I go to update some apps on the iPhone, it tells me I must read and agree to new terms and conditions. I click to read, scroll and scroll, and at the bottom it says “Page 1 of 55.”
I go to update some apps on the iPhone, it tells me I must read and agree to new terms and conditions. I click to read, scroll and scroll, and at the bottom it says “Page 1 of 55.”
Think about everything you understood about our system of government here in the United States. We’re governed under a document that starts with the words, “We the People.” Right? When We the People agree that something should done to make our lives better, it’s supposed to get done. Right?
You didn’t know it, but that whole system thing changed several years ago. Our government, in our name, signed a document that placed corporate profits above our own democracy. The “investor-state dispute settlements” chapter in NAFTA (and similar agreements) places corporate rights on above the rights of people and their governments.
As a result of “NAFTA-style” investor protections that are part of so-called “trade” agreements, giant corporations can and do sue governments for trying to pass laws that protect their citizens from harmful chemicals, ban harmful products, and protect the rights of working people, among other things. Corporations even sue governments for passing laws that might cause the investors in the corporations to make a bit less money — like raising the minimum wage.
But wait, there’s more.
Approximately 600 organizations have sent a formal, public letter to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) opposing “fast-track” trade promotion authority and calling for a new system for negotiating and implementing trade agreements. The letter asks for trade pacts that “deliver benefits for most Americans, promote broadly shared prosperity, and safeguard the environment and public health.” Read the letter here.
Campaign for America’s Future is one of the organizations that signed this letter. The letter was led by the Sierra Club, AFL-CIO, the Communications Workers of America, the Citizens Trade Campaign, and Public Citizen. The letter was written because new fast-track trade promotion authority is being drafted by Wyden’s committee. An earlier bill introduced by then-Senator Max Baucus and Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) would keep Congress from debating or altering trade pacts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other upcoming agreements, even though they are considered one-sided in favor of giant multinational corporations over working people and the environment.
The letter asks for a new process for reaching trade agreements in which Congress has a role in selecting trade partners and in which Congress sets up a set of negotiating objectives that must be achieved. The new process would include more transparency and a way for Congress to certify that negotiating objectives have been met before trade negotiations are wrapped up.
Larry Cohen, President of the Communications Workers of America, said this new process can help us decide what kind of economy we want to have, saying, “A new model of trade authority is the only way to ensure that workers and communities have a voice in these trade decisions. We want to determine what kind of economy we have, not simply accept super-power status for multinational corporations and a snails’ pace for the enforcement issues raised by the rest of us.”
The Hill reports on this letter, in “Hundreds of groups call for new framework to negotiate trade deals,” quoting AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka:
“Only with new trade negotiating authority can we secure new trade rules that can help hard working Americans build a sustainable economy and promote broadly shared prosperity,” said President Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO.
“Chairman Wyden has a chance to make history by being the architect of a new and democratic trade policy, and we commit to doing all we can to help achieve that goal,” he said.
On fast track,
“There is no ‘acceptable’ version of fast track,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “Fast-track must be replaced so Congress can steer international trade in a new direction and create agreements that actually work for most Americans.”
Our Current Trade Deals Are Rigged Against Citizens By Choice
Our current trade deals are rigged – designed to benefit a few already-wealthy owners of giant multinational corporations. They were set up in order to transfer good-paying jobs out of the U.S. to take away the bargaining power of organized labor. This has forced down American workers’ bargaining power, resulting in stagnant wages, a shrinking middle class and widespread poverty. Meanwhile the rich get vastly richer.
These rigged trade agreements have also massively increased our country’s trade deficits. We currently run an enormous, humongous trade deficit of more than $40 billion a month.
Germany followed a different trade model. Germany worked with its companies and its labor unions to forge trade agreements that benefit businesses, workers and Germany’s economy. CAF’s Robert Borosage did a great job of laying out what happened in a recent interview on Richard Eskow’s The Zero Hour radio program. (Scroll to 5:15.)
Globalization isn’t an act of nature; it’s a set of policies, tax, trade, financial, monetary policies where you make choices and those choices benefit parts of the economy and injure others.
We made choices. Multinationals basically wrote our globalization strategy and they chose to benefit investors, made it easy to ship jobs abroad, made it even easier to threaten to move jobs abroad and dramatically weakened the ability of workers here at home.
But that was a choice.
In Germany they made a very different choice where unions were stronger, and the companies and the unions together navigated a globalization strategy that has made Germany one of the great export powers of the world and allows German workers to sustain middle class incomes and benefits.
Public Citizen has an action you can join: Write your representative to demand a real replacement to Fast Track and put an end to unfair trade deals.
Are We the People the boss of the corporations, or are the corporations the boss of We the People? The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) needs to be reminded which way that question is supposed to be answered.
The SEC is the agency set up by We the People to “protect investors, maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and facilitate capital formation.” The SEC states that “all investors, whether large institutions or private individuals, should have access to certain basic facts about an investment prior to buying it, and so long as they hold it. … Only through the steady flow of timely, comprehensive, and accurate information can people make sound investment decisions.”
One would think those basic corporate facts and timely, comprehensive, and accurate information needed by investors would include access to a company’s tax returns. One would think they would include information about where the executives of the company are spending millions and millions of the company’s dollars. And one would think they would include disclosure of the ratio of CEO “pay ratio” of compensation to worker compensation, as required by the 2010 Dodd-Frank law.
But so far the SEC is not asking corporations to provide investors and the public with this information. Don’t shareholders — and We the People — deserve to know what these companies are really doing and how much they are really making?
What Are These Companies Really Earning?
Companies tell their investors that they are making tons of money. But to get out of paying taxes the same companies tell the IRS something entirely different. Don’t investors have a right to know what the companies they invest in are telling the tax office?
Last month Catherine Rampell wrote in the Washington Post, in “Shareholders, public deserve tax transparency,” that:
“[There is an] array of eye-glazingly complicated tax avoidance strategies adopted by America’s biggest companies … The basic rationale behind tax transparency is that shareholders (and creditors and the general public) deserve to know what publicly traded companies are doing, particularly if complicated tax acrobatics are distorting their operational and investment decisions.”
She points out that we started out requiring this.
This is not a new idea. In fact, when the modern federal corporate income tax was introduced in 1909, it came with a requirement to disclose the returns. Such transparency mandates were fought over bitterly for the next couple of decades, and U.S. returns have been confidential since 1935.
What About Company “Donations”?
If a company’s executives are literally giving the company’s money away to politicians, “charities” (maybe run by a relative), “think tanks” (that employ relatives, etc.) or other worthy recipients, shouldn’t investors be provided with information about who is getting the company’s money, and how much they are getting? (Milton Friedman notably claimed that such donations are “theft” from the company.)
(Note: If a company gives money to a politician, and is not simply “giving the money away” for nothing — with absolutely no expectation of getting anything in return — that would be bribery, under the law.)
Last week in The Nation Zoë Carpenter wrote about this in, “SEC Faces Renewed Pressure to Consider a Corporate Disclosure Rule”:
The campaign to lift the veil on secret corporate campaign donations hit a milestone on Thursday. More than 1 million comments have been submitted to the US Securities and Exchange Commission calling for a requirement that corporations disclose political spending to their shareholders—ten times more than for any other rule-making petition to the SEC, according to the Corporate Reform Coalition.
“Investors want to know how their money is being spent,” Tim Smith, director of shareholder engagement at the firm Walden Asset Management, said at a press conference outside the SEC in Washington. A sign over his right shoulder read, “Your money is being invested in secret. Why is the SEC doing nothing?”
Why Is SEC Sitting On These Rules?
So why is the SEC just sitting on these proposals to disclose basic information to shareholders? In the case of the CEO pay ratio, this is even required by a law passed almost 5 years ago.
Could it be that the people working at the SEC really do know who is the boss now? (“Boss” as in the writer of the big paycheck and future employer.) Maybe, and maybe not. Who’s to say?
In early 2013 the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) released it report, “Dangerous Liaisons: Revolving Door at SEC Creates Risk of Regulatory Capture”:
A revolving door blurs the lines between one of the nation’s most important regulatory agencies and the interests it regulates. Former employees of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) routinely help corporations try to influence SEC rulemaking, counter the agency’s investigations of suspected wrongdoing, soften the blow of SEC enforcement actions, block shareholder proposals, and win exemptions from federal law. POGO’s report examines many manifestations of the revolving door, analyzes how the revolving door can influence the SEC, and explores how to mitigate the most harmful effects.
At the time of the report’s release Bloomberg reported,
From 2001 to 2010, POGO says, more than 400 SEC alumni filed about 2,000 disclosure forms (which POGO obtained using the Freedom of Information Act) saying they planned to represent an employer before the SEC. That may vastly understate the problem because, as POGO points out, former SEC employees must file such statements for only two years after departing.
The SEC has exempted some senior employees (even sometimes blacking out their names on SEC documents) from a one-year cooling-off period during which they are barred from representing clients before the agency, POGO found.
Soon after the report was released: April, 2013, Ex-SEC chief Schapiro takes revolving door back to private sector,
With her seat barely cold at the chairmanship of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Schapiro will become a managing director at a financial consulting and lobbying firm that has hired a slew of former financial regulators over the last several years and that represents for many a nexus of the cozy relations between banks and their regulators.
Are We the People the boss of the corporations, or are the corporations the boss of We the People? Who’s to say? Not the SEC, apparently.
How MANY mistruths can you count in a letter in today’s San Jose Mercury News?
Lower corporate taxes would boost economy
When the government wants to raise taxes, the counter argument is always that people and corporations will work harder if they can keep their earnings. It is either that, or pass the costs to the consumers. Either way, high taxes are a no-win situation for everybody. Now that we have the highest taxes of any industrialized nation, corporations are “voting with their feet” and using legal tax-inversion strategies to stay competitive. The administration that pushed for high taxes is crying foul and saying this is not patriotic. Now they don’t like the consequences of their greedy tax policies. Drop the corporate tax rate to 15 percent and watch the economy soar.
The letter-writer probably actually believes the stuff he wrote. Many people do. This shows the effect of decades of corporate/conservative propaganda on the public. Unfortunately these beliefs are leading to policies that are killing our economy and our democracy.
Eric Cantor was a congressman from Virginia and was House majority leader. He was known for being particularly friendly to Wall Street and the giant, multinational corporations.
In the June Republican primary, his Virginia constituents got fed up with this and booted him, choosing to nominate Cantor’s challenger, David Brat, instead. Conservative Erik Erikson explained at FOX, that Cantor’s Virginia constituents did this because, “K Street, the den of Washington lobbyists, became his chief constituency.”
Cantor didn’t bother to finish his current term supposedly representing his Virginia constituents. He resigned from office effective August 18.
Just two weeks later Cantor has gone to his reward. Cantor will receive a huge, fat, lucrative, awe-inspiring, 1-percent-making, mansion-jet-and-yacht-buying, zillion-figure paycheck from his Wall Street/corporate constituents. He will become board member, vice chairman and managing director of investment bank Moelis & Co. (It typically takes longer than two weeks to negotiate a senior position like this one, if you know what I mean.)
Cantor earned this senior investment banking position with his vast experience in investment banking, if you know what I mean. (Cantor has a law degree, and a Masters in real estate, and worked in real estate development for his father before entering the clearly more lucrative field of representing certain constituencies, if you know what I mean.)
“Eric has proven himself to be a pro-business advocate and one who will enhance our boardroom discussions with CEOs and senior management as we help them navigate their most important strategic decisions,” Moelis CEO Ken Moelis said in a statement.
Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more, if you know what I mean.
Take The Gold Or Take The Lead
Our system has become corrupted and everyone knows what I mean. Everyone understands that government officials who “play ball” can get a huge paycheck after leaving government if they help certain big businesses while serving in government. The Nation explains, in When a Congressman Becomes a Lobbyist, He Gets a 1,452 Percent Raise (On Average), Secret deals, bribery and “buying” members of Congress are commonplace in today’s government. (See also: Tauzin, Billy.) (And: Public Interest Groups Call For Corruption Investigation Into Prescription Drug Law.)
Neil Barofsky was Special United States Treasury Department Inspector General overseeing the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP). In the preface to his book Bailout: An Inside Account of How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street, Barofsky explained that people in government are given two choices, “the gold or the lead.” From the NY Times review, (emphasis added, for emphasis)
Mr. Barofsky, wearing an unseasonal wool suit at odds with a “Washington-appropriate wardrobe,” is poised to let the hostess seat them at a front table of her choosing, but Mr. Allison insists on a private table in the rear. Then he gets down to business.
“Have you thought at all about what you’ll be doing next?” Mr. Allison asks Mr. Barofsky, soon adding, “Out there in the market, there are consequences for some of the things that you’re saying and the way that you’re saying them.”
“Allison was essentially threatening me with lifelong unemployment,” Mr. Barofsky concludes, and alternatively suggesting a plum government appointment some day if Mr. Barofsky would simply “change your tone.”
When Mr. Barofsky tells his deputy of the exchange, the deputy says, “It was the gold or the lead,” resorting to the lingo of their joint experience prosecuting Latin American drug kingpins in New York: Cooperate and share the riches, or don’t and get plugged.
There are “consequences” if you don’t play ball. But if you do play ball, there are rewards. And everyone knows it.
Cantor represented Wall Street instead of Virginia in the Congress. His Virginia constituents didn’t like it, and booted him. Cantor has gone to his reward: a big pot of Wall Street gold. And everyone knows it.
Solution? Make it a law: No person employed by the government in any capacity may receive compensation in any form that is significantly greater than the compensation they received for their public service, for a period of five years.
The other day I wrote about how FedEx has been pretending that their employees are not employees, which gets around labor standards for things like overtime, family leave and the rest.
This misclassification game is just one way that big companies have been rigging the rules to give themselves an edge, getting around what We the People set down for our democracy.
The result, of course, is even more people paid even less with even worse working conditions. And the bad players get an advantage that drives out the good ones.
Like misclassification, this game-rigging, cheating, edge-seeking, rule-bypassing stuff is everywhere you look. (Rigged trade deals, corporate tax “deferral” and inversions, corporate campaign donations, too-big-to-fail banks, Congressional obstruction, etc. and etc…) This rigging of the game in favor of the ultra-wealthy gets worse and worse.
Burger King is the latest company announcing plans to renounce its U.S. citizenship in order to dodge taxes. It plans to buy Tim Hortons and then pretend Tim Hortons bought them so they can claim to be Canadian. (Tim Hortons renounced its own U.S. citizenship in 2009 and moved their headquarters from Ohio to Canada.)
The announcement is prompting calls like this petition you can sign by the Campaign for America’s Future that calls on Burger King’s CEO to keep the restaurant chain American or “I will dine elsewhere.”
Burger King Didn’t Build That By Themselves
Why is Burger King prosperous? Why do people feel safe eating food served at Burger King? Why do people recognize a Burger King when they see one? Why does something called “Burger King” with outlets across the country (and the world) even exist?
Corporate tax rates used to top out at 52.8 percent. Later rates were lowered to 48 percent and then 46 percent. Then in 1986 corporations complained that this (lowered) rate made them “uncompetitive” and demanded “corporate tax reform.” Because job creators. So the rate was lowered to 35 percent.
Now in 2014 corporations are complaining that this (lowered) rate makes them “uncompetitive” and are demanding “corporate tax reform.” Because job creators – or something. This time they threaten to – or do – renounce their U.S. citizenship, saying it is because of too-high tax rates.
So, here we are again. They want rates lowered even more. But are corporate tax rates really “uncompetitive?” And what does that even mean?
Tax Rates Are Plenty Competitive
At the New York Times’ Dealbook Andrew Ross Sorkin looks at this issue in “Tax Burden in U.S. Not as Heavy as It Looks, Report Says.” Sorkin looks at a paper, “‘Competitiveness’ Has Nothing To Do With it,” by Edward D. Kleinbard. Kleinbard is a professor at the University of Southern California and used to be chief of staff to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation. Sorkin quotes Kleinbard:
Several American corporations are using a tax loophole scheme called “inversion” to get out of being American corporations obligated to pay American corporate tax rates. They buy or merge with a non-U.S. corporation (usually located in a tax haven), pretend they are a subsidiary to that corporation and renounce their U.S. “citizenship.”
That’s almost the only thing that changes. Their U.S. executives, employees, facilities and customers remain where they are, along with the benefits and protections they get from our courts, education system, military, infrastructure and all the other things we pay for through taxes. They just stop paying various taxes to help pay for those things.
Walgreens announced today that they will not “invert” and become a non-U.S. corporation. (And their stock tumbled as the bailed-out “patriots” on Wall Street heard the news.) Walgreens’ decision follows the collection of more than 160,000 signatures on a “Tell Walgreens to stay in the USA!” petition organized by a coalition of progressive organizations demanding that Walgreens remain a U.S. corporation.
But that announcement is just one victory in what has to be a continuing campaign to make sure corporations honor their obligations to America and pay their share of the cost for the things that enable them to prosper in America.
At The Daily Beast Monday, Jonathan Alter wrote about this “corporate desertion.” In “The United States Needs Corporate ‘Loyalty Oaths’,” Alter writes that “…it’s time for red-blooded Americans to take matters into our own hands. My answer is to make every corporation sign something.” Alter suggests “… a “non-desertion agreement” with the John Hancock of every board member and CEO in the United States.”
If boards thought for even a second about the long-term interests of their companies, they would summon their lawyers and sign. It’s protection against the risks of resurgent nationalism that could strip them of the many advantages (indirect government subsidies, easy access to American markets) that they currently enjoy.
Alter points out that the president can just do this today with an executive order for corporations that receive federal contracts:
“The president should issue an executive order that says any company that wants to keep its federal contracts must sign a new-fangled NDA. It’s reasonable to expect most federal contractors to be American companies. Obama has already used that leverage to raise the minimum wage for companies doing business with the government and, in a little-noticed move, to force government contractors to pay their suppliers on time.
This executive order would get the attention of major corporations, most of which receive federal contracts.”
The Benefits And Protections Corporations Get
Corporations themselves are not the problem. There is nothing inherently wrong with them, as long as we understand what they are and are not. A corporation is just a tool – a way to get something done. A corporation really is just a legal contract – entirely a creation of government (We the People) – a legal form of business organization that allows multiple investors to aggregate funds in order to accomplish projects that would otherwise be difficult to get done, except by governments. (It takes a huge investment to build a factory, buy the equipment and supplies, and hire the people required to make automobiles, trains, or other goods. The corporate form of a business enables this aggregation of funds from multiple investors.)
Where our relationship with corporations goes wrong is in our understanding of what they are and what they are for. They are neither good nor bad, they can’t be; they are not sentient entities that have morals or “decide to do things.” A corporation is just a contract between investors. A chair or hammer can’t decide things, and neither can a corporation. It is the people who manage the corporations that decide to do things, not the corporation.
Alter writes of the advantages that corporations currently enjoy. They are granted these advantages and benefits because we – through our government – have decided to let groups of investors have them. We did this in order to better accomplish those things that we want to get done. So corporations get many benefits and protections, including (but not limited to):
For The Benefit Of We The People?
We the People allow the corporate form to exist and grant these benefits and advantages to corporations because it enables the aggregation of funds from multiple investors to help accomplish those things we believe these corporations can do for us. We the People grant them special benefits, such as tax breaks, and in exchange we are supposed to get certain things back from this deal, beginning with well-made goods and high-quality services, good-paying jobs with benefits, and most importantly a share of the proceeds – taxes – to use to run our society, maintain and improve our infrastructure, educate ourselves, and all the other things We the People established our government for. In other words, this is supposed to be about making our lives better.
Why else would We the People make laws that allow this business form and grant these advantages and benefits to these corporations, unless it was for the benefit of We the People?
We the People create the fertile ground – education, infrastructure, courts, police and military protection, customers, etc. – for these corporations to thrive and We the People are supposed to reap the harvest.
We Get In Trouble When We Misunderstand What Corporations Are For
These advantages and benefits are supposedly granted in order to advance our – We the People’s – interests in getting certain things done and providing us with certain benefits, period. It is when we misunderstand what a corporation is that trouble begins.
One example of this trouble is that many people mistakenly believe that shareholders “own” a corporation. In fact, shareholders only have a contractual agreement related to the value of the stock. A corporation has no “owners.” It is just a contract, an understanding, a piece of paper.
Another example of the trouble that can occur from misunderstanding what a corporation is comes from the mistaken belief that the purpose of a corporation is to make money – and that there is a corresponding rule that they are required to “maximize shareholder value.” In fact, a corporation exists to allow investors to pool funds to accomplish certain tasks that benefit us. Their purpose is to better enable the accomplishment of those tasks.
Just Who Are We Talking About?
Unfortunately, public understanding of corporations has migrated from the original purpose of this form of business organization. Why is this? The answer might come from understanding who benefits from owning shares in corporations. This chart from the 2011 post “Nine Pictures Of The Extreme Income/Wealth Gap” explains who we are really talking about when we talk about corporations today:
The top 1 percent own 50.9 percent of all stocks, bonds, and mutual fund assets. The top 10 percent own 90.3 percent. The bottom 50 percent of us own 0.5 percent. That’s one half of one percent.
So Here We Are
We have drifted very far from our understanding of the relationship that is supposed to exist between We the People, our government, and the businesses that our government allow to exist. Why would we pass laws that set up corporations and grant them special benefits, except to make our lives better? How have we allowed these legal constructs called corporations (and the people behind them) to gain so much power that they can tell us what to do, and tell us they are going to just leave the country if we don’t let them have their way?
If We the People are not benefiting from the existence of these things called corporations, maybe it is time for We the People to put a stop to the special advantages and benefits they get. Why should the 1 percent enjoy limited liability, special tax breaks, use of courts, and police and military protection if We the People are not getting well-made goods and high-quality services, well-paying jobs with good benefits, good schools and the rest of the things called for in the original bargain that created corporations in the first place?
I have this posted over at AlterNet: 5 Giant Un-American Corporations Trying to Bolt U.S. to Avoid Taxes
Corporations get enormous benefits that regular “persons” do not. One of the biggest is limited liability. This means that the shareholders are not liable for the debts of the corporation. A corporation can get in a lot of trouble, financial and otherwise, and then just close up shop, divide its assets to its creditors, and the shareholders can just walk away losing only the money they originally put in. While it might be a “person” to certain members of the Supreme Court, there is no person to be made to work off the debt or to put in jail.
Corporations also enjoy lower tax rates than people do. (Except for the people who make a gain from the shares: they get a special, even lower tax rate called “capital gains.” Why is this? The capital gains tax rate is lower because the wealthiest make most of their income from capital gains, and the wealthiest make most of their income from capital gains because the capital gains tax rate is lower.)
And of course, corporate “persons” never have to die.
You’ve been hearing a lot about corporations “renouncing their U.S. citizenship” through “tax inversions.” This is when a company buys or merges with a non-U.S. company and claims to no longer be based in the U.S. to get out of paying certain taxes. The company does, however, keep the same employees, executives, buildings, sales channels and customers it had inside the U.S. before the switch.
The epidemic of tax inversions represents just one of many ways corporations are dodging their taxes by taking advantage of our outdated and rigged corporate tax system. It is time for a serious debate about corporate taxes, and on Monday a new report by District Economics Group economist Michael Udell offered a bold new alternative that is so radically simple that even the most clever corporate tax accountant would have a hard time finding a way around its fair and universal proposition: If a company sells products or services in the U.S., it must pay taxes on the U.S. proportion of its worldwide sales.