February, as we all know, is that dark, dreary month we must endure before March brings its promise of better times. Its the month where we celebrate dead presidents and the forecasting abilities of certain mammals. It is also the month we celebrate romance in the form of flowers, candy and cards.
In Oregon, St. Valentines Day has a special meaning. Here, some of our wealthiest corporations hand out their valentines not only expressing their love for us, but telling us very specifically how we should show our love in return.
Take, for example, Intel. They asked us to show our love by extending the tax break we gave them six years ago while we were partying like it was 1999. Washington County and Hillsboro took advantage of the Strategic Investment Program to cap Intels tax to the first $100 million invested. When that magic number is hit, the tax man closes his book and Intel is free to enjoy those uncollected taxes. Now, four years before the sweetheart deal runs out, the worlds largest chip-makers want to extend the deal to 2025.
What do we get in return? Well, our valentine gets a little coy on that point. They did build a $2 billion plant in Hillsboro and now employ around 15,000 workers in Washington County. But for the future, the coquettish firm will only drop hints about $25 billion in investments being made here if we whisper the right sweet nothings in their ear. And should we balk, well, Intel will always have New Mexico or Ireland or someother place looking for a quick fix.
Dont get me wrong. Intel isnt the only one demanding we keep their dance card filled or they will go elsewhere. Nikes reaction to Beaverton Mayor Rob Drakes suggestion that the area around Nike be incorporated into his suburban burg brought down the wrath of the swoosh. The Nike spin doctors kicked into overtime.
The list of demanding corporations is too long for the space allotted to this column. So too is the list of lawmakers willing to contort themselves to keep these corporate valentines happy. For over a decade now, government has been chanting the mantra that only communities willing to compete and compete to win will survive in this new global economy. Over the past decade, our lawmakers, in the name of enticing new jobs to Oregon or keeping the few good jobs we have here, have been willing to dismantle our ability to govern for all Oregonians. As the old saying goes, if all you can see is sky above you and dirt on all four sides, its probably time to stop digging.
It wont be easy scrambling out of that hole. The nature of work under this form of hyper-capitalism changes almost too quickly to register. Two decades ago, entire factories were being shut down and rebuilt overseas. Then came the high tech industry, the hope and glory of the new economy. At first, it was only the lowest positions that were sent overseas. Now, it is engineers, programmers and other upper echelon jobs that are being sent overseas to places like China, Czechoslovakia or Singapore. While it is in the political interest of these companies to keep some sort of U.S. presence, that presence will be just enough to allow the corporations to exercise their clout in the halls of Congress and in state legislatures.
So what should we do about our abusive valentines? Well, as any counselor will tell you, the first step is get to a safe place. That wont be easy. So long as we are entangled in the capitalist system, we can never fully get free from the corporate grasp. We can, however, try to even up the playing field.
One way to do so is to sever the close ties between lawmakers and corporations. New city commissioner Sam Adams has proposed an ordinance that would require stronger tracking of lobbyists expenditures. Casting a light on what lobbyists are spending and on whom they are spending it should have a chilling effect on some of the more sordid backdoor romances taking place in city hall. But thats only a start.
We need to eliminate revolving doors that offer highly placed bureaucrats comfortable jobs as lobbyists or consultants to the very people they use to manage. One former Portland Water Bureau head moved on to a national consulting firm that has kept him busy advocating for expensive water projects.
We also need to shut off the flow of corporate dollars into campaign coffers. Whether that is through publicly financed elections, restrictions on contributions or some other tactic for stopping the defilement of our political process, we must try.
It may just be the end of a 12-year administration, but there is a sense that more people even some of our elected officials recognize that there must be change. The challenge is building the grassroots capacity to pry open those doors that have been closed to us for so long, giving the halls of our government a much-needed airing. It is possible if we are willing to take this struggle to the ballot box, the court house and the streets. If we do, we may be celebrating a very different St. Valentines Day in the future.
The Portland Alliance
2807 SE Stark Portland,OR 97214
Last Updated: April 3, 2005