, of course, is a never-ending cycle.

As long as there are regions of desperate, impoverished people in the world, manufacturers and retailers will take advantage of them. And, as long as consumers reward those corporations by continuing to purchase their junk, the practice will continue.

The sad truth is that we’re all as responsible for the deaths of the workers in Bangladesh as the owner of the building and the brands being made there.