It is a commonly held view that progressive political candidates are not pro-business, and that pro-business political candidates are not progressive. I reject this paradigm. Indeed, I consider myself to be a progressive candidate that is pro-business.
Many progressive priorities (e.g., a strong middle class, an increase in the minimum wage, well-funded public schools, a social safety net, etc.) require a robust industrial sector. Business generates the jobs and tax revenues that make these progressive values attainable. It is also the case that industry benefits from many progressive endeavors -- strong public schools, transit, housing, worker training programs, etc. In many policy areas (yes, there are exceptions), business priorities and progressive priorities can be reinforcing, not antagonistic.
The ideologically reflexive tendency of each side to espouse positions opposed to the other side’s interest often leads to inferior policy positions. Indeed, there are a number of areas where I believe that stereotypical liberal policy should be replaced by more business-oriented policy. I strongly support Seattle’s $15/hour minimum wage, and yet I support a more conservative approach to implementation (e.g., do not include franchises as big business; include tips as income; etc.). This would decrease the probability of lawsuits, and increase the odds of success. The primary objective of the minimum wage increase should be to implement landmark reform in a pragmatic manner that works effectively; not to extract every possible concession from business owners. Another area where there are opportunities to support industry is regulatory streamlining (consolidated regulatory compliance, concurrent rather than sequential permitting, etc.). And it is important to pass a state transportation plan to provide the infrastructure necessary to support commerce. I support some educational reforms that are consistent with business needs (e.g., acknowledging the importance of vocational options for high school students, increasing STEM curriculum emphasis). Pursuing strategies to improve the efficiency of state government (e.g., zero-based budgeting, expanded use of performance auditing, etc.) to enable business taxes to remain low is also important. In each of these areas, I support policy that favors economic development rather than fealty to liberal principles.
This being said, there are also critical areas where the pendulum has moved too far in the interest of industry, and in ways that are detrimental to society. Middle class incomes have stagnated for decades, while the income of the top stratum has skyrocketed. The Seattle Times’ Jon Talton, noting that the ratio of CEO to worker pay has risen from (roughly) 30:1 in 1978 to 300:1 in 2013, laments that “much of big business became unmoored from the common good.”1 This combination of stagnating middle class wages and enormous increases in pay for top earners has led to tremendous income inequalities. According to economist Thomas Piketty, income inequalities in the U.S. are higher now than they’ve been for any society in human history.2 These income inequalities are not an innocuous, academic concern; instead, many commentators (e.g., David Cay Johnston)3 believe that they threaten the stability of our democracy. Massive income inequalities contribute to health care outcomes that increasingly vary by zip code, the perpetuation of educational achievement gaps between ethnic groups, and a contraction in access to society’s democratic institutions.
Another area where business has obtained excessive influence is via tax breaks. Thousands of corporations in Washington State take advantage of tax breaks worth tens of billions of dollars each biennium. In many cases, these are unjust. Tax breaks effectively allow companies to transfer their tax responsibility to other companies and/or to citizens. Boeing’s 2013 $8.7 Billion tax break (the largest in U.S. history) represents a $1,250 payment from every citizen in Washington State to the Boeing Corporation. I am not opposed to Boeing – indeed, I acknowledge the importance of its work, and support its ongoing success. However, I do believe that it (like all other corporations) should be required to pay its share of the costs that society incurs to provide the services that it needs to thrive (e.g., a well-educated workforce, transportation infrastructure, public safety, etc.). Corporate tax breaks also increase income inequalities, and lead to increased corporate (and less citizen) influence in the political system. Moreover, as more and more corporations seek tax breaks and states increasingly compete to attract corporate facilities based on the provision of these tax breaks, a “race to the bottom” ensues. Corporate assets are relocated based on factors unrelated to economic fundamentals, and in the process, there is a societal shift of the tax burden from large corporations to small companies and citizens. This is exactly what a nation plagued by income inequalities does not need.
One of my legislative priorities is to repeal many of these tax breaks in Washington State. This will begin to address the problems of income inequalities and excessive corporate influence in our political system, as well as provide much-needed revenue for our K-12 education system. This agenda leads some to interpret my candidacy as not being supportive of business. I strongly disagree with this assessment. In fact, I argue that a more robust, inclusive democracy with lower income inequalities, less tax inequity, and a better-funded public education system will be in the long term interest of industry itself. Companies should be assisted by the public sector through the funding and provision of the societal endeavors that support them – education, roads, public safety, etc. – not by tax reduction gifts that lead to zero improvement in underlying economic fundamentals.
In summary, I consider myself to be a progressive candidate, and a pro-business candidate, and I see these as reinforcing rather than antithetical. Societal prosperity requires a balance between its constituent components. When the system becomes imbalanced (as it has in the U.S. over the past several decades), it is imperative to take steps to restore this balance. Doing so is a focus of my candidacy. Some argue that this approach is naïve. I argue the opposite: the belief that our society will continue to enjoy enduring prosperity without addressing its glaring macro-level challenges is naïve.
- John Stafford
1. Jon Talton, Seattle Times Editorial, “High Cost of Soaring Executive Pay,” June 22, 2014.
2. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
3. David Cay Johnston, Divided: The Perils of our Growing Inequality.