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The Culture of Extortion

A young African Methodist Episcopal pastor told a group of us recently that he has determined his vocation is to “be a good ancestor.”  What a marvelous way to think about our responsibility to future generations.  And how countercultural in a world where “What’s in it for me?” is often the first and last question.  An ancestor, however, considers not just himself, or her household, but generations yet to be born and forever unknown to us.  Central to this orientation in life is the notion that life ought to be about inheriting and bequeathing, not merely consuming. It is to be profoundly communal rather than fiercely individualistic.  And it means that the world we pass on to others is literally entrusted to people we will never meet.  It is an act of faith already undertaken by ancestors who bequeathed a world to us.

Good ancestors would be helpful right now in the political and corporate worlds.  Instead we find a culture of extortion.   The current impasse in Washington is triggered by the Affordable Care Act.  Easily forgotten in all the rhetoric is the fact that the ACA will enable up to 14 million additional Americans gain health care coverage.  That number would have been a lot higher had nearly half the states not taken advantage of the loophole created by the Supreme Court allowing them to opt out of the Medicaid expansion.   In Mississippi with 13% of the population poor and uninsured, an unemployed man with income below $3,000 a year with no dependents is ineligible for Medicaid and obviously couldn’t afford to insure himself through the new exchanges even if he qualified.  As he put it, “You got to be almost dead before you can get Medicaid in Mississippi.”  Mississippi refused to participate in the Medicaid expansion.

Texas is another example.  It refused the Medicaid expansion even though it has the highest rate of uninsured people in the country, just under 25% of persons under age 65.  Massachusetts, the state that led the way in health care reform and which provided the model for the ACA, has only 4.9% uninsured.  Texas, by the way, is represented in the Senate by Ted Cruz, the Tea Party leader of the Congressional extortion racket.  Whatever he may want to claim about his intent in all of this, the impact is the denial of health care to millions of Americans including a large number of the people he represents.  Hardly a good ancestor.

Meanwhile, in Illinois corporate America is exercising its own form of extortion.  Archer Daniels Midland, the giant in agribusiness, is contemplating moving its corporate headquarters from Decatur, Illinois, to Chicago.  Some one hundred new jobs are promised for Chicago, with perhaps another hundred to be added, though job creation numbers in corporate relocation are notoriously squishy. 

But here’s the catch.  ADM is “asking” the state to provide nearly $24 million dollars in tax credits over twenty years in order to move to Chicago.  This in spite of the fact that ADM reported net sales of about $90 billion last year and in May increased dividends adding half a billion dollars to the pockets of shareholders.  As the Chief Financial Officer told the state, “When we think about relocation of our global headquarters and we think about locating a new, second technology center, we have to be mindful of our nickels and dimes.”  Some nickles and dimes!  The extortionist’s demand is clear.  Fail to say yes to our ransom note and we’ll go elsewhere – Minneapolis, Indianapolis, etc.  Twenty-four million over twenty years may not sound like much, but to the poorest public schools in Illinois watching state funding cut, or to the social service agencies heavily dependent on state funding to provide all kinds of support to our most vulnerable neighbors, the nickles and dimes are important.  Far more important, I’d suggest, than they are to ADM.  The $1.2 million a year will cover only a portion of CEO Patricia Woertz’s annual compensation package of $9.4 million.

Of course, ADM is only doing what has become common practice in corporate America, particularly in stressed economic times when states are desperate enough to accept any extortionist’s demands.  But commonplace does not a good ancestor make.  The heartless and the greedy have discovered that public extortion seems to work.  As The New York Times reported this week, right wing activists have been planning the government shut down as their last ditch effort to block the expansion of health care to millions of Americans ever since President Obama was reelected.  I don’t think it will work, but the fact that elected officials are willing to risk major economic disruption for many millions of Americans is cause for deep concern.

Are we a culture of extortionists or ancestors?  It’s a little hard to tell.  Both are present in abundant supply; who will prevail remains to be seen.  And the repercussions will be felt not simply by our children and grandchildren, but by descendants long in the distant future.

John H. Thomas
October 10, 2013

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