If you want to know much tax a company paid (or didn’t pay) last year, how much it got in government subsidies, or what it conferred in campaign contributions, the information is available, mostly, and relatively easy to access. But it’s not necessarily there when you need it—say, when you’re watching ads during the Super Bowl, or wandering the aisles of the local store.
That’s where BizVizz could come in useful. The new app allows you to point your camera’s phone at a logo, and immediately get a reading on 300 companies, and 900 brands; compare their taxes, subsidies, and campaign contributions; and find out who owns what. Brad Lichtenstein, who led its development, calls it the first "corporate responsibility app".
Lichtenstein is a documentary film-maker whose latest project is As Goes Janesville. The film follows four characters in Rock County, Wisconsin, as they face up to the loss of the local General Motors plant in 2008. The residents lose their jobs, businesses close, and town leaders scramble to come up with a new economic plan.
By the end of the film, Rock County has succeeded in attracting a new employer—but at a price. It agrees to give over $9 million in subsidies—20% of its budget—but with no authentic public hearing, and no guarantees the company will actually generate jobs, or stay long-term. Lichtenstein calls the meeting where the vote is taken a "tightly scripted public affairs event," where "people are encouraged not to bring up the obvious issues."
It was one of the experiences that led Lichtenstein to want to improve scrutiny of public decision-making. Much of the lobbying for things like development grants goes on behind closed doors, he says. The app sheds light on the largesse companies get from many vulnerable communities across the country. Lichtenstein says the point is not necessarily that all such incentives are wrong—but to emphasize they are happening, and that we should be aware of them.
"The app was born out a desire to counter the spin and effort from corporations to distract you from the fact that they have an army of lobbyists winning them tax breaks and these subsidies," he says.
The app consolidates information already collected by the Sunlight Foundation (campaign contributions), Good Jobs First (subsidies), and Citizens for Tax Justice (taxes). With further funding Lichtenstein hopes to expand to 1000 companies, add location alerts, and provide an Android version (it is iPhone only, at the moment).
If BizVizz brings a little transparency to the shopping aisle, that’s a good thing.