As the next federal budget deadline looms large, economist Paul Krugman continued his one-man campaign against the “Deficit Hawks” in his New York Times column last Thursday. As Krugman pointed out, people like Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles have continued to drum up anxiety around the federal deficit, despite the fact that the deficit has actually shrunk in recent months. “So what should we be doing?” he asked.
Yesterday, I joined Chicagoans who, along with grassroots activist in 20 cities around the country, are responding to Krugman’s question by taking to the streets as part of National People Action’s #CEOSummer campaign.
In contrast to the Fix the Debt campaign led by Simpson, Bowles, and a host of CEOs, the #CEOSummer campaign aims to shift our public discourse by advancing progressive budget solutions.
“As we approach another budget showdown in Washington DC, the answer is not shutting down the government and cutting funds to schools, nutrition, housing, and other essential services,” said George Goehl, Executive Director of NPA. “The answer is shutting down corporate tax dodging.”
Participants in the campaign have taken their message directly to leaders who serve on Fix the Debt’s “CEO council.” On Tuesday, four activists with in New York were arrested for blocking traffic on the West Side Highway while holding a banner that said “Verizon: Stop Tax Dodging.” Wednesday, members of TakeAction Minnesota interrupted a meeting of Fix the Debt in Minneapolis with their call to “Make Wall Street Pay!”
Our coalition of grassroots organizations in Chicago took the message one step further by delivering a mock cease and desist order to General Electric’s Chicago Headquarters, demanding that CEO Jeffrey Immelt stop “manipulating the U.S. Congress” and resign his position on the Fix the Debt leadership council.
While leaders from our group delivered the order to GE staff, speakers highlighted the very real impact federal budget decisions have on our communities.
Kristina Tendilla, a leader at Benton House community center and S.O.U.L. (Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation), spoke about the effect budget cuts have on her community in the Bridgeport neighborhood.
“[These cuts hurt] people like Alice, a grandmother, who lost her daughter two years ago and now is the sole provider for her grandchildren,” Tendilla said as she choked back tears. “She told me she often skips meals so they will have more to eat.”
Yet, as Toby Chow, a leader with The People’s Lobby, noted, while the Fix the Debt coalition continues to lobby for cuts to earned benefit programs like Social Security, the companies overseen by their CEO Council are paying little, if anything in taxes. “GE has not paid a single penny in federal income tax over the past four years,” Chow said.
“We’re here to demand that [GE and its CEO Jeffrey Immelt] pay their fair share for the common good,” he added. “We need to invest more, not less, in our shared society.”
GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt is a particularly poignant target when it comes to illuminating the failure of corporate America to invest in the common good.
In addition to using aggressive legal strategies to avoid paying their taxes, a study released last year from the Institute for Policy Studies reports that GE didn’t make a single payment to its employee pension funds between 1987 and 2010, leading to a $22 billion internal deficit. Yet, GE and Immelt had the nerve to give $1 million in 2012 to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a partner of Fix the Debt, which supports cuts to the (solvent) Social Security Administration. So, not only is GE failing to invest in its own employees and their families, they’re spending money to lobby the government to divest from some of the most popular and successful government programs in our nation’s history.
Of course, as Chow pointed out, “It’s not enough to call out corporations that are hurting our economy. We must call out their legislative collaborators.” So, our group bused over to Senator Dick Durbin’s office, in an effort to highlight the fact that GE’s corporate malfeasance wouldn’t be possible without the collusion of powerful elected leaders in Washington.
While Senator Durbin cherishes his progressive reputation, his track record on federal budget issues is impressively weak. Last November, Durbin led the Democratic charge towards cutting earned benefits, suggesting not only that we cut social security by switching to Chained CPI, but that we also cut up to $400 billion from Medicare.
Our message for Senator Durbin was simple: stand with the American people, not with corporate CEOs.
Reverend Pamela Coleman, a pastor at God Can Ministries United Church of Christ, said that part of the problem is that both major political parties in this country are loyal to corporate interests.
Not only have Republicans “gone completely off the deep end,” according to Rev. Coleman, “Democrats, at least the majority of them, stand with corporations, too! They are cowards. We are on a sinking ship at sea and they want to chart a moderate course.”
“Senator Durbin has been bashing the House GOP for wanting to cut SNAP, but if Senator Durbin does not come forward to call out corporate tax dodgers and support a Robin Hood tax, cuts to SNAP are much more likely to happen,” Adams said. And while, “Senator Durbin won’t go hungry if social programs are cut,” he added, “we know people who will.”
As the crowd dispersed today, it seemed clear to me that this is what we need to do. We need to build the next progressive movement. Only a movement can push us beyond the collusion of corporate and legislative power toward genuine political and economic democracy. I hope that the #CEOSummer campaign is just the start.
This article was originally published at Common Dreams on August 23, 2013.