Anyone who watched the tough, recession documentary, As Goes Janesville, about workers in a Wisconsin town hit hard by the closing of a General Motors auto plant, may have had a hard time getting up off the couch. It’s like a punch to the gut. The film is unsparing in its depiction of the convoluted politics that produced a Governor like Scott Walker, and, more pointedly, how good, hard-working people have been laid low by an unforgiving economic downturn.
But, thank goodness, the documentary, which aired on PBS last October as part of the Independent Lens series, and is airing again tonight (February 4, 2013), isn’t director Brad Lichtenstein’s last word on the subject. He’s gone where few doc directors have gone before: he’s developed an app, called BizVizz, inspired by his film.
That might sound like a joke — and it’s tempting to consider angry birds being flung at GM factories — but it’s not. Lichtenstein has come up with something pretty awesome.
After an a-ha moment, Lichtenstein tells me “we were saying that it’d be so great to have a way to find out whether a company has laid off workers or moved jobs overseas since As Goes Janesville is all about job loss. Following that urge, I approached an organization called Good Jobs First, thinking they might have a handle on such data. Nope! Turns out it is very hard to find. Companies don’t have to report layoffs or moving jobs out of the US except in very specific and rare circumstances. But what they did have was data on state and local government subsidies of business. Bang!”
BizVizz, a corporate accountability app, launched today. It might not topple Goliath, but it certainly puts a rock (read: information) in the hands of David. How it works is this: you download the app so that when you see a product, you can take a picture of the brand, and you’ll soon be reading that company’s tax data, profits, campaign contributions and, most notably, its government subsidies. This latter bit of info plucks directly at a theme in Janesville, in which we see a town desperate enough for employment that they vote to subsidize a new factory without any assurance that it will result in jobs.
Lichtenstein considers the subsidy information “a secret code, a way to finally unlock the truth about how places compete for jobs.” Knowing a company’s subsidies and tax rate is not quite the silver bullet that differentiates good from bad companies, but Lichenstein doesn’t claim it to be; what it does is it at least puts more information in our hands, so that we are less blind to the tk of tk. Say, if you are a resident of Nebraska, and you’re considering buying a bag of Cheetos, wouldn’t it be enlightening to know that your state paid a $4 million subsidy to its maker, Frito-Lay?
But let’s go deeper on this. The app is for iPhone so you get it at the iTunes store, which, is owned by Apple. Can we get the low-down on that company with BizVizz?
For taxes, Apple comes in pretty close to the federal tax rate, at 31%. And their big subsidy is $21,000,000 from Austin, Texas. But here here’s the information that you don’t see in the app, but you can hear if you’re lucky enough to have Lichenstein in your pocket.
“This is a perfect example of where context is important,” he says. “The money is in the form of tax breaks. Apple’s expanding in Austin and will hire 3500+ over 3 years or so. This is not job poaching, which happens all the time — a company threatening to leave an area as a way to get two communities or more to compete for the jobs. In this case, Apple is growing.”
In other words, not all subsidies are signs of bad corporate practice. Still, it’s information; we just have to do more research and be smart about what we see on BizVizz.
Lichtenstein isn’t willing to claim that this is the only app of its kind, but he will venture to say, “I haven’t seen anything like it. If there’s something out there like BizVizz, I’m pretty sure we’d know.”
Check out the app, and see below for more of my conversation with Lichtenstein, a director not willing to rest on the laurels of a completed film. He takes it further. I hope he’s an inspiration to others.
Doc Soup Man: Is the app going to be frustrating to folks? I imagine going to a supermarket and trying to buy cereal and finding that two conglomerates own them all, and that the companies are similar in their finances and politics, anyway…
Brad Lichtenstein, director of As Goes Janesville: Frustrating, maybe. But the truth is often frustrating. We are bombarded by messages all day and night about all these great choices only to discover there’s little at all. I think it may get people to shift their business to more local shops and food co-ops. You might say that’s a solution for people with more means, but I know that our co-op here in Milwaukee, and many others, accept food stamps and offer discounts to people who can’t afford the items on the shelf. So in the realm of food, yes, if you realize that everything is made by General Mills (who pay about 20% tax instead of the 35% federal tax rate) or Kellogg’s (which pays even less, about 15% in tax), then maybe you’ll change your behavior. What’s more, I think that using the app often kind of deconstructs your environment by crowding out the messages companies pay millions to send your way with a deeper understanding of what their real practices and, by extension, personality is. You know what I mean? Think about what Boeing must have said and done to get a $450,000,000 subsidy from the state of South Carolina and then think that all the while the company, according to recent news reports, may have known they were making a faulty product. BizVizz is a kind of truth teller.
Doc Soup Man: I question how much utility there is in knowing a company’s profits, subsidies, tax data without context. I mean, isn’t the appeal of something like this app that it will tell us who the bad guys are?
Brad Lichtenstein: Well, we don’t want to make judgments for the users nor alienate potential users by rating the companies, if that’s what you mean. We talked about that for a while, but ultimately backed away from the idea. We will provide context, though. We are going to provide users with push notifications when there’s relevant news about one of the companies in the app or there’s a corporate accountability campaign or legislation that they might like to know about. We won’t advocate, but we will curate and share. And you can share the data you discover easily, so if we can get numbers using the app, there will be a cultural sense of who the good guys and bad guys are. I think people can figure it out — I mean, Wells Fargo pays no tax and rakes in subsidies at the same time that they are bailed out, or Verizon pays no tax and has lobbied so hard that it has won enormous subsidies. I mean, I’m not sure that people really get how much the business of Washington is controlled by business. And yes, we will provide users with some relevant context to get a clearer picture.
Doc Soup Man: Will the app’s greatest power be in its discussion option; people will be able to swap information about the worst companies and present the alternatives to each other?
Brad Lichtenstein: People can share and comment on what they discover across social networks like Facebook and Twitter, but not in the app. That way they can expand the network of people discovering and using this information. I think the app’s power is a two-step: first, get the information then, go get engaged, perhaps in some of the ways that are mentioned in our alerts.