Bernie Sanders vs. Corporate America: The Three-Round Showdown on Financial Responsibility

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Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee? Not exactly, but Bernie hasn’t been shy about mixing it up with various high-profile CEOs. (Image retrieved from twitchy.com/dougp-3137.)

If there’s one thing Bernie Sanders has succeeded in doing this election cycle, it’s pissing people off. The wealth of amateur economists and financial experts opining in “Comments” section of news websites and on social media who apparently think Sanders is a flaming idiot who hates America, doesn’t understand simple math, and wants to tax you to the point you are forced to live in a cardboard box on the street, or at least a more stately cardboard duplex with a communal cardboard pool. The Clinton supporters who think Bernie should have never been in the race, should stop attacking her candidate, and should get off his unicorn and accept the cold, hard realities of pragmatism. Those social critics who would depict Sanders as an enemy of capitalism, coal, innovation, Israel, the media, Newtown, CT, poor white people, Wall Street, women, and somehow, both the world’s rich and the world’s poor. Indeed, for all the goodwill Bernie Sanders has built up among scores of young voters and those who have sought a non-Clintonian path to the Democratic Party’s renaissance, the democratic socialist secular Jew has inspired his fair share of antipathy over the past year and change.

One particular group which has drawn the ire of Bernie and his faithful, and which has responded to his criticisms in kind, is that of corporate executives, particularly those of General Electric Company, Verizon Communications, Inc., and the Walt Disney Company. By now, you understand I am an avid supporter of the senator from Vermont (if you don’t fully comprehend this, just take a gander at this other piece I wrote for United States of Joe; please—I could use the views), so I can’t really be considered an unbiased judge in the war of words that has manifested between the two opposing sides. I will thus present their arguments to you—the members of the general public—and let you decide their merits. So, without further ado—and not adieu, because that makes no bleeping sense—let us have our debate. Grab your scorecards—this could get moderately interesting.

Round 1: Bernie Sanders vs. Jeffrey R. Immelt, General Electric CEO

In the blue corner, we have the Bruiser from Brooklyn, the Fighting Father of Free Tuition, the Rabble-Rouser of Raging Against the MachineBernard “Bernie” Sanders!

Sanders on GE’s taxes: “From 2008 to 2013, while GE made over $33.9 billion in United States profits, it received a total tax refund of more than $2.9 billion from the Internal Revenue Service. G.E.’s effective U.S. corporate income tax rate over this six year period was -9 percent. In 2012, GE stashed $108 billion in offshore tax havens to avoid paying income taxes. If this practice were outlawed, GE would have paid $37.8 billion in federal income taxes that year.”

Sanders on GE’s outsourcing: “GE has been a leader in outsourcing decent paying jobs to China, Mexico and other low-wage countries.”

Sanders on Immelt’s compensation: “Mr. Immelt has a retirement account at General Electric worth an estimated $59 million and made $19 million in total compensation last year.”

And in the red corner, we have the Scrapper from Cincinnati, the Charging Chairman, the Jabbing Jouster of the “House that Jack Built”—Jeffrey Robert “Jeff” Immelt!

Immelt, in response to Sanders: “GE has been in business for 124 years, and we’ve never been a big hit with socialists. We create wealth and jobs, instead of just calling for them in speeches. We take risks, invest, innovate and produce in ways that today sustain 125,000 U.S. jobs. Our engineers innovate every day to build hardware and software solutions that meet real-world challenges. Our employees are proud of our company. I meet second- and third-generation employees whenever I travel across the country. I am one myself. Our suppliers and partners are proud of our company. Our communities are proud of our company. Our pride, history and hard work are real — the moral fabric of America.”

Round 1 Analysis: Ooh—going after the socialism angle—low blow, Jeff! Sanders’ charge that GE doesn’t pay any taxes has been judged to be somewhat overblown. According to this piece from Megan McArdle in The Atlantic, General Electric does, in fact, pay estimated taxes, though it may be hard to prove based on the wealth of information the company’s financial returns entail. Meanwhile, this post from David Cay Johnston of Reuters argues that General Electric has actually been paying higher taxes outside the U.S., and as such, something other than tax policy is driving the company’s multinational business strategy, though Johnston does note GE pays an awful lot of people an awful lot of money to lobby Congress with respect to corporate tax law. Then again, this confusing back-and-forth review penned by Henry Blodget for Business Insider, which navigates opposing accounts of the firm’s tax bill from New York Times editor Bill Keller and GE’s own Public Affairs department, suggests the latter may just be full of spin, to put it mildly.

Hmm, some punches have been thrown, but no knockouts. Let’s go to Round 2 and see what the action holds for us.

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“Sure, we have no problem following tax laws. That’s why we spend tons of money trying to rewrite them!” (Image retrieved from forbes.com.)

Round 2: Bernie Sanders vs. Lowell C. McAdam, Verizon Communications CEO

In the blue corner, once more, we have Bernie “Feel the Bern” Sanders! Folks, how is this septuagenarian doing it? He’s got spunk! He’s got moxie! He’s got—dare I say it—chutzpah! His fury at corporate greed is fueling his desire to fight!

Sanders, on Verizon’s taxes: Verizon, “in a given year has not paid a nickel of taxes.”

Sanders, on not doing enough for America: Verizon is not investing in American communities, particularly in the “inner cities.”

Sanders, on the conditions leading to the strike: According to Sanders, Verizon had been threatening to ship jobs overseas for those workers who did not agree to pay cuts and/or reduced benefits.

And now, in the red corner, at the spritely young age of 62, the Brawler from Buffalo, the Cornell Crusher, he believes that “better matters” and that, if you step to him, you better not miss—Lowell “The ‘C’ Stands for ‘Come at Me, Bro'” McAdam!

McAdam, on Verizon’s taxes: “His first accusation – that Verizon doesn’t pay its fair share of taxes – is just plain wrong. As our financial statements clearly show, we’ve paid more than $15.6 billion in taxes over the last two years – that’s a 35% tax rate in 2015, for anyone who’s counting.”

McAdam, on using its profits to benefit America: “In the last two years, Verizon has invested some $35 billion in infrastructure — virtually all of it in the U.S. — and paid out more than $16 billion in dividends to the millions of average Americans who invest in our stock.”

McAdam, on jobs at Verizon: “Sen. Sanders speaks of a ‘moral economy’ for America – one that respects and maintains the dignity inherent in good, middle-class jobs. He seems to think that can only happen by ignoring the transformational forces reshaping the communications industry. But nostalgia for the rotary phone era won’t save American jobs, any more than ignoring the global forces reshaping the auto industry saved the Detroit auto makers.”

Round 2 Analysis: Lowell McAdam takes Bernie Sanders’ criticisms very seriously, suggesting the Vermont senator and his rhetoric were “disconnected from reality.” Ouch. That’s a body blow, and one not unlike others leveled at him and his campaign. Once more, the judges have found that Sanders swings and misses when it comes to the claim that his target does not pay its taxes. This side-by-side analysis by David Goldman of CNN—which certainly hasn’t been biased against Sanders or anything like that this election cycle—claims that Bernie’s contention may be based on one year in particular in which Verizon paid a negative effective rate, but that this much is unclear, if not outmoded thinking. On the count of investment in America, Goldman sees Sanders’ argument as more credible; McAdam’s pointing out that Verizon has invested millions in infrastructure implies some sort of altruistic reason for this behavior, but this is the cost of doing business for them, and moreover, the telecommunications company has been criticized by people not named Bernie Sanders for being slow to expand its high-speed Internet outside of more affluent neighborhoods.

As for the whole labor dispute thing, Goldman doesn’t really take sides, but does note how Verizon has outsourced some 5,000 jobs to countries like the Dominican Republic, Mexico and the Philippines. Also, um, workers generally don’t strike without reason. For all his boasts about the company he heads, McAdam seems particularly tone-deaf on this issue, a notion supported by his annual salary which netted him about $18 million in 2015. The strike, of course, has since been ended by an agreement between the two parties, and while some provisions of the accord favor the corporation, particularly in the area of offering buyouts to employees, by and large, Verizon was deemed to be conceding on a number of key points, including job creation, pay raises, and pension cuts. In the end, disaster was avoided, but this battle presages other labor disputes which stand to erupt over bargaining power struggles between labor unions and top management. We’re going to need to go to a decisive third round.

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“Verizon employees should stop complaining about their pay and benefits. I mean, I only got $18 million in compensation last year, for Christ’s sake!” (Image Source: Verizon)

Round 3: Bernie Sanders vs. Robert Alan “Bob” Iger, Walt Disney Company CEO

In the blue corner, battered and bruised but not broken, fighting establishment politics at every turn and still standing, he could really use some of that single-payer healthcare right about now but he’s not throwing in the towel—yes, it’s Bernie Sanders!

Sanders, on Disney’s pay for its workers: “Anybody make a living wage working for Disney? It’s an example of what we’re talking about when we talk about a rigged economy. Disney pays its workers wages that are so low that many of them are forced to live in motels because they cannot afford a decent place to live.”

Sanders, on Disney’s overseas jobs and production: “It would be very nice of the Disney corporation to start building factories in the United States.”

And now in the red corner, rounding out our CEO trio, the Nasty New Yorker, the Mickey Mouse Marauder, the Jew with the Ol’ One-Two—Bob Iger!

Iger, on, well, Sanders himself: “To Bernie Sanders: We created 11,000 new jobs at Disneyland in the past decade, and our company has created 18,000 in the U.S. in the last five years. How many jobs have you created? What have you contributed to the U.S. economy?”

Round 3 Analysis: Wow—look at the Disney CEO going for Sen. Sanders with the haymaker! Unfortunately, it doesn’t really connect on Bernie’s big issue—that the Walt Disney Company doesn’t pay its employees enough. As with McAdam before him, if Iger’s compensation is any indication (upwards of $45 million), his company has the means to pony up for those who receive a Disney paycheck. Either way, it’s not really Bernie’s job to create jobs, so Bob Iger’s criticism comes off as a hollow defense of Disney’s wages. Or as Dan Van Winkle of The Mary Sue put it in the headline of a report on the Sanders/Iger war of words, “Disney CEO Bob Iger Responds to Bernie Sanders’ Criticism Like a Petulant Child.”

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“You’ve got organized labor in your corner, Bernie? Well, I’ve got Mickey f**king Mouse in mine! So suck on that, asshole!” (Photo Source: Gene Duncan/AP Photo/Disney)

Hmm, Bernie has seemingly held his own against three separate bigwig CEOs. Might this fight’s judges actually rule in his favor? With no TKO in this bout, we’ll have to sweat out the results and let them decide. OK, the final tallies are in. In a unanimous decision, the winner and still Heavyweight Champion—soulless corporations! And the crowd goes wild! AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!

But why did they win? Because they always f**king do, that’s why. In fact, I think we’re so used to corporate America winning we’ve become inured to it, or we like their products so much we rationalize that they can’t be that bad. General Electric makes those stainless steel kitchen appliances you like so much. Verizon gives you cable, Internet and phone service—not to mention disingenuous commercials with brightly-colored balls in them. And the Walt Disney Company lets you wish upon a star—as long as you don’t infringe on their intellectual property.

It’s OK that you like these things. You’re supposed to. As innovators, these companies do great work. But just because they make Pixar movies or smartphones or windmills doesn’t mean they’re above reproach. Bernie Sanders doesn’t always include the kind of specifics you’d like in his arguments against corporate greed, so his confrontational attitude toward highly-paid executives gets qualified as the ranting and raving of a bitter old man. I firmly believe, though, that GE wouldn’t hire an army of tax lawyers and specialists if they weren’t determined to pay less here in the United States, that Verizon employees wouldn’t just go on strike for shits and giggles, and that Disney has more than enough in its coffers to bump up wages and salaries just a little. For a form of organization in the corporation of which a major purpose is to limit personal liability, we should be more than just a little cautious of these businesses who exert so much influence in the financial and political worlds.

Bernie, you may not have won this contest, but the struggle continues for you and your supporters going forward. In a country in which moneyed interests have the upper hand, we, the people, may just have the last laugh.

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