Web Only / Features » February 28, 2014
The Real Welfare Queens
A new report shows corporations like Koch Industries have gotten billions in government subsidies.
Most of the political rhetoric about dependency is punitively aimed at the poor. That’s because, unlike the huge corporations receiving all those subsidies, the poor don’t have armies of lobbyists and truckloads of campaign contributions.
Remember when President Obama was lambasted for saying “you didn't build that”? Turns out he was right, at least when it comes to lots of stuff built by the world’s wealthiest corporations. That’s the takeaway from this week’s new study of 25,000 major taxpayer subsidy deals over the last two decades.
Entitled “Subsidizing the Corporate One Percent,” the report from the taxpayer watchdog group Good Jobs First shows that the world’s largest companies aren’t models of self-sufficiency and unbridled capitalism. To the contrary, they’re propped up by billions of dollars in welfare payments from state and local governments.
Such subsidies might be a bit more defensible if they were being doled out in a way that promoted upstart entrepreneurialism. But as the study also shows, a full “three-quarters of all the economic development dollars awarded and disclosed by state and local governments have gone to just 965 large corporations”—not to the small businesses and startups that politicians so often pretend to care about.
In dollar figures, that’s a whopping $110 billion going to big companies. Fortune 500 firms alone receive more than 16,000 subsidies at a total cost of $63 billion.
These kinds of handouts, of course, are the definition of government intervention in the market. Nonetheless, those who receive the subsidies are still portrayed as free-market paragons.
Consider Charles and David Koch. Their company, Koch Industries, has relied on $88 million worth of government handouts. Yet, as the major financiers of the anti-government right, the Kochs are still billed as libertarian free-market activists.
Similarly, behold the big tech firms. They are often portrayed as self-made success stories. Yet, as Good Jobs First shows, they are among the biggest recipients of the subsidies.
Intel leads the tech pack with 58 subsidies worth $3.8 billion. Next up is IBM, which has received more than $1 billion in subsidies. Most of that is from New York—a state proudly promoting its corporate handouts in a new ad campaign.
Then there’s Google’s $632 million and Yahoo’s $260 million—both sets of subsidies primarily from data center deals. And not to be forgotten is 38 Studios, the now bankrupt software firm that received $75 million in Rhode Island taxpayer cash. The company received the handout at the very moment Rhode Island was pleading “poverty” to justify cuts to public workers’ retirement benefits.
Along with propping up companies that are supposedly free-market icons, the subsidies are also flowing to financial firms that have become synonymous with never-ending bailouts. Indeed, companies like Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and Citigroup—each of which were given massive taxpayer subsidies during the financial crisis—are the recipients of tens of millions of dollars in additional subsidies.
All of these handouts, of course, would be derided if they were going to poor people. But because they are going to extremely wealthy politically connected conglomerates, they are typically promoted with cheery euphemisms like “incentives” or “economic development.” Those euphemisms persist even though many subsidies do not end up actually creating jobs.
In light of that, the Good Jobs First report is a reality check on all the political rhetoric about dependency. Most of that rhetoric is punitively aimed at the poor. That’s because, unlike the huge corporations receiving all those subsidies, the poor don’t have armies of lobbyists and truckloads of campaign contributions that make sure programs like food stamps are shrouded in the anodyne argot of “incentives” and “development.”
But as the report proves, if we are going to have an honest conversation about dependency and free markets, then the billions of dollars flowing to politically connected companies need to be part of the discussion.
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David Sirota is an awardwinning investigative journalist and an In These Times senior editor. He served as speech writer for Bernie Sanders' 2020 campaign. Follow him on Twitter @davidsirota.