Give Money to Workers, Not Billionaires

Socialist legislator Lee Carter on why what currently passes for "economic development" in states like Virginia is actually just a massive giveaway to corporations — and why we should promote worker co-ops instead.

Lee Carter speaks at a rally in February 2017 in Washington, DC. Blink O'fanaye / Flickr

“Economic development.” As a socialist elected to public office, no other phrase gives me more heartburn.

For pro-business politicians of both major parties, announcing an economic development project is an easy political move. Bipartisan support is almost guaranteed, and unanimous praise from the media surely follows, so they practically elbow each other out of the way to get in front of the camera at one of these announcements. Filled with feel-good phrases like “new jobs” and “billions in investment,” it’s certainly easy to see why.

But the flowery language covers up the cold reality: conventional economic development often destroys communities and impoverishes families by reshaping places to be more palatable to affluent transplants.

So when I got an email recently from the office of Virginia Democratic governor Ralph Northam, asking if I wanted to participate in a “major economic development announcement” in my district, my heart sank. I knew instantly that I would have to be the ice water on the bonfire of ecstatic politicians and effusive headlines.

The deal in this case is a textbook example of conventional economic development, so you can pretty much copy-paste this critique and apply it to thousands of similar deals made in every state each year. Micron Technology Inc., which makes semiconductors, made it known to several states that it had plans to increase production. Virginia was naturally included since my home city of Manassas is the site of one of Micron’s major existing plants. The expansion, the company said, would cost approximately $3 billion and would employ 1,100 additional permanent workers when all was said and done. Who could possibly pass on those kinds of numbers?

Certainly not Governor Northam. We don’t know, and possibly never will know, what other states offered, but Virginia’s bid included $300 million in state grants and tax incentives — a full 10 percent of the cost of the entire project — with additional money provided by the city of Manassas. That money isn’t make or break for Micron — they recently bought back $10 billion worth of their own stock. It’s strictly a bribe to some of the wealthiest investors on the planet to come to Virginia — to the tune of nearly $275,000 per job.

As for the effects of this kind of project, those 1,100 jobs will go to 1,100 new — and likely already affluent — professionals who will move into the area. Home prices can be expected to increase, and so will rent for the 38 percent of Manassas residents who don’t own their own homes. Workers in Manasass won’t see any of the benefits. This “economic development” deal is just an engine to turbocharge the process of gentrification that’s been going on in Manassas for over a decade.

So how could we do more good for Manassas with that $300 million? It’s almost impossible to do worse than the current plan, but ideally that money could be used for training and startup funding for hundreds of worker cooperatives throughout the state. Thousands of Virginians could be empowered to not only have a well-paying job, but to be a worker-owner.

This growth would be controlled by the people, rather than rich executives, and could take place across a variety of industries, from food service and home care to construction and small-scale manufacturing. And government funding for workers’ self-directed enterprise isn’t without precedent. It’s been tremendously successful in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna.

We have it within our power to make economic development work for working people. We can begin building community wealth rather than gentrifying our neighborhoods to satisfy billionaires. But it won’t happen by chance. It will take voices like mine in state legislatures throughout the US, and public pressure from millions of organized, working people. And while even that won’t end capital’s control of the economy, it’s a mighty fine place to start.