Big Business to Planet and People: Drop Dead. Damply.
Wreathed in smoke and shrouded in torrential rain, all the name-brand corporations choose nihilism at a crucial moment
I was in New York City last night, and the Niagara of rain was like nothing I’d ever seen. Nor, for that matter, had anyone else: Central Park broke the record for its rainiest hour ever (a record it set…eleven days earlier). The National Weather Service called it a 1-in-500-year-event—so, maybe back in 1521. It did hideous damage throughout the region: this morning the governor of New Jersey was touring tornado wreckage in the Garden State, and the early tally shows at least 14 deaths. This was the same burst of chaotic energy that smashed Louisiana three days before; meanwhile, a continent away the same underlying physics has desiccated the West, and now Tahoe is a windshift away from conflagration.
Against this violent-but-predictable backdrop came violent-but-predictable news: America’s largest corporations have decided to fight the one real effort to do anything about it. It is the most nihilistic decision that Apple and Exxon and Walmart and Pfizer and Disney and FedEx and Lowes and the rest may ever have taken: to keep their tax rate a few points lower they’re willing to sacrifice a working future. If that sounds dramatic, let me explain.
The $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill that the Biden administration and Senate Democrats have put forward is the embodiment of their effort to rescue the country from its deep economic inequality and from the climate crisis. (The much-smaller “bipartisan” bill was predictably larded with presents for Big Oil). It doesn’t matter if you’d like something else instead (a carbon tax, say); this $3.5 trillion package is it. As the veteran energy analyst Dave Roberts wrote recently, “when it comes to decent climate policy, it’s all about the reconciliation bill. There won’t be another bill this big while Democrats control Congress, and they won’t control Congress for long. What Democrats are able to get through in the reconciliation bill is likely to be the last big federal climate legislation for a decade at least.”
In fact, it’s bigger even than that. If the bill doesn’t pass this autumn, then America goes empty-handed in November to the most important global climate meeting since Paris, and the chances of increasing anyone else’s ambition to meet the targets scientists say we must will be nil. You could say it’s a watershed—and given the rain pounding down outside my window that would not be a cliché.
It will cost money, obviously, to retrofit all those buildings and build all those charging stations—and so the bill reverses Trump’s cuts in the corporate tax rate and sets it at 28%, which is still well below the 32% average of the last century. In return, companies get a fighting chance at a working world where, you know, they could continue to sell us stuff for the next few decades. And you get a somewhat fairer country that might stop tearing itself apart at the seams—also, one would think, a long-term plus for business.
So you might have expected the largest corporations to swallow hard and decide it was in their interest. Exxon, obviously, won’t—anything that hastens the end of the fossil fuel age is anathema. But Apple and Disney and most of the rest of the Fortune 500 have been explaining to us for years that that climate change is the worst problem on earth: Apple’s environmental slogan is “Earth Won’t Wait—and Neither Will We.” They boast, for instance, that Siri runs on 100% clean energy. And supposedly they’ve taken such steps in the name of justice: “Communities of color around the world often bear the greatest impact of climate change,” the company’s website intones. “But environmental solutions can help advance equity for these communities.” That’s true—if you asked Siri, maybe she’d explain that that’s why the reconciliation bill would direct 40 percent of its spending towards disadvantaged communities.
Nothing Apple or any of these others will do in their own operations is as important as what they’re doing in DC. Yes, it would be nice if everyone’s fleet of delivery trucks ran on electricity, but the real damage is being done by their fleets of lobbyists and admen. By the time the Chamber of Commerce and the other trade groups are done running 30-second spots, a robust reconciliation bill (already hard, since it requires bringing on board Prime Minister Manchin of West Virginia) may well be impossible. As the Washington Post politely put it, “the political task could prove all the more complicated if the party’s candidates have to weather a well-funded deluge of critical advertisements, particularly from angry corporate interests that hope to end Democrats’ majorities in Congress.”
Business has to choose: Mitch McConnell’s world or Joe Biden’s. And they’ve made their preference clear. Their greenwashing ads are, in a word, lies; they do not mean to help the world if it interferes in any way with their most short-term self-interest. The richest and most powerful men and women in the world are willing to trash that world if it means a few points on their tax rate. Yes, it’s short-sighted: the infrastructure of the city that houses their cash in its digital vaults buckled last night, as water poured out of drains and cascaded down subway tunnels. But short-sightedness has come to distinguish capitalism; they seem unable to help themselves.
The rest of us—who have only our future, not our tax bills, at stake—need to try and muster as much energy as these corporations. It may seem like an impossible task: the valiant Call4Climate campaign has been rallying businesses too, but Clif Bar and Aveda may not be able to take on the National Association of Manufacturers by themselves. Bernie Sanders—whose campaigns ultimately inspired Biden’s $3.5 trillion bill, showing that there was widespread appetite for real change—told the Post he was hopeful. “These guys don’t lose,” Sanders said when asked about the expected lobbying barrage. “They’re going to lose this round.” But only if the rest of us do all we can.