David Cay Johnston, former NY Times reporter and now Syracuse professor, writes about the thing that most journalists don't bother to (or are told not to) write about--the way that Big Business successfully lobbies legislators and regulatory agencies to write the rules to favor Big Business, at the expense of ordinary Americans, all under the false claim that they are pushing de-regulation for the good of competition and ordinary consumers. Johnston, Missing the Story, American Journalism Review (March 2013).
Johnston describes a number of ways that state legislatures, Congress and state and federal regulatory agencies have made life easy-street for Big Business at the cost of ordinary consumers. He notes it is often discussed as "deregulation" but that "is a misnomer because, literally, no such thing exists in commerce....Everything in business is regulated in some fashion, and has been since long before the first nearly full set of laws we have.... [Thus, d]eregulation typically means reregulation under new rules that favor business interests." Id.
Businesses claim that the 'deregulation' they seek is just another step towards their ideal of "free markets" to help competitiveness. Not so, Johnston replies. The regulatory climate that results is almost always one that creates "moats" making competition much harder for small businesses and allowing duopolies or monopolies to arise that can set prices as high as they wish. And often the captured regulatory agencies allow the most absurd subsidies imaginable.
The Bush Treasury did that in spades. One example is the changes the pro-business Treasury under Paulsen made in the regulations under section 368 governing corporate reorganizations, in which the Bush Treasury (many officials of whom are still part of the Obama Treasury) promulgated rules that provide, for the first time, the possibility of a loss recognition by shareholders in the nonrecognition reorg exchange. Settled law at the time said no such loss could be recognized. And the Bush Treasury also did it in setting up (through regulations) yet another tax subsidy of Big Oil (as an add-on to an already ridiculous subsidy enacted by Congress when it allowed Big Oil to operate as limited partnerships). Here's how Johnston describes this.
The simple story is that Congress in 1986 exempted monopoly pipelines from the corporate income tax if they organized themselves as Master Limited partnerships. The George W. Bush administration then let these pipelines include the nonexistent tax in the rates they charge.
The cost of this fake tax is both tiny and huge.
The pipelines raise prices to cover the cost of the tax, which in turn means they have to raise prices even more to cover the taxes on the extra earnings, known as "grossing up." A 42 percent tax on profits, grossed up, means a pipeline gets to earn its profit plus 75 percent for taxes. These higher costs are then built into prices people pay for gasoline and natural gas to heat homes. Paying this fake tax costs each American less than three cents per day, about $10 per year, I calculate. That is the tiny part. The huge part is that collecting just a penny a day from everyone in America adds up to $1.1 billion in a year — or $3.3 billion at three cents per day per American. Id. (emphasis added).
Note, folks. That's an unnecessary $3.3 billion subsidy provided to already-profitable businesses that comes entirely at the cost of ordinary Americans. It is a subsidy put into law entirely through Big-Busienss-friendly tax administrators in ways that most Americans do not see it--or, if they see it, they believe it is a "real" tax cost of the businesses rather than just another theft subsidy.
This is another aspect of the problem of the way the media treats any discussion of "free markets." The fundamentalist approach to free markets (that I have sometimes labeled "free marketarianism" or "friedmania") claims to believe that deregulation helps people by increasing competition and opening up markets. In fact, it is usually the opposite. Deregulation helps Big Business by decreasing competition and allowing the development of powerful oligarchs and powerful monopolies or near-monopolies. Brute capitalism, that is, allows those who hold capital to hold power, and those who hold power act against the interests of ordinary people in order to consolidate their power. Another blog addressed this well:
A free market requires that everybody plays nice and follows the rules. Guess what. There’s always someone who will do whatever evil they think is required to make money. Once you realize that, you know there can be no such thing as the free market.
That’s one of the primary reasons that uncontrolled capitalism has been such a gross failure since the Reagan/Thatcher “revolution”, leaving us with record inequality and damaged democracy, and bringing the world economy to the brink of total collapse that simply evaporated trillions of dollars. Random Notes from the Exasperation File, Class War In America.
I have often noted that the media treat the daily ups and downs of the stock market as though it is an accurate reflection of the entire economy. It is not. When the stock market is up, it is likely that one or another segment of Big Business is doing well or exceptionally well. That means the affluent--those in the top 30% who own most of the financial assets of this country, including Big Business's CEOs and board members, are doing well. So as the stock market has resurged after the 2007 financial crisis brought on by the excess of Big Financial Businesses, the wealthy who run and own those Big Businesses are doing mighty well indeed.
This is corporatism at its worst--the takeover of the economy and all of its institutions by a corporate mindset that favors the wealthy and the managers/owners of Big Business over ordinary people, leaving ordinary people's views unheard. It often is associated with class warfare, wherein the rich ensure that their money buys laws and regulations written by, for, and of the rich. Corporations pay less in taxes and ordinary workers pay more--either in direct taxes or in the indirect tax of wage and benefit loss that is a tax subsidy for the wealthy.
Those at the bottom of the economic distribution are of course the ones most hurt by the decline and by the class warfare policies of the rich. They are most likely still doing poorly or just barely getting by, mostly because those big profits at Big Business are taken at their expense--through constantly rising prices not reflected in increased quality or costs of production, or through increasingly unfair worker wages and benefits that have been cut in order to increase the rents to the owners/managers. And usually with the assistance of legislators and regulators.
Take a friend of mine, who was laid off from an auto parts manufacturer for almost three years and has been struggling to make a full-time living at it since he was reinstated--at a much lower salary then before the crash (conveniently for the company but not so good for the workers). He bought a new truck about a year before the financial crash. The payments were supposed to be around 250 a month. In the first months of the layoff he couldn't find any substitute work, and he fell behind in payments on the truck (his family depends on him as the sole breadwinner; his family has almost no assets and no liquid assets; he depends on the truck to allow him to take odd jobs when his job at the factory is on hiatus--often landscaping, mowing, etc.). The interest rate on the loan went up to 32% almost immediately. That would once have been treated as illegal usury. Not now, since "deregulation" has allowed financial firms to rip off their customers coming and going for their own profits. Now his payments are around $400 a month and he owes as much on the truck as he did several years ago in spite of all the payments he has worked hard to make since then. This Thursday he missed the payment again, after keeping up for most of the year. He missed it because his company began selectively laying off workers for a week or 3 days at a time during the winter, and he didn't work for about ten days of the month before the payment was due. On Wednesday he talked to his adviser at the financial firm that gave him the loan. It was a new "adviser". They replaced a more understanding one with one who was considerably harsher. The adviser told him on Wednesday that he would give him til Friday to make the next payment. On Thursday, however, he sent a repo man who took the truck. Friday my friend got a paycheck and could have made the payment (as he'd told the adviser on Wednesday). Instead, when he went to make the payment thinking he could get the truck back that day, the financial firm advised him that he now had to pay off the truck in full--as well as a bunch of additional charges due to the repossession. What would that be, he asked? He assumed he owed about $3500, in his calculations the amount still due on the original loan. Oh, no, the finance guy told him. You will have to pay $4975 on Monday, and that amount will increase by $25 a day for every day you do not pay. It's that much because of all the late fees we added on the bill. Oh, and we are charging you $400 for repo-ing the vehicle on Thursday (even though we had promised we would not do so).....
Again, deregulation of financial institutions has made these rent-seeking add-on charges customary for anyone in the lower part of the income distribution. Big Business sells it as competitive services for the underprivileged but it is really deregulated excess profits for the financial firms for acting like modern equivalents of plantation owners with a captive workforce unable to ever build up financial assets and always dependent on the firms' calculations as to what they owe or are owed.
How is my friend (who happens to be an African American) supposed to ever advance beyond the near-serfdom in which he currently exists? Lucky for him, we are willing to offer him a personal loan at market-rate interest so that he can finally pay off his overseer and begin to dig himself out of the hole that our deregulated, GOP-ideology-driven state puts most Detroit low-income residents in. Mass transit hardly operating and not permitted to expand as it should to permit low-income residents to commute easily to work in the region. White suburbs that cannot be annexed into the city, so continue their oblivious lives exploiting Detroit's assets while pitying the poor black residents that just can't seem to do anything right. Businesses that charge white folks in the suburbs less than black folks in the city. Insurance companies that rip off their Detroit clients. And on and on.
This is all happening in a world where white folks with money set all the rules and now, in Michigan, have made it very hard for any union to form and exert some worker-power on behalf of the employees. Michigan's new, so-called "right-to-work" law that the religiously right-wing Republican party of Michigan passed with no input at all from the people and with misinformation galore--all of the newspaper coverage talked about workers being "forced" to join a union unless you have "right-to-work" and how "right-to-work" would free them not to have to pay for the union and encourage more economic growth and more jobs. None of the newspaper articles or the legislators reported the fact that right-to-work states tend to have lower wages for their workers, less good jobs, and poorer economies. Of course, the information was wrong to start with--no one was forced to join a union without right-to-work laws--they were merely required to pay some amount (less than union dues) for the services that the union provides. Now, they can demand the same services and pay nothing. No Republican business would provide services on that basis, but Republican legislators serving their oligarchic base ensure that no true freedom exists for anybody without money.
Michigan, of course, has also just taken over the City of Detroit, with Gov. Snyder's appointment of an emergency manager. This is as undemocratic as it gets, given the state vote rejecting the last EM law and the fact that the EM will have dictatorial power to ignore the Mayor, the City Council and all other elected officials. Snyder is a right-wing tool, in office backed by a majority-GOP legislature that reflects the racism of most of the "upstate" part of Michigan and blames Detroit's problems on its predominately black residents. The legislature passed right-to-work to retaliate against unions for trying to get protection for workers' rights in the constitution. Apparently, the GOP thinks the constitution should only protect the wealthy, as it does by prescribing a flat tax, ensuring that the wealthy in Michigan get to choose what they support but are hardly taxed at all by the State. The rabid right in this state forget that what condemned Detroit was the "white flight" to the suburbs and Michigan's foolish state constitution which does not allow Detroit to take the suburbs into the city. So Royal Oak's mayor a few years ago could refuse to fund metropolitan buses because he didn't want Detroit's black population able to cross the border into Royal Oak and pollute the city by taking jobs there. And the wealthy residents of the 90% white suburbs of 80% black Detroit come into the city for its amenities--opera, plays, sports, museums--and its work, but take their pay out of the city to maintain their schools and shops and amenities while complaining about how awful Detroit is. We Detroit residents are very worried that the GOP's takeover of the Democratically elected city government will result in the rape of the city's assets--Belle Isle is a jewel in Detroit's crown that the state covets; Detroit's water system is another asset that the state--and the white suburbs--covet and want to control. The EM will be pressured by Snyder and the rest of the upstate Detroit haters to take over those assets and make Detroit pay for being a center of unionism and Democratic voters.
The Michigan passage of the so-called "right-to-work" law and the renewal of the emergency manager law AFTER it was defeated by the people in Novemberare perfect illustrations of the contempt that the current Republican party shows for ordinary people when it is in power in a state. And it also illustrates well the capture of legislators and agencies by oligarchs, monopolies and duopolies. This is, as Johnston notes, a sad state of affairs that will only get worse unless the press reinvigorates itself to inform rather than kiss Big Business's ass.