Is Tom Corbett a Secret Socialist?

The governor’s main economic accomplishment has been to increase the kinds of jobs that require public assistance to be viable.



Is Tom Corbett a socialist?

Crazy question, of course, for a Republican governor perhaps best known for suggesting Pennsylvania’s unemployed workers prefer receiving state benefits to actually hunkering down and finding a job. But consider two facts:

• Between January 2011 (when Corbett took office) and July of this year, the second-fastest job sector growth in Pennsylvania has been in accommodations and food service—basically low-paid hotel and restaurant jobs. The sector added 28,000 jobs during that time, second only to the health care and social assistance segment of the state economy, providing about a fifth of the state’s overall (meager) growth in jobs.

• As Alfred Lubriano detailed in Sunday’s Inquirer, about half of all non-managerial workers in the fast-food industry need public assistance to get by. The number is somewhat lower in Pennsylvania–about 42 percent–but the result is that state taxpayers still provide $204 million a year to provide food stamps, Medicaid and other forms of public assistance to fast-food employees.

Pennsylvania is far from alone, of course. According to the University of California Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, more than $7 billion per year is spent annually providing such assistance to the employees of McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast-food restaurants—a taxpayer subsidy that helps all those for-profit companies avoid the responsibility of paying their workers a living wage. (And we won’t even mention the ag subsidies which lower the cost of the food those companies prepare.)

All of which means that the Corbett economy has been successful mostly in growing the kinds of jobs that require taxpayer assistance in order to be viable.

Hurray, capitalism!

It’s been about a year now since video emerged of then-GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney telling rich supporters that he was running an uphill race because 47 percent of the country was, essentially, addicted to government assistance, too lazy to do the kind of work needed to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

“There are 47 percent who are with [President Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it,” Romney said. A year later, two things are true: That statement pretty much killed Romney’s candidacy. But it remains an essential part of the Republican Party’s overall philosophy.

That philosophy ignores two true things:

• That goods like health care, food and housing aren’t luxuries—they’re necessities for survival (especially the last two) that are a very long way from the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Republicans might as well contemptuously snort, “There are 47 percent who believe they are entitled to breathe.” It makes as much sense.

• Most people—even poor people—really are willing to work for those necessities. Often, when they do, it’s not enough. So they do the rational thing and accept help, because the imperative to survive is stronger than the disapproval of Republican millionaires who don’t know how lucky they are.

A further problem? Many, probably most, Republicans these days would be willing to end or severely curtail the kinds of safety net programs that keep McDonald’s employees alive and working—and remember, Corbett himself has attempted huge cuts to social welfare spending—yet they still resist the idea that private work itself should then pay a living wage. When fast-food workers began striking for higher wages this summer, conservatives mostly reacted incredulously—one friend of mine even reacted with pointed worry about what might happen to the cost of a Big Mac. The only responsibility of business, he wrote, is to increase profits without the use of fraud or deception.

Which means, of course, that Republicans believe society has the right to expect poor Americans to work—but that poor Americans aren’t allowed to expect much, even the ability to survive, in return. Seems like a raw deal, especially in a country as rich as ours. Tom Corbett may be an accidental socialist, but Republican socialism is never about helping the poor—it’s always about maximizing business profits.

Hurray, capitalism.


Around The Web

Be respectful of our online community and contribute to an engaging conversation. We reserve the right to ban impersonators and remove comments that contain personal attacks, threats, or profanity, or are flat-out offensive. By posting here, you are permitting Philadelphia magazine and Metro Corp. to edit and republish your comment in all media.

  • PBRs in the Fridge

    Worried that the United States is $17 trillion in debt? Radical! Unconcerned about deficits that pile up as far as the eye can see? Responsible! Unhappy about an anemic economy in which a generation of young people struggles to find full-time employment? Traitor! Content with record levels of poverty and non-employment? Moderate! Want to get rid of a law that is opposed by most Americans, decimates the economy and is patently unworkable? Crazy! Delighted at the sight of millions of Americans losing their health insurance and being demoted to part-time employment? Public-spirited!

    • NateFried


      let’s stop the conversation of accusations of a particular party and let’s just find the right answer to each and every problem. As for the war between rich and poor? Yeah… it’s actually beginning. It really really is actually beginning.

    • Joel Mathis

      Nice cut-and-past from the Power Line blog, PBRs….

    • LookAtThisIdiot

      I don’t know if your head is further up your own ass or in the right wing echochamber.

  • Josh Kruger

    This is very good.

    I find it curious that the modern American right relies almost exclusively on rhetoric and very little actual, you know, fact. As a conservative, I’m a little disheartened that these boobs are running around acting like conservatives. Again, as a conservative, I want the American capitalist economy to be competitive, strong, and diverse. This means, naturally, that I oppose a destabilizing and ever-widening gap between the highest and lowest incomes in society. Folks don’t seem to understand that the wider this gap gets the more difficult it is for the middle class and *actual* small business owners to operate (the ACA actually helps entrepreneurs live out the American dream to a large extent.) I’m baffled that the right has become a zombified, racist caricature of itself; it’s like these people have never read Burke or Mill.

    Oh, that’s right, they *haven’t.*.

  • William Voegeli

    “[M]ore than $7 billion per year is spent annually providing such
    assistance to the employees of McDonald’s, Burger King and other
    fast-food restaurants—a taxpayer subsidy that helps all those for-profit
    companies avoid the responsibility of paying their workers a living
    wage.” So if taxpayers withdraw the subsidy, the for-profit companies will step up and discharge their responsibility to pay their workers a living wage. And if they don’t discharge it, we’ll hold rallies and protests to harass and shame them into discharging it, or pass living-wage legislation to make them discharge it. In which case a public decision about what the public will do for the working poor becomes a public decision about what the employers of the working poor must do for for their workers. That this solution – A and B get together to decide what C will do to help D – is eternally appealing to A, B, and D does not make it right or workable. The reason Vetri pays its employees more than Burger King pays is not that Vetri’s management is nice and responsible, while Burger King’s is mean and irresponsible. It’s that both have made rational decisions about what they’re selling, what the customers they want to sell it to expect (with regard to both price and quality), what kind of people they need to employ to meet those expectations, how many people in the labor market are prepared to render what their business requires, and what wages they have to pay in that market to attract and retain the workers they need to operate their restaurants. It’s unlikely we’ll pass a law forcing Burger King to duplicate Vetri’s compensation model without, ultimately, making Burger King restaurants as expensive and rare as ones like Vetri.

    The same principle works in the market for housing as in the one for labor. If we decide government should do something to help the working poor have adequate housing, we can build public housing, or offer tax-subsidized rent vouchers, or impose rent control laws. If we have vouchers someone will eventually say, Why should we subsidize those landlords that avoid their responsibility to charge their tenants affordable rent? But no city has ever found a way to implement rent control laws – where, again, A and B get together to decide how C will help D – without triggering distortions in the housing market, ones that diminish the quality and quantity of housing in ways that are particularly injurious to poor people. The premise that there *is* a responsibility for employer to pay their workers a living wage, or landlords to charge their tenants affordable rent, needs to be demonstrated, not simply asserted. That demonstration needs, further, to show why such axioms are preferable to the one that says a decent society has a responsibility to care for its most vulnerable citizens, one which is most fairly discharged by taxes to which all citizens are subject, determined by elections where all citizens may vote.

  • rottonralph

    The man who I and most people consider the best Mayor (Ed Rendell) greatly increased service jobs in Philadelphia. Most of these jobs (maids, restaurant workers, ballpark vendors) earn substantially less than that of a factory worker. Still, most liberals and conservatives would prefer having these jobs than having people collect because there is no opportunity. The fact is that we have a shortage of highly skilled, mostly tech or creative people and a surplus of lower skilled folks. Unless we can create demand for the less skilled, the present trend of pay discrepancy will continue. We need something like the German industrial policy to close the gap. This would take time and national focus. until then we will have to band aid and use subsidies to narrow the gap, whoever is governor.

  • Robert C Settle Jr

    This has been going on for decades. Wal-Mart practices the same thing. They hire new workers and keep them at eligibility levels for welfare benefits. The tax payers are paying for the workers to work in the service industry. It’s a lose-lose situation. Raising the mimunuim wage should be the answer. And I hope the democrats do not join the GOP in Harrisburg of downsizing the prevailing wage for public works contracts. That would be a sin. And the democrats better not cave in to the GOP or The Tea Party Express about cutting Social Security or Medicare. It’s time for all of us to register to vote. And vote Tuesday, November 4, 2014 to throw all the bums out!

  • William Voegeli

    To put the point another way: Burger King has a responsibility, you say, to pay its workers a living wage. How that amount will be specified is contestable, and a question impossible to settle in a way that’s not at least somewhat arbitrary. Let’s leave that problem aside for the sake of the argument and stipulate that Burger King should pay full-time employees $35,000 per year, which works out to $17.50 per hour for an employee who works 40 hours per week and 50 weeks per year. Burger King learns that one of its employees has just won the lottery, and agreed to a payout that will give him $10,000 per year for life. Is Burger King morally entitled to cut that worker’s salary to $25,000, on the grounds that it can do so and still discharge its responsibility to pay each worker a living wage?

    • Joel Mathis

      William Voegeli:Rather than offer a point-by-point reply, let me tell you, broadly, the assumptions that went into my writing here.

      While there are conservatives–like you–who concede that some form of safety net is probably here to stay, the rhetoric of the broader GOP and its Tea Party base, particularly, suggests otherwise.

      So my impression of the right in America today is that it A) believes people should work but doesn’t like seeing businesses pressured (much less regulated) into making a full-time work lucrative enough to live off of and C) would pretty much love to do away with safety net program, which are pretty much used by parasites.

      If I’m exaggerating or creating a straw man here, my apologies. I truly do not mean to.

      But the end result of those forces, as I see them, is that many Republicans are fine with the desperately poor being desperately poor so long as they’re getting what little sustenance they can from the sweat of their brow, paid for by private enterprise. I know you’re anti-compassion—aren’t you working on something to that effect?—but as I state in the piece, it seems to me that we’re a rich enough country that we shouldn’t do so.

      Now: If everybody’s happy with the idea state-sponsored subsidies that allow full-time workers (even in “low value” jobs) to pay rent, food, healthcare costs, and whatnot, then I don’t have a real problem here. But I’m not sure that’s actually the case. I don’t need McDonald’s to pay a living wage so long as somebody who puts forth the effort can reasonably be assured of one.

      • .

        “it seems to me that we’re a rich enough country” You are an idiot, plain and simple. 1. You clearly don’t even understand what socialist is, yes nobody likes Tom Corbett not even I like him but at least try and be educated on something when trying to make an argument. 2. Lol no we aren’t rich.

  • William Voegeli

    I don’t know that you’re exaggerating or creating a straw man, but what
    sounded in your column like a policy position now sounds like a debating point. If conservatives ran the world, in the ways you think they want to run the world, then McDonald’s should be forced to pay a living wage. But there’s no danger that conservatives are going to be in charge of everything anytime soon. Which means you “don’t have a real problem” since the cluster of public programs that assist the working poor is massively unlikely to be abolished, reduced, or even to have its rate of growth diminished. As I argued in “Never Enough,” constant-dollar, per-capita federal spending on welfare state programs has increased at the annual rate of 4% since World War II while GDP, measured the same way, has increased at an annual rate of 2%. Political rhetoric suggests that public policy is about whether the welfare state grows or shrinks, but the policy track record argues that its about whether it grows rapidly or slowly. If you would like to see some of the $2.35 trillion
    the federal government spent on welfare state programs in 2012 – two thirds of all federal spending, and 15% of GDP – put to better use by spending less on people whose needs are not severe, such as upper middle-class retirees on Social Security and Medicare, in order to spend more on the working poor, maybe we can do business. Another way we could do business would be to agree we favor changing the labor market’s supply-and-demand equation in favor of the workers with the fewest skills by enacting and enforcing a highly restrictive immigration policy. What Americans consider a decent living is considerably different from what Mexicans may think, since our per-capita GDP is more than three times greater than theirs. It’s hard to believe anyone could be deeply concerned about the working poor while being complacent about maximizing the number of people they compete against to get and keep service-sector jobs.