This new piece of legislation sounds audacious at first. It tells companies like Amazon: if you pay your workers so poorly that they have to go on food stamps, the government is going to hit you with a 100 percent tax on such subsidies.
Sponsored by Bernie Sanders and California House Democrat Ro Khanna, the bill is called the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act, or Stop BEZOS Act.
Initially, Sanders was thrashed in the press for his “ham-fisted” proposal.
“In Bernie Sanders vs. Jeff Bezos, Only Workers Lose,” read the USA Today headline. “Bernie Sanders Picks The Wrong Kind of Fight With Amazon,” blared Bloomberg.
The CBPP and Bernstein fretted about “unintended side effects” to the bill, including hiring discrimination against applicants likely to go on public assistance, and pressure from employers “not to sign up for Medicaid or other benefits.”
Humorously, the CBPP — which receives at least $2 million from the Walmart foundation, one of the targets of the legislation — also claimed the bill “could prompt corporate lobbying efforts to cut assistance programs.” The “could” is the funny part. Such lobbying has already been going on every day for decades.
After such fine-print objections dominated initial press coverage, another round of analyses is now looking at the bigger picture. “Liberals Should Stop Attacking Bernie Sanders for targeting Jeff Bezos and Amazon. He’s on the Right Track,” reads the Los Angeles Times headline. “Sanders Finds Prime Target In Amazon,” was The Hill’s take.
Even Vox is saying things like, “You need to take [Sanders] seriously, not literally.” They’re beginning to grasp that this bill is as much about messaging as policy, an attempt to put eyes where they should have been years ago.
Sanders has always been intensely interested in the media. I remember years ago, he called a bunch of reporters he knew to his office and essentially chewed us out for not covering issues like income inequality aggressively enough. I left that meeting feeling like I had a D+ report card plastered to my forehead.
I don’t think I’m breaking news when I say that while Sanders appreciates good journalism, he believes the media in general has been grossly deficient in its mission to educate audiences about serious social problems. He said this last year: “You can turn the TV and watch it hour after hour, channel after channel after channel, and not see one relevant piece of information.”
Not one relevant piece? Even I thought that was harsh. But this is who Sanders is. His idea of what’s normal and acceptable media coverage and what isn’t is a little different from most. And it’s become increasingly clear that he’s lost patience waiting for the news media to pay attention to this particularly loathsome problem of CEOs using public subsidies to pad their bottom lines.
The issue in his campaigns against companies like Disney, Walmart, Burger King and Amazon is simple: our biggest and most successful companies use a business model that involves giant workforces earning beneath-subsistence wages, if not worse (particularly abroad). This business model would not work without the active cooperation of governments around the world.
Amazon and Walmart are particular villains on this score. On the supply end, they gobble up super-cheap products assembled in unfree labor zones like China, where workers are treated so badly that some have threatened mass suicides to improve conditions.
Then, on the distribution end, in wealthy consumer countries like the U.S., these same companies pay many workers such low wages that they end up on public assistance. One study showed that in Arizona, for instance, 1 in 3 Amazon workers are on food stamps.
Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos is worth $160 billion, and, according to one infuriating study, earns the median salary of an Amazon employee every nine seconds. If you go by net worth in stock holdings, Bezos earns about $277 million a day.
This set of circumstances is a profound comment on how the modern global economy functions. Misguided policies like the establishment of Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with China long ago committed us to a world in which the industrial democracies of the West would be increasingly reliant upon human rights abusers in places like China to serve as mercantile suppliers. As manufacturing headed to the third world, domestic distributors became concentrated and de-unionized.
Amazon is one of great examples, having successfully prevented unionization throughout the firm. In 2000, when the Communications Workers of America attempted to organize Amazon call center employees, the company simply shut down the center.
Author James Bloodworth attempted to do an Upton Sinclair-style report a few years back, going undercover at an Amazon warehouse in Staffordshire, England. Among other things, he reported that workers urinated in bottles out of fear of being punished for “idle time.”
Maybe there are better ways for the government to say that no company whose CEO makes over $100 million a day should be living off workers who pee in bottles and shop with food stamps. Perhaps the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities can ask Walmart for a grant to come up with a better name for that kind of profiteering.
It is true that there are other ways to address this problem, like raising the minimum wage, enhancing protections for workers trying to unionize, and making better use of anti-trust laws, so that monopolist firms don’t have such an easy time dictating low wages. Sanders is in favor of all of those things, too. A traditional politician would be content to eke out a few victories on those fronts.
But this bill has symbolism that goes beyond all that. Crude as it is, Stop BEZOS basically says that government has to stop allowing itself to be used as a welfare mechanism for billionaires. Elected officials should be more offended that they’re paying out gobs of taxpayer money to add decimal points to already-bottomless personal fortunes of people like the CEOs of Amazon and Walmart.
There’s an argument to be made, and people like Ezra Klein at Vox are already making it, that Sanders has gone too far this time, in emphasizing symbolism over policy specifics. Klein argues that Sanders is a big enough name now that he can finally “attract excellent staff and advisers” and bring in “a much broader network of lefty policy thinkers,” who presumably can help him “learn more about the workability of policy.”
Translated, this means: Bernie has enough poll support now that he can finally hire all the Beltway bullshit artists who spent the last 40 years turning the Democratic Party into a subsidiary of the Chamber of Commerce.
With respect to Klein, I don’t think he fully grasps the symbolism here, which is intended as an indictment of people like him and me, too. If journalists like us spent less time fawning over people like Bezos and more time drumming up outrage over his exploitative practices, maybe Sanders isn’t sponsoring this bill. But we didn’t, and so here we are. Can we finally start calling these people the names they deserve?