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The Real Inflation Problem Is Corporate Profiteering

Don’t be hoodwinked. It isn’t Joe Biden who’s making record profits and gouging U.S. consumers. That would be corporate America.

A shopper walks past turkeys displayed for sale in a grocery store ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Turkeys for sale in a grocery store ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday

The prices of everyday goods are going up, and everyone from members of Congress to talking heads on cable news have their own diagnoses as to why it’s happening. But they’re all missing the biggest piece of the puzzle about what is to blame—namely, corporate profiteering.

You’ve heard a dizzying array of explanations about inflation. Biden administration officials have said the Covid pandemic resulted in supply chain disruptions, which are now being ironed out. Republicans are blaming Biden’s policies for putting too much money into the hands of working families. Corporate leaders are blaming it on an inability to hire workers and a workforce that wants better pay and working conditions. Economists say that while inflation is indeed occurring, the expectation of inflation is truly what’s altering consumer attitudes and behavior.

What all these arguments miss is that, despite whatever rising costs exist for raw materials or transportation or other underlying factors, the incontestable truth is profits are way up for the largest corporations in America.

And what that means is pretty simple: Corporate America has seized on the fears of inflation to jack up prices on you and make a ton more money. According to The Wall Street Journal, nearly two out of three of the biggest U.S. publicly traded companies had larger profit margins this year than they did in 2019, prior to the pandemic. Not just profits. Larger profits. Nearly 100 of these massive corporations report profits in 2021 that are 50 percent above profit margins from 2019.

CEOs are quick to suggest to media that they have been forced to raise prices because of one difficulty or another. However, my organization More Perfect Union reviewed recent corporate earnings calls featuring CEOs of some of the largest companies in the world, like Tyson Foods, Kellogg’s, Pepsi, Mondelez (a huge snack food and beverage company that used to be known as Kraft), and others. And we found jubilant executives revealing that price hikes are great for business.

In these calls, business leaders employ fancy financial lingo to tell large shareholders how they are engaging in “pricing improvements” and “successful pricing strategies.” They tell you they are experiencing customer “elasticities” to price increases at historically low levels. When you decode what they’re saying, it’s nothing less than a euphoric articulation that they’re able to pass off price increases to consumers, who, in the words of legendary investor Warren Buffett, are “just accepting it.” The stocks have in turn moved higher and higher. (And interestingly, when a corporation like Target announces it hasn’t raised prices despite strong earnings, investors are punishing it by pushing the stock downward.)

In an interview with Fox Business, John Catsimatidis, a conservative pundit and billionaire CEO, revealed very simply what his C-suite colleagues are doing. “Why give something away if you don’t have to, and you can have a bigger margin?” he said. Right. It’s corporate price gouging at work.

Beef prices are up this holiday season. Why are they up? Because a consolidated market has allowed monopolists like Tyson’s, Cargill, and National Beef to rake in more profits while ensuring that very little of that goes to ranchers and farmers who are raising the cattle.

Home Depot and Lowe’s recently posted incredible earnings, pleasing giddy investors. CNBC’s voluble Jim Cramer observed that these two companies “can do no wrong because they’re passing on rising costs to the public, and the public has no choice …because these two chains have single-handedly wiped out the competition already.”

The power is entirely in the hands of large corporations, and they’re going for the gold. This story of corporate greed is being missed in the national inflation conversation.

But there’s more! Think about the devious design of what corporations have been up to. For months, they have, with one hand, fueled talk of inflation as a way to make obscene profits off the backs of consumers. That’s bad enough. But with the other hand, they have been manipulating the talk of inflation to engage in a full-frontal assault on President Biden’s efforts to pass a Build Back Better bill for working families.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has called Biden’s proposal an “existential threat,” and it—along with many corporate P.R. groups—has led a multimillion-dollar barrage of corporate ad spending to try to dissuade voters about it.

Corporate America is also feeding its talking points into the hands of Republican lawmakers and media outlets that pin the blame for inflation on Biden and falsely warn that enacting a working families bill is only going to feed it further. Because the Build Back Better act will have increased taxes on corporations, these big businesses are eager to kill it. They are not about to give up any of their record profits to invest in the safety net of America.

As we head into Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we all look forward to large enjoyable feasts with friends and family, we should rightly harbor anger about inflation. Not just that they made us pay more for turkey, cranberries, and pie crusts. We’re having to pay more because corporate America made a choice to raise prices on us, and then on top of that, it tried to manipulate your fear about those prices to keep you from getting paid leave, home care, childcare, and climate change action. Corporate America made you pay more while trying to make sure it didn’t have to.