US Congressman Bernie Sanders has introduced a bill – named after Amazon founder Jeff Bezos – that would force companies to pay a tax equal to the amount of benefits claimed by their workers. It’s a great idea but political centrists will kill it off, writes Darren McGarvey.
The famous “old man yells at cloud” gag from The Simpsons took literal form earlier in the year when Democrat congressman Bernie Sanders used social media to call out Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ obscene wealth. In a tweet, Sanders wrote, “Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ wealth increases by $275 million every single day. Meanwhile, Amazon workers have to rely on food stamps and public assistance just to survive.”
I mean, the nerve. Bernie clearly didn’t get the memo that ‘wealth creator’ Bezos earns less than most of Sanders’ colleagues on Capitol Hill, taking home a paltry $81,840 salary. Bezos wealth comes from the stock he owns in Amazon. Sorry to burst your bubble Bernie, but Bezos’ $130.8 billion net worth is tied up in shares. He only accumulates the wealth of a Bond villain for as long as the price on those shares rises. It just so happens that over the last three years it’s rocketed skyward by over 272 per cent.
Good thing Sanders didn’t run for the White House. After all, this isn’t the first of his wacky ideas. If Bernie had his way, the profit motive would be removed from health care completely, ushering in an apocalypse in which government handouts might be extended beyond weapons manufacturers and bankers, to families who currently have to bankrupt themselves to pay their children’s medical bills. Not to seem cold, but those people shouldn’t have had children if they couldn’t afford to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for unforeseeable leukaemia treatment. Why provide universal health care to all American citizens when there’s an unimpeachable corporate class on hand to farm their bad fortune by inserting an abstraction like profit into an already complicated equation? Bloody communists.
Oh, what’s that Bernie, you’ve teamed up with a Republican to come up with an extremely creative solution to this galling wealth polarisation? One that involves imposing a 100 per cent tax on companies correlated to the amount of federal assistance received by its employees? Hang on, the bill even has an acronym? Ok, this might be more serious than I thought.
The Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies (BEZOS) Act – clearly named in such a way as to make it easy for hash-head protesters to chant – would set a precedent in the American economy by billing corporations for the cost of in-work poverty. If an employee collects $1,000 in food assistance, Amazon, recently valued at $1 trillion (enough money that you could climb a quarter of the way to the moon if you stacked it up) would be taxed at $1,000 to cover the cost. Simple.
Amazon has become a poster-child for the excesses of capitalism in the neoliberal period: the systematic dismantling of worker’s rights under the guise of labour market flexibility; the abandonment of the mere concept that people should be paid enough to afford basic things like food and shelter; an ever-cosier relationship between corporate big-wigs and lawmakers which, at this point, could arguably be characterised as interchangeable; and the slow march to the cliff-edge of ecocide as everything from the oceans to the rainforest are offered as sacrificial lambs at the altar of shareholder profits. Sadly, getting serious about corporate abuse and its corrosive impact on our lives is not high on the list of centrist priorities. If the current ruptures in our political, economic and environmental systems are the cloud, the centre-ground scorn reserved for those who rightly regard the status-quo as the root cause, is the silver lining.
The BEZOS act would not only hammer Amazon, but also the other usual suspects like Walmart and McDonalds, which both depend on cheap labour to remain competitive. Walmart employees, like Amazon’s, are often dependant on food stamps and other forms of state help, like social housing and Medicaid, just to get by. According to Sanders, this means American taxpayers are hit for over $6 billion a year, effectively subsidising the same corporations that exploit every loophole in the book to avoid paying their fair share of tax.
If there is one inarguable fact about neoliberalism, it’s that this inequality, written into the DNA of our economy, has created a fertile bed of anger and resentment – as well as a coming tidal wave of radioactive social problems – that are already threatening to undermine democracy and social order. In the UK, the political centre-ground, from where all acceptable wisdom ostensibly emerges, recently unveiled its latest two-pronged response to the crisis: a Tony Blair farewell tour followed by an onslaught of spelling and grammar shaming on Twitter which, it’s hoped, will bring the great unwashed to its collective senses.
In the centre, it seems no topic is off the table when attempting to get to the root of the problem: the vulgar tone of those apparently on the fringes; the paranoid tin-foil hat conspiracy theorists on the far left and right; and, of course, the criminal misuse of semi-colons. The only thing you’ll rarely see written about in any great depth is the dire economic status-quo from which these unpalatable movements and crisis-cults emerge.
As someone who feels the gravity of the political centre bearing down upon him, I understand the appeal of mistaking an economic system that has worked for my own career and bank account as something that should work for everyone else. There’s also the self-satisfaction that comes with being a moderate; terrible things only happen when society stupidly deviates from the third-way. Also, in the centre, a guilty conscience alone absolves one from taking any further action. it’s enough just to feel bad about how things are.
It’s on this middle-ground where a great idea like the BEZOS Act goes to die. This, despite it being an economically sound, socially just and politically intelligent response to a fundamental problem. The BEZOS Act reconciles several oppositional interests that usually prevent cross-party solutions to common problems. If the centre is where two ways of doing things are weaved together, what’s more centrist than this? It transfers the welfare burden of in-work poverty to the corporations whose low-wage business model it subsidises – instead of cutting social programs altogether. It addresses tax evasion. And, crucially, it’s something people on the right should support because, if enacted, it would cut welfare spending considerably.
It’s the sort of idea centrists claim they wish was possible, only to lament the tribal times we live in, before dismissing anything but tepid, corporation-friendly responses as unworkable utopian thinking – utopian being anything that does not demonstrate fealty to the free-market. Centrists may pride themselves in being moderate, but the impact of their flaccid and superficial politics is nothing short of extreme.