- Pennsylvania Among 'Terrible 10' Most Regressive Tax States
- February 4 Non-Partisan Training: HOW TO RUN FOR ELECTION BOARD IN 2013: HOW TO RUN FOR COMMITTEEPERSON IN 2014
- Republican Governors Opt-In to Medicaid Expansion
- The Reports of Unions' Death Are Greatly Exaggerated
- Ask Allyson Schwartz to run for Governor
- Mind the gap: Opting Out of Medicaid Expansion Leaves Low-income Families Behind
- Jan. 14 Workshop:HOW TO RUN FOR ELECTION BOARD IN 2013; HOW TO RUN FOR COMMITTEEPERSON IN 2014
- Seth Williams on Guns, Jasmine Rivera on School Closures @PFC Meetup Wednesday
- PA Revenue Strong Midway Through Year; Tax Cut Could Have Big Impact
- What to Make of the Fiscal Cliff Deal?
Brett Mandel's Values Are An Issue
I can't vote for Brett Mandel for Controller. I've said that a few times before on this blog and given reasons. But today I want to explain why Brett can't ever get my vote from a bit of a different angle. And that will require a little digression. I hope you'll bear with me. Because this Controller's race squarely raises the question of what kind of Philadelphia we want to live in.
Brett Mandel wants to cut Philly taxes for all business -- eliminate them really -- because he sees one business as good as any other. He wants to bring as many businesses here as he can, and to assure that once they're here, they stay. I don't.
The truth is that lots of businesses are not worthy of public support. Some offer predatory loans, or other scams that prey on the poor. Some pollute. Some fight labor unions, in dirty ways. Some have lousy health and safety records. Some sell unsafe products, know it and conceal it. Some have destroyed the life savings of working people by getting them to invest in "products" that are nothing more than glorified thin air. Some of them buy politicians, and have bought enough of them so they can stay bought, legally. I could go on, and so could you.
Others businesses are socially responsible. They treat their workers fairly. They treat the air and water with care too. They profit share with organizations that fight for social justice. They lend money to neighborhood start-up firms that conventional lending institutions would reject. They employ neighborhood kids. The best of these companies are developed locally, and are cooperatively run.
The best local business that I know of is Weavers Way Coop of which I am a proud co-owner with several thousand other food shoppers in Northwest Philly. Weavers Way is governed by a Board that is elected by its members, treats its workers with the respect that we would all would want as employees, and provides great, responsive service. And it's growing, opening two new branches in the last year, providing more employment and more locally grown produce to more and more people than ever before. It sees itself as the leading edge of a movement, and so it finds it important to help other coops get off the ground.
And I just came back from Kerala in India. Kerala is home to an amazing tea company, the Kannan Devan Hill Produce Company, that employs almost 13,000 people. For a hundred years or so the company grew by training and employing local villagers who previously had no road out of grinding poverty. Generations of local people have built the company and they are now so competent, confident and capable that they have taken ownership of the company and run it. Kannan Devan provides a superb array of services to its workers, carefully preserves the land around its fields and the things that grow on it, and, from what my taste buds tell me, produces some really awesome tea. The tea is exported all around the world.
But this is not about Weavers' Way or a great tea growing cooperative half way around the planet. It's about how progressives should envision building Philadelphia. The model that is represented by the push to eliminate the BPT is a defeatist model. It says we can't really have the kind of City we want with the kind of jobs we deserve; we have to suspend our notions of corporate responsibility to induce whatever companies that will have us, to locate in the City. The drive to repeal the BPT is just the leading edge of that overarching philosophical approach. There is no rational distinction between "creating a good business climate" by eliminating business taxes, and dismantling every other business regulation. If you accept a tax cutting imperative, you're behind the 8-ball in defending any other corporate imposition. They're all "bad for business."
Now just to be clear; I'm not suggesting that we bar businesses that fail to meet our values from locating here. We just don't have to lay down prostrate before each and every enterprise, good and bad alike. We should let the word go forth that we do have preferences. Those companies that meet our health, safety, environmental and workers rights' standards should get development aid. Those that don't should fend for themselves.
As progressives we're for laws that establish a just and sustainable world. But for so many of us, whether our lives are bearable or not, and whether society is just or not, depends on the character of the business world. Businesses determine the quality of our working lives, they produce what we eat and drink, they alter the air we breathe and the water we drink. They may actually decide if the planet itself lives or dies.
Yet when it comes to "economic development" in Philadelphia, we must throw our own money at businesses that are hard at work sabotaging the kind of world that we want. At least that's what the business elites who run our City tell us we must do, and that's what many of us -- to go by what's been written on this blog -- have come around to support. It makes no sense. It's not just about jobs in Philadelphia. It's about the kind of jobs, the products, the byproducts, and our ethical consistency as a community. It's about the statement we send to the rest of the world about Philadelphia values.
Now clearly, to take a "values-based" approach to economic development would entail some risks. Maybe there aren't enough good and decent businesses out there to employ all of our people. And maybe we can't fill the gap by creating lots of them locally. But is the prevailing model risk-free? As suggested above, we are subjected to personal and social risks every day from loathsome business practices carried out in our town. And it's not as if across the board tax-cutting is a proven job generating tool. Maybe it works at some level, maybe it doesn't. We do know that taxes have been cut locally every year since 1996. And the poverty rate in Philly has continued to soar.
So which is the smarter risk, and the one with the greater upside? Should we be true to ourselves and apply our values to economic development policy, or should we formulate economic development policy with moral blinders firmly in place. To me, the answer is pretty clear. I'm not interested in giving polluters and predators the keys to the City. And, if they come here, they certainly should pay taxes.
And that's why -- yes, I'm getting there -- economic development views are so important in the Controller's race.
Brett Mandel's defenders say the Controller isn't involved in economic development policy. But the fact is that a clever Controller, and Brett is a smart man, can involve himself in any local issue he wants. He audits departments, both from a financial and performance standpoint. That includes the Finance Department, the Revenue Department and the Commerce Department. Within those audit frameworks there is ample opportunity to discuss the City's economic development strategy, and its linkages to how the City raises revenue, and from whom.
Still, it has been said, merely giving Mandel a soapbox to articulate views is not the same as electing him to a position where he can actually implement those views. Council and the Mayor enact taxes, not the Controller. True enough, to a degree. But those of us who write on this blog should be the last, I think, to minimize the impact of an effective platform for communicating opinions. And it was Jonathan Saidel who, as Controller, kicked off the campaign to eliminate the BPT when he issued a proposal calling for a variety of tax "reforms" in 2001. Soon Michael Nutter took up the issue, Council had hearings on it, and the Tax Reform Commission was born. The rest is what we've been wrestling with ever since.
Mandel's defenders also argue that he stands for important, progressive values, wholly apart from economic development concerns. Chief among them is his insistence on government transparency. But Brett has not pushed transparency when it comes to revealing the tax loads borne by different companies in and out of the City of Philadelphia. I'm not going to belabor the record on this point because I've written quite a bit about it before. But I'll just say now that failure to hold corporations to high standards of openness is another logical outgrowth of a lax attitude toward antisocial business behavior. And we simply can't afford to have anyone with that attitude in any high Philadelphia office.
The magic of that reform word is something that truly needs to be analyzed. So many of us are dazzled by it. Mike Nutter was the "reform" candidate for Mayor. But he just engineered a completely closed door negotiation on perhaps the most important City budget deal in a decade, a budget that may still starve neighborhood libraries to death, that jeopardizes the pension fund and hikes the regressive sales tax. His notion of reform also includes a casino in the heart of the City, along with behind the scenes support for increased privatization of the schools. Let's not get overwhelmed by the reform label again. Brett Mandel talks reform, but he is really for more of the same -- a business dominated City agenda that leaves the rest of us behind.