Stimulus 101: The U.S. Economy Depends on Large Corporations

Why “Big Business vs. The People” is a Misleading Narrative—Now More Than Ever

April 16, 2020

Weeks have passed since President Trump signed a $2 trillion package to stimulate our pandemic-stricken economy, but the critics are not going away.

New York Daily News columnist Gerald Scorse recently called the stimulus a “bonanza for well-off retirees.” USA Today’s Christopher Elliott, meanwhile, criticized the travel industry for “lin[ing] up at the trough for government handouts,” which, in his words, represents the “height of corporate arrogance.”

Simmering to the surface (once again) is an age-old dichotomy in American politics: “Big business” versus “the people.” The “haves” versus the “have-nots”!

According to those like Elliott and Scorse, the large corporation—a faceless, heartless monolith—is out to get the little man or woman for the sake of profit. (Ironically, business skeptics rarely see the federal government as this faceless, heartless entity.) In their eyes, the bottom line pits the power-hungry, money-obsessed CEO in that smoke-filled cigar lounge against the interests of the everyday American trying to make ends meet, from the minimum-wage McDonald’s employee to the single mother working two jobs.

However, this worldview projects a lack of nuance as much as skepticism. While business skeptics may see the U.S. economy as a duality of competing interests—“haves” and “have-nots”—the economic reality is one of mutual dependence. Large corporations need employees and customers to run a profit and grow (e.g. produce), while employees and customers need those businesses to provide.

How powerful are “corporate interests” without the thousands of employees working for them, or customers relying on them?

Which brings us back to the stimulus package. It didn’t take long for the bill to be signed before its critics sensed a “corporate bailout” that did little to help Americans in need. Some critics even argued the stimulus “[treats] corporations like people and people like things.”

But what is a large corporation if not a collection of individuals working towards a common business interest? The business entity itself is not a sentient being, but it wouldn’t exist without the contributions of countless individuals—from the entrepreneur to the employees—each filling their own roles.

In scapegoating the large corporation, business skeptics are clever with their framing. They are quick to use apples-to-oranges comparisons that fit preconceived notions about corporate no-goodery. For example, when large corporations receive government assistance, it is widely described as a “$500 billion fund”—if not a “slush fund.” Yet, when individuals receive $560 billion in direct cash and extra unemployment payments, it’s generally referenced in dollar amounts—$1,200 per individual or $600 more per week in unemployment.

The reader’s first instinct is to compare “$500 billion for Big Business” and “$1,200 for individuals.” It’s a subtle framing trick, but one that goes a long way in maximizing corporate handouts and minimizing individual ones. Similarly, business skeptics are generally slow to acknowledge the sheer number of individual beneficiaries receiving direct cash payments (more than 80 million people), since that would frame everyday Americans—and not Big Business—as the monolith. No bueno.

This is not to say that individuals should receive more or less from the government, but business skeptics know what they’re doing linguistically: They’re indoctrinating anti-corporate dualism.

Secondly and more importantly, business skeptics assume mutual exclusivity when corporate and individual interests are not necessarily at odds with each other. Take Boeing, which has gained access to a $17 billion federal loan provision for businesses “critical to maintaining national security.” In many corners, that $17 billion is perceived as a handout to defense executives and lobbyists operating in Washington, D.C.’s dark underbelly.

But aerospace companies like Boeing aren’t just faceless, heartless monoliths; they are employers. Let me repeat: They are employers, upon whom tens of thousands of Americans depend directly. Boeing employs more than 160,000 workers around the world, most of them in the United States. Many of these employees earn middle-class incomes—far removed from the darkest corners of Beltway lobbying.

Indeed, the average salary for a Boeing employee is $86,000. Yet, when Boeing receives stimulus dollars, it’s rarely the face of a middle-class worker that we see. It’s rarely the hearts of those who depend on that worker for financial security.

These people are staring into the coronavirus abyss: As of late March, Boeing shares were down by about 70 percent year-to-date, with its stock price dropping below $100 for the first time since 2013. The company is now considering a 10 percent cut to its workforce. Last month, General Electric—a major Boeing supplier—decided to lay off 10 percent of its jet-engine business, due to the pandemic. “Ten percent” may not seem like much, but it translates to thousands and thousands of jobs and financial security that is invaluable.

If an economic stimulus could presumably help the employees of a large corporation, why is that lost in the shuffle? Why is it immediately assumed that the C-suite will make out like bandits—at the expense of “the rest”?

Is America home to corporate malpractice? Absolutely. Are some CEOs bad actors? Of course. Will Boeing use every cent of its stimulus dollars to save jobs and help workers? No.

But to blindly assume companies like this one won’t help employees up and down the corporate ladder is exactly that—blind. What good do blind assumptions do for Boeing employees—or any others—faced with job insecurity?

Alas, too many of today’s discussions and debates lack nuance. What we should agree on is this: Millions of Americans are struggling, whether they work for themselves, a small business, or that large corporation. Now is not the time to cast aspersions.

Now is not the time to scapegoat “Big Business,” no matter how skeptical you are.

Luka Ladan is the President and CEO of Zenica Public Relations and a Catalyst Policy Fellow. Prior to founding Zenica, Ladan served as Communications Director at a leading public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.
Catalyst articles by Luka Ladan