Plutocratic Scheming Preserves Inequality

By Gary Schulenberg, Member

Let’s look at the “plutes” of this country (plutocracy – power/rule by the wealthy). Examples of their influence abound. Whether it be tax cuts or dodges for the “0.1%,” the college admission scandal (Felicity Huffman), the buying of justice (Jeffrey Epstein, let us count the ways these exclusive and elusive groups legally or not, increase their power.

Sometimes it’s the flick of a pen that changes the financial landscape. For example, stock buybacks were illegal before 1982, being seen as stock manipulation. Now they’re the rage, making money for CEOs and enhancing their obscene compensations and golden parachutes.

Both the old money and the nouveau riche employ some slick and cunning tactics to enhance their positions. All done with a smile or expressions of righteous indignation when called for.

Public relations looms large in their plutocratic scheming. Tout the stock market climbs and low unemployment but ignore staggering student debt, health-induced bankruptcies, rising child poverty and homelessness. Sing the praises of technology’s supposed propensity to foster free speech but suppress the intrusiveness of data collection and tech’s monopolistic maneuvering. Ad nauseam lying, propaganda and rhetorical fallacies are all benchmarks for the plutes.

The perverse use of philanthropy is another shrewd calculation. Millions of dollars do flow into worthwhile entities but let’s check the motivation behind them. Is the donation a mea culpa for past injustices, ignoring that the exploitation of workers or the public was the source of the funds?

While we can point to many examples of the above on larger stages, we may have a local practitioners of these savvy approaches. Read the following and decide for yourself.

Let’s examine the case of Jon Williams, who is a demolition and environmental contractor and real estate developer. He, along with his wife Heather, also sponsors and heads the OSC Charitable Foundation and sits on the boards of other foundations.

The public relations image that Williams portrays is that of a “green” businessman.

He created a company, Viridi Parente, that makes battery packs to power construction equipment to build “green machines”. His company, Ontario Speciality Contracting (OSC) works for the petroleum and chemical industries. OSC is involved in the demolition and remediation of polluted sites, thus cleaning up the environment.

These supposed “green” activities may be part and parcel of shrewd maneuvers to execute a corporate phenomenon called “greenwashing”. This involves a series of deceptive practices that convey a false impression and utilizes misleading information that a company/corporation is “green”. The business in question is in fact, environmentally unfriendly.

Williams’ “green” characterization is tainted by a number of facts. OSC is involved in the fracking industry that has its own ecological baggage. While Williams purchased the PCB laden GM/American Axle Plant on East Delevan over a decade ago, he only recently moved forward with the New York State Brownfield Cleanup Program process (BCP) for the site. He was quoted as saying “I’m not going to take responsibility for what GM did forever.” “Green?” This was done as he sought to purchase Tonawanda Coke.

What is the cost of “green’”? The financial foundation for his company Viridi Parente was based on millions of dollars in government subsidies and investments. OSC’s remediation of the Buffalo Color site was partially funded by $6.6 million worth of brownfield cleanup (BCP) tax credits, with some help from Honeywell, which poisoned the land. Keep in mind the tax credits from the BCP are NYS tax money that is not collected. This is especially pertinent when we confront the need for state revenues with projected multi-billion deficits. Is all this “green” hue part of a PR campaign and/or an element of the “shiny thing syndrome?

On to philanthropy and various types of contributions. Williams established OSC Charitable Foundation which has assisted dozens of worthy causes. He is also a member of a number of boards for other charities. These seemingly good works are laudable but how much does PR play a part in the motivation? Are these charities part of legacy shaping? Are the donations meant to distract us so it can be “business as usual”? How much of these contributions are from revenues raised due to the availability of government monies and questionable business ventures? Williams is an equal opportunity political donor. Are donations a “grease the wheels” tactic? Is it “green” to be the number one contributor from WNY to our chief climate change denier, the President?

Let’s not ignore the huge array of tax write-offs that can be employed. Philanthropy has become a financial tool for the wealthy. A vast array of laws lessen income, estate, and capital gains taxes for the elites. One only needs to look at the inequality in tax rates on capital gains (pro-wealthy) and regular income (most of us). The general public can’t avail themselves to such financial devices as Donor-Advised Funds or use carried interest tax loopholes, but those of means might.

All of this does not mean that the making of money is inherently evil. But if the wealth is accumulated through the exploitation of others, there is active participation in a corrupt system, and there exists suspect motives in philanthropic practices, then ethical and moral questions abound.

All of these things are of paramount importance as we confront the issues connected to the cleanup costs and remediation of the infamous Tonawanda Coke site, which Williams recently purchased. Is it going to be business as usual or are we going to stand against the corporate welfare of the past?

We call upon our state government to demand that Tonawanda Coke be designated a federal Superfund site. In doing so, Honeywell, the liable party is held accountable. WNY residents have had to bear the burden of corporate irresponsibility and New York taxpayers need to end these bailouts. Environmental justice needs to be the paradigm for the remediation and protection of our neighborhoods and communities.

A portion of this blog post is re-posted from the Buffalo News Letter to the Editor

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