Members Only | October 20, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
America is growing skeptical of the Gospel of Big Business
Are tax breaks for Amazon tribute or sacrifice?
My mother is a firm believer in Jesus Christ as her personal Lord and Savior. When she receives an unexpected windfall, or a report of good health from her doctor, she says she’s been blessed. When things are not going well, it is God testing her faith in Him. Never, absolutely never, does she question decisions by her personal Lord and Savior.
This is the relationship many Americans have with business.
Except for a contingent on the far left, local companies, major firms and multinational corporations are revered. CEOs are venerated as job creators. The decisions filtering down about wages, benefits, and work environment are justified through the gospel of the free market.
But we need to be skeptical of our relationship to businesses.
Tributes and sacrifices
We all know about efforts made by local and state governments to court business. They are like “tributes.” But the scale of these tributes can be mind-boggling. Consider Amazon. Good Jobs First has been tracking subsidies — grants and tax incentives — Amazon receives yearly. According to the nonprofit, Amazon has received over $4.1 billion in subsidies since 2000. One could imagine tax breaks for a smaller, or emergent, company. But Amazon recorded revenues of $280 billion last year. It is No. 2 on the Fortune 500 list (behind Walmart). Yet the tributes keep coming. The company has gotten $650 million in tax breaks from local and state governments this year.
We should question our relationships with businesses. Do localities need to offer all these tax breaks? Suppose no one offered them? I am sensing a growing pushback.
There’s no reason subsidies shouldn’t go to a profitable company instead of an emergent one. If one sees subsidies as investment, it makes sense to give a tribute to Amazon. But what Amazon gives in return are modest wages to warehouse workers and delivery drivers plus horrible working conditions. On March 17, an Amazon warehouse worker testified at a Senate Budget Committee hearing about her warehouse’s “grueling” working conditions in Bessemer, Alabama.
Maybe the tributes are more like sacrifices, and meager blessings are given in return for taking the heart out of a tax base.
It goes on. We are currently in a worker shortage crisis. According to the US Chamber of Commerce, the number of job openings surpassed the number of job-seekers in July. That month, the US had 10.9 million job openings, an all-time high (the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report estimated 10.4 million job openings at the end of August).
One interpretation of this is that the COVID relief benefits have dampened interest in working. Fox News Business asked in a recent story, “Are unemployment benefits the new welfare?” Quoting from a research fellow at the conservative Foundation for Government Accountability, the story claims: “Unfortunately, due to the recent COVID-19-related changes, unemployment insurance has been morphed into more of a long-term benefits program.”
Yes, many people decided to receive COVID benefits instead of seeking low-paid employment. The “unemployment as welfare” line of reasoning ignores the responsibility of employers to employees. It assumes that if an employer “graces” us with a job offer, we should accept, regardless of how much it pays or the quality of work conditions. Businesses give us what we need, not always what we want. We should be thankful for what we have received.
A great awakening
Around 2015, my university decided to offer a degree in cybersecurity. The nation had coalesced around a narrative that there was a shortage of cybersecurity professionals. Our nation’s president at the time, Barack Obama, allocated money for institutions that began offering degrees in this field. Our governor at the time, Terry McAuliffe, doubled down with even more money. As a result of government funding and some bright, industrious academics and administrators, we now have a fantastic School of Cybersecurity at my university.
Around this time I stopped singing from the business hymnal. I was on the front lines of my university’s program development. The extent to which we attempted to meet business needs was problematic.
We wanted course content reflecting what students would be doing on the job. We even hosted seminars during which we listened to what business leaders wanted from graduates. This was already a problem for me, because I don’t see universities as job-training programs.
At the same time, it became apparent to me that the tasks companies needed done did not require a four-year or two-year degree. Firms could train bright, hardworking people out of high school if they wished.
I worked with my university to create an elaborate feeder program, helping absolve businesses of their responsibility for identifying good workers and preparing them. My university’s relationship with the cybersecurity industry is indicative of a broader problem.
We complain about the expense of higher education, and rightfully so. It is insane that a college graduate can expect to be saddled with $30,000 in debt. That is the average, but some end up owing much more. Universities deserve some blame. But remarkably, there are few complaints about businesses not hiring people out of high school.
Yet that is the central issue. Even if college were cheaper, a student, instead of owing $100,000 in loans for a job they could’ve gotten out of high school, would instead owe $50,000. Better, but they shouldn’t owe anything or spend four years doing something they don’t want.
Our deification of businesses makes it heretical to question this. But they also have a responsibility to identify, screen and train people.
Be a skeptic
We should question our relationships with businesses. Do localities need to offer all these tax breaks? Suppose no one offered them? I am sensing a growing pushback about these tax breaks, with evidence accumulating that these sacrifices do not lead to blessings.
On the minimum wage front, there is still an energetic Fight For 15 movement. Pushback will come from free-market proselytizers. But there are solid arguments for raising the minimum wage. Improving working conditions is a moral argument that must be articulated.
And the responsibility for worker training? I don’t see anyone talking about this, which is unfortunate. The closest I have seen are commentaries about raising the profile of two-year colleges.
Understanding that everyone does not need a four-year degree is a step in the right direction but still does not put any responsibility on businesses. There is still a lot of work to do, but I feel good about where we are headed. We as a nation are becoming more skeptical.
Rod Graham is the Editorial Board's sociologist. A professor at Virginia's Old Dominion University, he researches and teaches courses in the areas of cyber-crime and racial inequality. His work can be found at roderickgraham.com. Follow him @roderickgraham.