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What Uber and the Koch Brothers Have in Common: A Plan to Destroy Public Transit

Wednesday, August 14th, 2019

Image result for Jeremy MohlerAt first glance, the rideshare corporation Uber couldn’t appear more different than conservative oil-mogul billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch. Uber has hired numerous former Democratic Party campaign managers and lobbyists and the company’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, has publicly criticized the Trump administration, including over the travel ban on several majority-Muslim countries. The Kochs, meanwhile, have gained a reputation for bankrolling the Republican Party.

Yet Uber—the Silicon Valley startup-gone-public—shares at least one goal with the most prominent funders of modern conservatism: the destruction of America’s public transit.

While polarization in the United States is on the rise when it comes to metrics like party affiliation and media consumption, there’s a frightening level of agreement in corporate America, regardless of party loyalty. Examining where both Uber and the Koch brothers agree exposes the consensus hiding beneath the surface of our current political gridlock. Yes, rideshare corporations and oil tycoons share a financial interest in a car-centric future. But both also lobby for corporate tax cuts, deregulation and fewer rights and protections for workers. Both also envision a society with weakened or nonexistent public goods, part of a 40-year privatization trend that’s touched everything from public education to water access. From this vantage point, government is, in fact, getting things done and solving problems—just for corporate America rather than poor and working people.

A close look at the growing war on public transit reveals the planks of this corporate consensus.

In documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Uber’s executives claim to see a “massive market opportunity” in the estimated 4.4 trillion miles traveled each year by people using public transit across 175 countries. The company continues to heavily subsidize per-ride costs to inflate its value to investors and undercut existing options, despite bleeding billions of dollars. “Uber is effectively a middleman for a money transfer from venture-capital (VC) firms to consumers,” writes James P. Sutton in National Review. Simply put, effectively supplanting the taxi industry wasn’t enough: Uber plans on undercutting public transit to finally turn a profit.

For their part, the Koch brothers are funneling money to their political action committee (PAC), Americans for Prosperity, to kill proposed public transit projects nationwide. Last year, they led the charge in stopping a popular $5.4 billion transit plan in Nashville, Tennessee, that had even been backed by a coalition of the city’s business community. The Kochs have funded similar anti-public transit efforts in Arkansas, Arizona, Michigan, Utah and other states.

Their stated rationale, of course, is lower taxes. Americans for Prosperity tried to kill a 2017 gas-tax plan in Indiana meant to raise a billion dollars to invest in buses and infrastructure, even though it was introduced by the state’s GOP-led House of Representatives. Cutting taxes is the Koch brothers’ bread and butter. They contributed $20 million to help pass the Trump tax plan, which slashed taxes for their primary business, Koch Industries, by as much as $1.4 billion a year.

Uber has joined the Koch brothers on this libertarian crusade, using a corporate shell game to avoid paying billions in taxes and lobbying against taxes and fees on rides across the globe.

The corporate behemoths also share a stated goal of “cutting red tape.” The Koch brothers bankrolled the founding of the nation’s first libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute, which sees “limited government,” i.e., deregulation, as a key ingredient of freedom. They also funded the now-defunct Freedom Partners, which developed a road map that shaped the early days of the Trump administration’s deregulatory policy agenda. Uber, together with its main competitor Lyft, boasted more lobbyists in 2016 than Amazon, Microsoft and Walmart combined. As of June 2018, the two corporations had convinced 41 state legislatures and many local governments to pass legislation protecting them from regulation.

Most importantly, both the Koch brothers and Uber understand that their freedom depends on taking freedom away from working people. Uber has spent generously on fighting to ensure its drivers maintain their precarious status as independent contractors. The company has also invested heavily in technology that would get rid of drivers altogether, including driverless cars. The Koch brothers’ anti-worker views date back much further, all the way to the counterrevolutionary days at the end of the New Deal era. Fred Koch, Charles and David’s father, owned an oil refinery corporation and was active in the archconservative John Birch Society. Through groups like the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, the Kochs have long led the attack against collective bargaining rights for public employees, including train and bus drivers.

At the end of the day, the Koch Brothers and Uber are much like Coke and Pepsi. They may have clashing styles, but their product is largely the same: lower corporate taxes, deregulation, lower wages, and private control over public goods like mass transit.

This article was originally published at In These Times on August 13, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeremy Mohler is a Washington D.C.-based political writer with In the Public Interest and a meditation teacher.

Wisconsin’s Foxconn Deal Enriches Billionaires With Taxpayer Cash

Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

Taiwanese billionaire Terry Gou every once in a while likes to think “outside the box.” Back in 2010, for instance, the giant electronics manufacturer that Gou runs — Foxconn — was facing what corporate flacks like to call a major “PR problem.” Working conditions inside Foxconn’s massive Chinese factories had become so incredibly stressful that workers were committing suicide in shockingly large numbers. They were leaping out factory windows to their deaths.

And what did Gou’s Foxconn do to try to calm the worldwide outrage? The conventional corporate move would have been to dial back the pressure on workers. Foxconn’s move under Gou? The company stretched safety nets in those places where workers would be most likely to leap.

Keeping the pressure on workers — no matter the consequences — has helped Foxconn’s Gou accumulate a personal fortune somewhere north of $6 billion. But Gou has also perfected another sure-fire strategy for piling up the big bucks. He gets taxpayers to give him money. Lots of it.

Gou has cut a wide assortment of subsidy deals over the years, with politicians from Indonesia to Pennsylvania. The deals all follow the same pattern. Foxconn promises to build “job-creating” factories. The political jurisdictions involved hand Foxconn lucrative “incentives” to do the building.

State lawmakers in Wisconsin have now just taken the first step toward approving Foxconn’s biggest subsidy deal yet. The state Assembly has given the green lightto what appears to be the biggest subsidy ever handed out to a foreign firm by a U.S. political entity.

Wisconsin taxpayers will, if this deal gains expected state Senate approval, hand Foxconn $1.35 billion for building a factory complex that will employ 3,000 workers. The total package of “incentives” for Foxconn could hit $3 billion — with $2.85 billion of that in taxpayer cash and another $150 million in various tax breaks — if Foxconn’s operation in Wisconsin ends up employing 13,000 workers.

How much per job would Wisconsin be shelling out? One likely scenario: about $500,000 per job. The worst-case scenario: as much as $1 million per job. And neither number here takes into account the Foxconn deal’s eventual environmental cost. Foxconn will be receiving, besides the taxpayer cash, an exemptionfrom regulations that protect Wisconsin’s wetlands.

So Foxconn gets mountains of cash and a free pass to pollute. What do the people of Wisconsin get? One of the largest “economic development” projects the United States has ever seen, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker crowed last month at a White House ceremony announcing the deal with Foxconn’s Terry Gou and President Donald Trump.

Foxconn’s Jobs

This “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” adds an aide to Walker, will bring thousands of “family-supporting jobs.” The new positions, business boosters for the Foxconn deal trumpet, will pay an average $53,000 per year.

But that $53,000 figure only applies to the first 3,000 jobs Foxconn is promising to create and averageshighly paid managerial positions in with job slots for assembly-line workers. Actual workers at the new Foxconn complex will likely take home much less than $53,000.

How much less? Community groups skeptical about Foxconn want any deal with the company to include a wage floor. They’re seeking stipulations that guarantee workers at least $15 an hour. The Republican statehouse majority in Wisconsin has so far quashed every attempt to set a decent wage minimum.

You can’t support much of a family, critics of the Foxconn deal are contending, on less than $15 an hour. And you can’t spur economic development that creates good jobs, add watchdogs opposed to the Foxconn deal, by handing corporations giant giveaways.

Throwing money at businesses, as former Kansas City mayor Mark Funkhouser notes, has been a “bad idea” ever since cities started “offering bonuses and pecuniary inducements to manufacturers” in the late 19th century.

These inducements have ratcheted up considerably over recent years, even before taking the new Foxconn deal into account. Between 1990 and 2015, a new Upjohn Institute study shows, average “incentive” packages for businesses tripled in value.

The results of this vast upsurge in subsidies?  The U.S. political jurisdictions that did all this subsidizing, the Upjohn researchers found, would have experienced the same economic results without the incentives, observes former mayor Funkhouser, “94 percent of the time.”

What Does Create Good Jobs?

What does spur the economic development that creates good jobs? The city of Richmond in Virginia is moving in one hopeful direction. Richmond has begun an Office of Community Wealth Building that aims to enrich local residents instead of billionaire CEOs. The city is focusing on everything from improving regional transportation systems to fostering locally based social enterprises. The Democracy Collaborative, a national organization, has fashioned a network of localities involved in similar “community wealth building” all across the United States.

These operations could certainly use some encouragement from the federal level. But President Trump has proposed a budget, notes Greg LeRoy of Good Jobs First, that eliminates “successful federal programs that benefit small- and medium-sized manufacturers.” The contradictions between Trump’s budget cuts for these programs and his White House cheerleading for the enormous Foxconn subsidy deal, adds LeRoy, “boggle the mind.”

Foxconn’s Terry Gou would likely see none of these contradictions. That the few should benefit at the expense of the many makes perfect sense to him, as the billionaire makes plain in one of the Gou quotation posters Foxconn has plastered on the walls of its Chinese factories.

“Growth,” proclaims this particular Gou quotation poster, “thy name is suffering.”

This blog was originally published at OurFuture.org on August 28, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: A veteran labor journalist, Sam Pizzigati has written widely on economic inequality, in articles, books, and online, for both popular and scholarly readers.

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