Tuesday, March 18, 2014

TIF Apology

March 18, 2014, 7:20 a.m.

Note: And see "Addendum: If North Dakota Can Prosper from a State-Owned Bank, Why Not Iowa?" at the bottom of this blog essay/op ed column; and "TIFs: Too Many Negatives," March 25, 2014.

Note: The following was submitted to the Iowa City Press-Citizen with the headline, "TIF Apology," and was published this morning with the headline below. That headline's use of the word "transparency" is somewhat misleading. The column is not calling for governments to be more forthcoming and transparent regarding the details of their gifts to for-profit enterprises under the current system. [See, e.g., "TIFs: Too Many Negatives," March 25, 2014.] It is calling for a different system, a recognition of the reality that ours is a blended corporate-government economy, one that should substitute investments by taxpayers for what are now simply gifts. Taxpayers should get an ownership share, and a return on their investments. (The hard copy version also had a link to a nonexistent site. As reproduced in this blog essay the link is correct.) -- N.J. [Photo credit: Patrick McDonough.]

TIF: If You Can't Beat 'Em, Insist on More Transparency
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen
March 18, 2014, p. A7

I now realize that the dozens of my columns and blog essays over the years, itemizing in detail the evils of TIFs, grew out of a faulty premise.

It is not easy to admit a mistake, especially when one has made it so often. But you are owed that admission – along with a fuller explanation.

We’ve heard that “seeing is believing.” However, it is also true that “believing is seeing.” And what my upbringing and early education imbedded in my brain was a belief that colored my vision like the rainbow from a prism in the sun.

And what was that belief? It was that we have a capitalist, free private enterprise, market economy. Oh, sure, we had socialist enterprise as well: the Interstate highway system, national and state parks, libraries, public schools and universities. But business did business and government did government.

Now comes the realization that what I once saw so clearly was but a child of the ignorance born of ideology. It was the believing that made possible my seeing -- like the lines from the poem, “Last night I saw upon the stair/A little man who wasn't there.” (Hughes Mearns, 1899.)

I was believing in, and seeing, an economy that wasn’t there.

That’s why TIFs were seen to be an aberration, a cancer simultaneously attacking both capitalism’s foundation and taxpayers’ pocketbooks. (For numerous links to sources, see “TIFs: Links to Blog Essays,” http://fromdc2iowa.blogspot.com/2014/03/tifs-links-to-blog-essays.html.)

Like "Amazing Grace," I was blind, but now I see: We don’t have a capitalist system. We probably never did.

So how should we describe our economy? The word “fascism” carries too much baggage from World War II -- dictators, suppression of opposition, aggressive nationalism, and even racism. “Fascism” doesn’t describe America today. But from Washington, D.C., to cities, counties and states all across America, in terms of an economy, ours is the economy of fascism.

The more acceptable word today, “corporatism,” is less accurate. Because the economy we have is a blend, more resembling a purée than a salad or a stew with identifiable ingredients.

Cities’ taxpayers who cannot afford the tickets to an NFL, or even college football game, invest billions in stadiums, given as gifts to attract the billionaires who own teams of millionaires.

States have multiple funds of taxpayers’ money used to compete with other states by giving it away to attract businesses.

Washington is essentially an open bazaar, awash in money gladly given and generously rewarded.

Is this system corrupt? Of course. Welcome to the real world. All economic systems can have corruption – communist, socialist, capitalist, or our fascist.

Is our fascist economy less efficient than a true capitalist economy? Absolutely. Everybody is handling other peoples’ money. Is it less humane than a socialist system might be? Of course. When it comes to minimum wages or safer working conditions, our fascist economy is still driven by the character Gordon Gekko’s belief, in the movie "Wall Street," that “Greed is good.”

Folks, in the words Walter Cronkite used to sign off the CBS Evening News, “And that’s the way it is.” That’s the system we have. Get used to it. The beneficiaries love it. The victims don’t revolt.

What can we do? Tweak the system. Insist our governments invest our money rather than giving it away; that they take a share of the ownership – and the profits. Insist on detailed accounting of the return on our money they’re investing.

If a fascist economy is wrong, but intractable, we can at least try, as John Carver bemoans in another context, to “do the wrong thing better.”
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Nicholas Johnson maintains the website www.nicholasjohnson.org and blog http://FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com.

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Addendum: If North Dakota Can Prosper from a State-Owned Bank, Why Not Iowa?

It only makes sense, so long as we're committed to a fascist economy, that we should try -- as the last line of the op ed column suggests -- "to do the wrong thing better."

One of the most obvious positive tweaks to our fascist economic system would be for governments to enter the banking business. (a) Instead of putting such balances as cities, counties and states have into commercial banks, or credit unions, they could earn more on our money by doing the banking themselves. (b) As a part of a proposal that financial aid to business favor loans over gifts (or what would hopefully become "investments" earning a return) the governmental unit could make loans to the favored businesses from the government's own bank.

Think this is a crazy idea? Think again. It's a fascist economy that's the crazy idea. City, county and state-owned banks are a big improvement over what we have, in our effort to do this "wrong thing better."

But who would ever do such a thing? How could you ever find a government willing to take on its local, commercial bankers?

Take a look at North Dakota: Robb Manelbaum, "What North Dakota’s Public Bank Does for Small Businesses," New York Times, March 13, 2014
North Dakota uses the bank to funnel deposits from state agencies back into the state’s economy through . . . loans, teaming with local private banks that initiate the transactions with borrowers. The state-owned bank typically takes half of a business loan, and the interest rate on the state-lent portion is normally one or two percentage points below the market rate.

In January, the Bank of North Dakota played a bit part in an ideological skirmish in the blogosphere after a young activist, Jesse A. Myerson, suggested putting a public bank in every state as one of “Five Economic Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For.” The piece led to some interesting discussions, including this response that Mr. Myerson’s suggestions were actually conservative reforms — and that the state-owned bank was responsible for there being more small-business loans in North Dakota than in neighboring states. . . .

[P]ublic banking advocates point most hopefully to efforts in Vermont. Last week, 15 Vermont towns passed resolutions urging the state legislature to establish a public bank. It could be very beneficial to the small community banks and the state. Even big cities could do this . . ..


North Dakota, Vermont -- why not a "City of Iowa City Fascist Economy Public Bank"? How about it Councillors?
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1 comment:

Burns H Weston said...

Bravo, Nick.

You could not be more on point. A fascist national economy -- indeed, a fascist global economy -- is what we have. Call it "corporatism" or "deregulated" or "neoliberal" capitalism if you wish. But a State/Market duopoly that favors the military-industrial complex President Eisenhower warned against to the severe sacrifice of economic, environmental, and other human rights values sure looks and walks like a fascist duck to me.

All best,

Burns