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Business uber alles: Why the MetLife deal stinks

Ever get the feeling that big business interests dominate nearly all levels of American government?

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The Carolina Panthers are in effect blackmailing city and state taxpayers into paying for stadium upgrades. US Air insists it must play a major role in picking a new director for the airport, a public facility. The Charlotte Knights' new stadium is being built in Third Ward after voter-approved plans for a large, eight-acre park there were ditched in favor of a complex land-swap deal that handed goodies to various businesses. And now MetLife is coming to Charlotte after gouging nearly $100 million from city, county and state coffers.

Do you ever get the feeling that big business interests have come to dominate nearly all levels of American government? You remember "government," right? That thing that's supposed to be of the people, by the people and for the people — and not of, by and for business profits?

Wait, you say — government has always kowtowed to big business. And that's true to some extent, beginning in earnest in the 1870s when powerful industrialists bought congressmen as if they were socks. The resultant inequality and misery throughout the U.S., however, led to a countermovement and the Progressive Era, which clamped down on many harmful business practices. Afterward, the government/business power balance has swung back and forth several times. I remember the grown-ups talking excitedly in 1962 about President John Kennedy shaming the steel industry into rolling back price increases he said would hurt the economy. So, yeah, the current prostrate worship of big business by big parts of our culture hasn't always been the norm.

The MetLife deal is a good example of how much things have changed. Massive bribes, er, incentives, were arranged for MetLife to "bring" 1,300 jobs to the city (actual locals getting jobs would number no more than around 520) — and the Chamber of Commerce actually agreed to the insurance giant's "request" that they not tell the Mecklenburg County Commissioners, aka representatives of the people, about the deal until 15 minutes before needing a decision. The chamber's withholding of vital information from the commission for so long was a disgraceful distortion of what should have been an open, public process. When asked if the chamber's actions showed disrespect for the democratic process, commissioner Bill James replied, "I don't think the chamber ever respects the 'democratic process.' It's a special interest group with a certain agenda ... The chamber drives the process and they work on getting the deal set and then they just get the elected officials to rubberstamp whatever the chamber works up."

Sure enough, the chamber treated the County Commission as if that elected body was one of its subsidiaries — a subsidiary, moreover, that wouldn't mind being treated as an afterthought. The commission then proved the chamber right, by approving $2 million in property tax breaks over eight years. Soon afterward, commission chairwoman Pat Cotham and James both said they thought MetLife had already made its decision to move here before it squeezed tax breaks from them. The chamber and the McCrory administration denied that MetLife's move was a done deal before hitting up the commission, but God only knows whether to believe them or not. Now, Cotham says she wants the commission's economic development committee to properly study companies' requests for tax breaks before the whole board takes up the issue.

Sitting proudly at the center of this latest example of America's government/business interface, hereby known as the Great MetLife Gouge, is Gov. Pat McCrory. Former Mayor Pat is a classic business-servicing politician, a man who, as I wrote recently, subscribes fully to the idea that the main purpose of government is to promote commerce and increase business profits. So it wasn't a surprise that his former employer, the law firm Moore & Van Allen, recruited MetLife. Or that McCrory's tenure at Moore & Van Allen overlapped with the time period in which MetLife was being recruited. The whole episode reeks of the blurring, or rather the erasing, of the line between the world of business and the people's government. It's the same kind of coziness that lets lawmakers become lobbyists after their term in office is done. It is, pure and simple, a travesty of real democracy.

Incentives are by no means the only way business runs government these days. Others include pushing the for-profit "education reform" business (which now includes former Mecklenburg schools Superintendent Peter Gorman among its employees). But that topic will have to wait till another column.

In the meantime, let's at least hope that the County Commission does change its incentives process. That way, at least our elected commissioners won't continue to be roadkill when yet another big corporation blows through town looking for a handout.

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