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Corporations need to be better citizens

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By John Burbank
Published:
If you lived in a run-down house and all of a sudden your family got a lot of money, what would you do? Most people would think about fixing up the rickety front steps, replacing the leaky shower, and painting the back bedroom, for starters.
But what if that new money came in the form of a lottery ticket you purchased for your son as a present -- and he decided to spend the winnings on a new hot tub (conveniently located right outside his bedroom) and a trip to Europe? So much for those rickety steps! Now you're stuck with a higher electricity bill thanks to the hot tub. Your family's income increased, but your quality of life hasn't gone up one iota -- and the house is still falling apart!
Something like that is happening right now in Washington. Collectively, we're wealthier -- but our quality of life isn't much better. In 2011, total income increased $13 billion -- an increase of more than 5 percent. I bet your paycheck didn't go up 5 percent, but it's likely many of your expenses did.
Take college tuition. If your kid is at Everett Community College or the UW, you are paying a lot more this year than last year. And you will be paying even more next year. Tuition at Everett will go up 13 percent, approaching $4,000. At UW a 16 percent tuition increase will result in tuition and mandatory fees exceeding $12,000.
What about health care? Employers are rolling back coverage -- now only a little more than half of them offer coverage to full-time employees. And to fund that coverage, employee contributions have tripled in the last decade, with average co-pays, co-insurance, and out-of-pocket costs exceeding $4,000 a year.
In other words, the citizens of this state are living in a house that is getting more run-down with each passing year. It's time to renovate. We need public investments to make higher education affordable to average families again, to reduce K-12 class sizes so our kids can get the attention they need, to fund basic health coverage for people whose employers can't or won't, and to rebuild the our roads, trains, and waterways -- just to name a few.
How do we do that, when millions of state residents are taking home smaller paychecks this year than last? The answer is easy to say and hard to do: It's time for the son with the hot tub to contribute. He may say he already did -- but the fact is, his trip to Europe helped the German economy a lot more than our own.
So who are Washington's lucky children? They are the state's corporate leaders and the corporations they direct -- fortunate enough to be born into a civil society governed by laws and regulations that protect private property, and into a place where taxpayer dollars spent on public schools and universities, police and firefighters, roads and bridges make it possible for businesses to succeed.
Corporate leaders go to bed knowing that when they wake up in the morning, their corporations and their wealth will still be there. For that degree of opportunity and security, you might think these leaders would be eager to provide the tax revenues necessary for their own and others' well-being. But instead, they use their wealth and power to lobby for tax exemptions whenever possible, and use every wrinkle in the book to avoid paying them.
Here's just one example: Every time Microsoft sells software through its Reno office, it reduces revenue that should go to public education in our state. That accounting maneuver increases profits, which increase its dividends, which increase the wealth of its shareholders – and beggars public education and public health.
It is not as if our corporate leaders haven't benefitted personally from public services. Howard Schultz grew up in public housing. Paul Allen and Bill Gates got the computer bug at the University of Washington -- our flagship public research university, funded by state tax revenue. Jeff Bezos graduated from Miami Palmetto Senior High School and participated in a special student science program at the University of Florida. All of this was possible thanks to taxpayers.
But like a kid who wins the lottery, their sense of responsibility doesn't seem to extend to their fellow citizens -- the other people living with them in the family house we call Washington. They seem more intent on reducing their taxes and those of their corporations rather than contributing enough to actual rebuild the front steps and repaint the siding. Meanwhile, we're still paying for those frothy bubbles in the hot tub.

John Burbank is executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (www.eoionline.org) . His email address is john@eoionline.org.

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