By James Ledbetter
The opinions expressed are his own.
For many years, the River Café, an elegant restaurant that sits just below the Brooklyn Bridge, had a plaque on its wall declaring, in effect, “If you work for General Electric, go eat somewhere else.”
This unusual exclusion policy had a simple explanation: for three decades, two GE plants in upstate New York dumped as much as 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the Hudson River, poisoning the fish supply that River Café depends on. The effect that this contamination had on wildlife—and on anyone who ate too much fish caught in the Hudson—was severe enough to create one of the largest Superfund projects in the history of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Hudson pollution was not unique; the bend of the Housatonic River in Connecticut where I grew up was frequently unswimmable, because of PCBs floating down from a GE plant in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Another aqueous assault, another massive taxpayer-funded cleanup. (Update: A GE spokesman tells me that the company paid for the cleanup of both rivers. Of course, there were also costs to taxpayers, but this is an important distinction.)
Thus, you didn’t have to own a fish restaurant to have a negative opinion of General Electric. Indeed, on the American left in the 1980s, GE was about as comprehensive a corporate bogeyman as could be imagined, and was the target of one of the few anti-corporate documentaries to win an Academy Award. In addition to its overt environmental sins, the company made nuclear power plants. It made nuclear weapons. It was one of the largest military contractors in the country, which made its ownership of a major broadcast network seem disturbing. It paid so little in corporate tax in the 1980s that it apparently offended Ronald Reagan’s sensibilities—and he’d been a GE spokesman!
So it was jarring to read in the Wall Street Journal this week that GE is now a punching bag for the political right. Sarah Palin has charged on her Facebook page that GE has become “the poster child of corporate welfare and crony capitalism.” When Newt Gingrich attacked GE for paying no taxes during the Tea Party-sponsored presidential debate last month, the audience applauded—twice.