For many cities with a significant homeless population, a lot of money, time, and effort goes into compelling them to move along. Various methods have been deployed, from spikes embedded in the sidewalk where homeless folks might take shelter from the elements, to the intermittent waterfall that a church in San Francisco built over its doors in order to flush out the people trying to sleep there at night (“…as we forgive those who trespass against us…”). Sending the homeless away doesn’t end homelessness. All it does is placate people like Washington State senator Mark Miloscia (R), who recently spoke against Seattle’s decision to show greater tolerance for its homeless people. “This is lawlessness!” he said, “I believe it will attract tens of thousands of people to our state, and our jungles will get even worse.”
Seattle’s homeless population is growing. At first, the city council dealt with the problem aggressively, by forcibly clearing homeless encampments like the one along Interstate 5 where a homeless man was killed when a car veered off the freeway and into an illegal campsite. When attempts to scatter homeless camps were met by protests and backlash, Seattle backed down. Instead, there is a growing recognition that people, being part of the physical world, must be somewhere, and that it is better to treat the root cause of homelessness rather than sweeping the people out of sight and out of mind. Attending to the needs of the homeless means programs to place them in permanent housing, but it also includes services like municipal garbage pickup at known homeless encampments. Helping people help themselves by providing a clean and safe area to camp and a way to move into a more stable situation will go a long way towards dealing humanely with the lawlessness of daring to keep living when one has nowhere to live.
While people like Mark Miloscia worry about how to pay for benefits for a possible influx of homeless people who are seeking a better life, his fellow fiscal “conservatives” often seem to be competing amongst themselves to see which of their cities will bend over the furthest to cut taxes and offer other incentives to attract businesses like Boeing, Alcoa, and Nissan. These sweetheart deals can cost taxpayers billions in lost tax revenue that could have gone a long way towards projects like housing assistance for the homeless, but they become enhancements to shareholder value instead. In return, businesses are trusted to provide jobs for constituents, hopefully with the kind of wages that can jump start the local economy. In reality, though, these jobs don’t always appear, and the wink-and-a-nod promises to provide them are not enforced. That’s how taxpayers can end up subsidizing companies to the tune of millions of dollars for each new job provided. Good Jobs First, a watchdog organization that tracks subsidies provided to companies in exchange for promised jobs, released a report detailing some of the most egregious offenders, such as a 2009 deal where Apple received a subsidy of $320,700,000 to bring 50 jobs to North Carolina (that’s over $6 million per job) and shoe giant Nike was provided with over $2 billion by the taxpayers of Oregon in 2012 in exchange for 500 jobs (over $4 million per job). It sort of makes you wish they’d cut out the middleman and invest in a Universal Basic Income directly, doesn’t it?
When these large, subsidized companies suck up benefits and either don’t provide sufficient jobs or even actively outsource them to other countries, that erodes the tax base. Then we end up with situations like Ireland is facing. Ireland had decided to offer the sweetest tax rates to attract companies from all over the world, with the hopes that the wealth would trickle down like foam on the side of a mug of Guinness. Instead, what they ended up with was crumbling infrastructure, child poverty, and lawlessness, as companies swallowed up all that the Irish offered and blackmailed them for more. Earlier this year, Ireland had to consider whether to bill Apple for $14 billion of unpaid back taxes (yes, even after receiving the sweet deal of 0.005 percent tax). If they collected, they could shore up the needs of their people, but the businesses would leave for the next country that volunteered itself as a sacrificial victim to ensure higher corporate profits. And if they declined, Apple and other corporations would stay, further reducing the ability of the Irish to escape the austerity trap.
One need not go as far as Ireland to see this principle at work. One current flag-waving All-American example is none other than Donald J. Trump, whose businesses were built with a heaping helping of sweet, sweet government subsidies, yet who bragged that paying no taxes (as was his tacit admission at the first presidential debate) was “smart.” I wonder how many Trump supporters feel that he understands their economic distress when it’s people like him who cause it in the first place?
It seems like which end of the economic spectrum one prefers to see devolve into a kind of lawlessness depends upon one’s politics. The lawlessness of the homeless camps, where people sleep in tents, urinate outside, and panhandle? Or the lawlessness of corporate subsidies and global tax havens, which create the kind of economic conditions that produce more homeless people? The choice is yours, so vote wisely. As for me, I’d rather have the homeless. They seem likelier to look out for each other, and the trickle-down coming from their camps is far less damaging.