I’ve been away on vacation for the past week plus in Minneapolis and Lake Superior, at Isle Royale National Park and Apostle Islands National Seashore. I commend this trip to everyone, especially in the summertime. While away I missed a post I wanted to share, but better late than never.
On June 13, before I left, an article appeared in the back pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer entitled “Seattle Quietly Repeals Amazon-Opposed Tax.” It seems less than a month after passing a $275 per head annual tax on large corporations, like Amazon and Starbucks, the Seattle City Council was forced to withdraw it due to the furious opposition of local businesses led by Amazon. The tax was to fund $50 million in affordable housing and homeless services for the 12,000 plus residents who can’t afford a place to live in the booming local housing market.
The business community donated around $280,000 ($25,000 from Amazon) to hire paid collectors to garner 45,000 signatures, more than three times the amount needed, to put a repeal question on November’s municipal ballot. Fortunately, in PA we don’t trust “the people” with such “democratic” input – and now I see why! Rival labor union SEIU, who supported the tax, was able to raise only $70,000 in a vain attempt to keep the measure. City Councilman Mike O’Brien (not the Northeast Philly Democrat!), who sponsored the original legislation, was forced to yield to superior force, along with most of his colleagues. They were, in the words of the Hamilton musical, “outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, out-planned!” by the big business community. “With enough money you can put anything on the ballot,” O’Brien sighed.
He said the Council couldn’t afford an expensive, months long, negative campaign before the November election, which might put their precious incumbency in jeopardy. The 7-2 repeal vote took place in a raucous meeting, without prior announcement, debate or public hearings. “The city doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending efficiency problem,” Amazon VP Drew Herdener predictably opined. Of course he offered no alternative cuts or revenue enhancements to make housing the poor “efficient” or even possible. These human needs obviously paled in priority to a couple of cents off the share price of the world’s largest company. Shame on both the corporation and council.
San Francisco and other West Coast cities are exploring similar taxes on large tech companies to deal with homelessness, affordable housing, mass transit and crumbling public infrastructure. After the debacle in Seattle last week, followed by a similar failure to tax Uber in 2014, those cities will think twice before they try to “punish the successful,” no matter how much unjust enrichment sits lodged at the top of the income and wealth ladders.
A week or so earlier the papers reported that Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, had become the world’s richest man, with over $105 billion in personal wealth. You could look it up, but I believe that exceeds the total GDP of at least half the world’s nations. He could easily pay the $50 million per year housing tax out of his own personal funds without noticing the difference. Instead, Amazon (not Bazos personally) spent a measly $25,000 to get the tax repealed, so they could pile up ever more money to heap on executives, shareholders, mergers, acquisitions and other anti-competitive practices.
This naked greed, unhinged from any notion of sanity, sufficiency or the common good, is sickening to behold. Just as shocking and demoralizing is the paltry price for which our politicians can be bought and silenced. Less than $300,000 – a drop in the bucket of Amazon’s profits, let alone the entire Seattle business community – was more than enough to scatter them mice at a rattlesnake roundup. Again, shame on them both, but more on Amazon, which committed the greater sin.
Jesus said, “No man can serve two masters. Either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6: 24) The future of our democracy depends on placing the common good over individual selfishness. Both big business and individual citizens are guilty of neglecting this duty and we are reaping the bitter harvest of growing inequality, declining social mobility and partisan gridlock under the most divisive and least qualified president ever to occupy the Oval Office.
Only a united citizens’ movement to restore democracy (1 person/vote; influence over policy, not just elections) and equality (broad opportunity without gross excess) can save us from our current slide into plutocracy and creeping authoritarianism. I’m ready to join the band and lead a section, if necessary. Anyone willing to join me? By the way, where do we find the band and where to march to? We are sorely lacking in leadership, character and solidarity.