Congress Confronts Its Contradictions

They baled out of the bail-out, but the money will still have to come from us. It always has.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 30th September 2008

According to Senator Jim Bunning, the proposal to purchase $700bn of dodgy debt by the US government “is financial socialism, it is un-American”(1). The economics professor Nouriel Roubini calls George Bush, Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke “a troika of Bolsheviks who turned the USA into the United Socialist State Republic of America”(2). Bill Perkins, the venture capitalist who took out an advertisement in the New York Times attacking the deal, calls it “trickle-down communism”(3).

They are wrong. The banking subsidies Congress rejected last night are as American as apple pie and obesity. The sums demanded by Bush and Paulson might be unprecedented, but there is nothing new about the principle: corporate welfare is a consistent feature of advanced capitalism. Only one thing has changed: Congress has been forced to confront its contradictions.

One of the best studies of corporate welfare in the United States is published by my old enemies at the Cato Institute. Its report, by Stephen Slivinski, estimates that in 2006 the federal government spent $92bn subsidising business(4). Much of it went to major corporations like Boeing, IBM and General Electric.

The biggest money crop – $21bn – is harvested by Big Farmer. Slivinski shows that the richest 10% of subsidised farmers took 66% of the pay-outs. Every few years Congress or the administration promises to stop this swindle, then hands even more state money to agribusiness. The Farm Bill passed by Congress in May guarantees farmers a minimum of 90% of the income they’ve received over the past two years, which happen to be among the most profitable they’ve ever had(5). The middlemen do even better, especially the companies spreading starvation by turning maize into ethanol, which are guzzling billions of dollars’ worth of tax credits.

Slivinski shows how the federal government’s Advanced Technology Program, which was supposed to support the development of technologies that are “pre-competitive” or “high risk” has instead been captured by big businesses flogging proven products. Since 1991, companies like IBM, General Electric, Dow Chemical, Caterpillar, Ford, DuPont, General Motors, Chevron and Monsanto have extracted hundreds of millions from this programme. Big business is also underwritten by the Export-Import Bank: in 2006, for example, Boeing alone received four and half billion in loan guarantees(6).

The government runs something called the “Foreign Military Financing Program” which gives money to other countries to purchase weaponry from US corporations. It doles out grants to airports for building new runways and to fishing companies to help them wipe out endangered stocks.

But the Cato Institute’s report has exposed only part of the corporate welfare scandal. A new paper by the US Institute for Policy Studies shows that, through a series of cunning tax and accounting loopholes, the US spends $20bn a year subsidising executive pay(7). By disguising their professional fees as capital gains rather than income, for example, the managers of hedge funds and private equity companies pay lower rates of tax than the people who clean their offices. A year ago, the House of Representatives tried to close this loophole, but the bill was blocked in the Senate after a lobbying campaign by some of the richest men in America.

Another report, by a group called Good Jobs First, reveals that Wal-Mart has received at least $1bn of public money(8). Over 90% of its distribution centres and many of its retail outlets have been subsidised by county and local governments. They give the chain free land, they pay for the roads, water and sewerage required to make that land usable, and they grant it property tax breaks and subsidies (called tax increment financing) originally intended to regenerate depressed communities. Sometimes state governments give the firm straight cash as well: in Virginia, for example, Wal-Mart’s distribution centres receive handouts from the Governor’s Opportunity Fund.

Corporate welfare is arguably the core business of some government departments. Many of the Pentagon’s programmes deliver benefits only to its contractors. Ballistic missile defence, for example, which has no obvious strategic purpose and which is unlikely ever to work, has already cost the US between $120bn and $150bn. The Department of Defense wants another $62bn for the next five years(9). The US is unique among major donors in insisting that the food it offers in aid is produced on its own soil, rather than in the regions it is meant to be helping. USAID used to boast on its website that “the principal beneficiary of America’s foreign assistance programs has always been the United States. Close to 80 percent of the US Agency for International Development’s contracts and grants go directly to American firms.”(10) There is not and has never been a free market in the United States.

Why not? Because the Congressmen and women now railing against financial socialism depend for their re-election on the companies they subsidise. The legal bribes paid by these businesses deliver two short-term benefits. The first is that they prevent proper regulation, which allows them to make spectacular profits and to generate disasters of the kind that Congress is now confronting. The second is that public money which should be used to help the poorest and weakest is instead diverted into the pockets of the rich.

A report published last week by the advocacy group Common Cause shows how bankers and brokers stopped legislators from banning unsustainable lending(11). Over the past financial year, the big banks spent $49m on lobbying and $7m in direct campaign contributions. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have spent $180m in lobbying and campaign finance over the past eight years. Much of this money was thrown at members of the House Financial Services Committee and the Senate Banking Committee.

Whenever congressmen tried to rein in the banks and mortgage lenders they were blocked by the banks’ money. Dick Durbin’s 2005 amendment seeking to stop predatory mortgage lending, for example, was defeated in the Senate by 58 to 40. The former representative Jim Leach proposed re-regulating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Their lobbyists, he recalls, managed in “less than 48 hours to orchestrate both parties’ leadership” to crush his amendments(12).

The money these firms spend buys the socialisation of financial risk. The $700bn the government was looking for is just one of the public costs of its repeated failure to regulate. Even now the lobbying power of the banks is making itself felt: on Saturday the Democrats watered down their demand that the money earned by executives of the companies the government is rescuing be capped(13). Campaign finance is the best investment a corporation can make. You give a million dollars to the right man and reap a billion dollars’ worth of state protection, tax breaks and subsidies. When the same thing happens in Africa we call it corruption.

European governments are no better. The free market economics they proclaim are a con: they intervene repeatedly on behalf of the rich, while leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. Just as in the United States, the bosses of farm companies, oil drillers, supermarkets and banks capture the funds extracted by government from the pockets of people much poorer than themselves. Taxpayers everywhere should be asking the same question: why the hell should we be supporting them?


1. Jim Bunning, quoted by James Politi and Daniel Dombey, 24th September 2008. Republican anger at ‘financial socialism’. Financial Times.

2. Nouriel Roubini, 18th September 2008. Public losses for private gain. The Guardian.

3. Andrew Clark, 24th September 2008. US trader attacks ‘trickle-down communism’ of markets bail-out. The Guardian.

4. Stephen Slivinski, 14th May 2007. The Corporate Welfare State: How the Federal Government Subsidizes US Businesses. Policy Analysis no. 592.

5. Subsidy Watch, June 2008. Ignoring WTO implications and a presidential veto, US Congress passes the new Farm Bill. Global Subsidies Initiative.

6. Stephen Slivinski, ibid.

7. Sarah Anderson et al, 25th August 2008. Executive Excess 2008
How Average Taxpayers Subsidize Runaway Pay. Institute for Policy Studies.

8. Philip Mattera et al, May 2004. Shopping for Subsidies:
How Wal-Mart Uses Taxpayer Money to Finance Its Never-Ending Growth. Good Jobs First.

9. I explain why it won’t work and costs so much at

10. USAID. Creating Opportunities for U.S. Small Business, viewed 5th January 2004.

11. Common Cause, 24th September 2008. Ask Yourself Why… They Didn’t See This Coming.

12. James A. Leach, 16th July 2008. Fixing Fannie and Freddie. Institute of Politics,
John F. Kennedy School Of Government, Harvard University.

13. James Politi and Daniel Dombey, 28th September 2008. Long and exhausting road to compromise. Financial Times.