Bailing out banks seems unprecedented, but the US government's form in subsidising big business is well established
They are wrong. Any subsidies eventually given to the monster banks of Wall Street will be as American as apple pie and obesity. The sums demanded may be unprecedented, but there is nothing new about the principle: corporate welfare is a consistent feature of advanced capitalism. Only one thing has changed: Congress has been forced to confront its contradictions.
One of the best studies of corporate welfare in the US is published by my old enemies at the Cato Institute. Its report, by Stephen Slivinski, estimates that in 2006 the federal government spent $92bn subsidising business. Much of it went to major corporations such as Boeing, IBM and General Electric.
The biggest money crop - $21bn - is harvested by Big Farmer. Slivinski shows that the richest 10% of subsidised farmers took 66% of the payouts. Every few years, Congress or the administration promises to stop this swindle, then hands even more state money to agribusiness. The farm bill passed by Congress in May guarantees farmers a minimum of 90% of the income they've received over the past two years, which happen to be among the most profitable they've ever had. The middlemen do even better, especially the companies spreading starvation by turning maize into ethanol, which are guzzling billions of dollars' worth of tax credits.
Slivinski shows how the federal government's Advanced Technology Program, which was supposed to support the development of technologies that are "pre-competitive" or "high risk", has instead been captured by big businesses flogging proven products. Since 1991, companies such as IBM, General Electric, Dow Chemical, Caterpillar, Ford, DuPont, General Motors, Chevron and Monsanto have extracted hundreds of millions from this programme. Big business is also underwritten by the Export-Import Bank: in 2006, for example, Boeing alone received $4.5bn in loan guarantees.
The government runs something called the Foreign Military Financing programme, which gives money to other countries to purchase weaponry from US corporations. It doles out grants to airports for building runways and to fishing companies to help them wipe out endangered stocks.
But the Cato Institute's report has exposed only part of the corporate welfare scandal. A new paper by the US Institute for Policy Studies shows that, through a series of cunning tax and accounting loopholes, the US spends $20bn a year subsidising executive pay. By disguising their professional fees as capital gains rather than income, for example, the managers of hedge funds and private equity companies pay lower rates of tax than the people who clean their offices. A year ago, the House of Representatives tried to close this loophole, but the bill was blocked in the Senate after a lobbying campaign by some of the richest men in America.
Another report, by a group called Good Jobs First, reveals that Wal-Mart has received at least $1bn of public money. Over 90% of its distribution centres and many of its retail outlets have been subsidised by county and local governments. They give the chain free land, they pay for the roads, water and sewerage required to make that land usable, and they grant it property tax breaks and subsidies (called tax increment financing) originally intended to regenerate depressed communities. Sometimes state governments give the firm straight cash as well: in Virginia, for example, Wal-Mart's distribution centres receive handouts from the Governor's Opportunity Fund.
Corporate welfare is arguably the core business of some government departments. Many of the Pentagon's programmes deliver benefits only to its contractors. Ballistic missile defence, for example, which has no obvious strategic purpose and is unlikely ever to work, has already cost the US between $120bn and $150bn. The US is unique among major donors in insisting that the food it offers in aid is produced on its own soil, rather than in the regions it is meant to be helping. USAid used to boast on its website that "the principal beneficiary of America's foreign assistance programs has always been the United States. Close to 80% of the USAid's contracts and grants go directly to American firms." There is not and has never been a free market in the US.
Why not? Because the congressmen and women now railing against financial socialism depend for their re-election on the companies they subsidise. The legal bribes paid by these businesses deliver two short-term benefits for them. The first is that they prevent proper regulation, allowing them to make spectacular profits and to generate disasters of the kind Congress is now confronting. The second is that public money that should be used to help the poorest is instead diverted into the pockets of the rich.
A report published last week by the advocacy group Common Cause shows how bankers and brokers stopped legislators banning unsustainable lending. Over the past financial year, the big banks spent $49m on lobbying and $7m in direct campaign contributions. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac spent $180m in lobbying and campaign finance over the past eight years. Much of this was thrown at members of the House financial services committee and the Senate banking committee.
Whenever congressmen tried to rein in the banks and mortgage lenders they were blocked by the banks' money. Dick Durbin's 2005 amendment seeking to stop predatory mortgage lending, for example, was defeated in the Senate by 58 to 40. The former representative Jim Leach proposed re-regulating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Their lobbyists, he recalls, managed in "less than 48 hours to orchestrate both parties' leadership" to crush his amendments.
The money these firms spend buys the socialisation of financial risk. The $700bn the government was looking for was just one of the public costs of its repeated failure to regulate. Even now the lobbying power of the banks has been making itself felt: on Saturday the Democrats watered down their demand that the money earned by executives of companies rescued by the government be capped. Campaign finance is the best investment a corporation can make. You give a million dollars to the right man and reap a billion dollars' worth of state protection, tax breaks and subsidies. When the same thing happens in Africa we call it corruption.
European governments are no better. The free market economics they proclaim are a con: they intervene repeatedly on behalf of the rich, while leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. Just as in the US, the bosses of farm companies, oil drillers, supermarkets and banks capture the funds extracted by government from the pockets of people much poorer than themselves. Taxpayers everywhere should be asking the same question: why the hell should we be supporting them?
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