In Trump America, science no match for ‘free market’ fundamentalists and CEOs chasing windfalls
The Taiwanese billionaire Terry Gou every once in a while likes to think “outside the box.” Back in 2010, for instance, the giant electronics manufacturer that Gou runs — Foxconn — was facing what corporate flacks like to call a major “PR problem.” Working conditions inside Foxconn’s massive Chinese factories had become so incredibly stressful that workers were committing suicide in shockingly large numbers. They were leaping out factory windows to their deaths.
And what did Gou’s Foxconn do to try to calm the worldwide outrage? The conventional corporate move would have been to dial back the pressure on workers. Foxconn’s move under Gou? The company stretched safety nets in those places where workers would be most likely to leap.
Keeping the pressure on workers — no matter the consequences — has helped Foxconn’s Gou accumulate a personal fortune somewhere north of $6 billion. But Gou has also perfected another sure-fire strategy for piling up the big bucks. He gets taxpayers to give him money. Lots of it.
Gou has cut a wide assortment of subsidy deals over the years, with politicians from Indonesia to Pennsylvania. The deals all follow the same pattern. Foxconn promises to build “job-creating” factories. The political jurisdictions involved hand Foxconn lucrative “incentives” to do the building.
State lawmakers in Wisconsin have now just taken the first step toward approving Foxconn’s biggest subsidy deal yet. The state Assembly has given the green light to what appears to be the biggest subsidy ever handed out to a foreign firm by a U.S. political entity.
Wisconsin taxpayers will, if this deal gains expected state Senate approval, hand Foxconn $1.35 billion for building a factory complex that will employ 3,000 workers. The total package of “incentives” for Foxconn could hit $3 billion — with $2.85 billion of that in taxpayer cash and another $150 million in various tax breaks — if Foxconn’s operation in Wisconsin ends up employing 13,000 workers.
How much per job would Wisconsin be shelling out? One likely scenario: about $500,000 per job. The worst-case scenario: as much as $1 million per job. And neither number here takes into account the Foxconn deal’s eventual environmental cost. Foxconn will be receiving, besides the taxpayer cash, an exemption from regulations that protect Wisconsin’s wetlands.
So Foxconn gets mountains of cash and a free pass to pollute. What do the people of Wisconsin get? One of the largest “economic development” projects the United States has ever seen, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker crowed last month at a White House ceremony announcing the deal with Foxconn’s Terry Gou and President Donald Trump.
This “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” adds an aide to Walker, will bring thousands of “family-supporting jobs.” The new positions, business boosters for the Foxconn deal trumpet, will pay an average $53,000 per year.
But that $53,000 figure only applies to the first 3,000 jobs Foxconn is promising to create and averages highly paid managerial positions in with job slots for assembly-line workers. Actual workers at the new Foxconn complex will likely take home much less than $53,000.
How much less? Community groups skeptical about Foxconn want any deal with the company to include a wage floor. They’re seeking stipulations that guarantee workers at least $15 an hour. The Republican statehouse majority in Wisconsin has so far quashed every attempt to set a decent wage minimum.
You can’t support much of a family, critics of the Foxconn deal are contending, on less than $15 an hour. And you can’t spur economic development that creates good jobs, add watchdogs opposed to the Foxconn deal, by handing corporations giant giveaways.
Throwing money at businesses, as former Kansas City mayor Mark Funkhouser notes, has been a “bad idea” ever since cities started “offering bonuses and pecuniary inducements to manufacturers” in the late 19th century.
These inducements have ratcheted up considerably over recent years, even before taking the new Foxconn deal into account. Between 1990 and 2015, a new Upjohn Institute study shows, average “incentive” packages for businesses tripled in value.
The results of this vast upsurge in subsidies? The U.S. political jurisdictions that did all this subsidizing, the Upjohn researchers found, would have experienced the same economic results without the incentives, observes former mayor Funkhouser, “94 percent of the time.”
What does spur the economic development that creates good jobs? The city of Richmond in Virginia is moving in one hopeful direction. Richmond has begun an Office of Community Wealth Building that aims to enrich local residents instead of billionaire CEOs. The city is focusing on everything from improving regional transportation systems to fostering locally based social enterprises. The Democracy Collaborative, a national organization, has fashioned a network of localities involved in similar “community wealth building” all across the United States.
These operations could certainly use some encouragement from the federal level. But President Trump has proposed a budget, notes Greg LeRoy of Good Jobs First, that eliminates “successful federal programs that benefit small- and medium-sized manufacturers.” The contradictions between Trump’s budget cuts for these programs and his White House cheerleading for the enormous Foxconn subsidy deal, adds LeRoy, “boggle the mind.”
Foxconn’s Terry Gou would likely see none of these contradictions. That the few should benefit at the expense of the many makes perfect sense to him, as the billionaire makes plain in one of the Gou quotation posters Foxconn has plastered on the walls of its Chinese factories.
“Growth,” proclaims this particular Gou quotation poster, “thy name is suffering.”
Sam Pizzigati, an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, co-edits Inequality.org. His latest book — The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970 — traces how average Americans ended the nation’s original Gilded Age. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.