"We're only talking about four billion dollars."
That's how former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin defended the tax breaks going to the some of the world's richest corporations: oil companies.
It may "only" be four billion dollars to these entities; after all, they are reaping windfall profits from rising gas prices. The "big five" oil companies -- ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Shell and ConocoPhillips -- made $32 billion dollars in profit in the first quarter. In fact, Exxon is the most profitable company in the world, raking in $30 billion dollars in 2010 -- nearly double that of Walmart.
Oil companies seem more than happy to watch us suffer at the gas pump; and, while roughly a dime of every dollar we earn goes to their profits, we -- the American taxpayer -- then have to write them a bonus check.
Before we get to the economics and politics of the issue, we must ask ourselves a moral question: Is this right?
At a time when a record 47 million Americans are living below the poverty line, and unemployment stands at 9 percent, should billions in breaks go to some of the most profitable companies in the world? Of course not.
Millions of Americans are watching this debate unfold from their living rooms. They are unemployed. They see programs they depend on threatened with cuts. They wonder how they are going to provide for their families.
They are asking themselves, "Where is my break? Why isn't government on my side?" They have a right to feel angry and frustrated; they don't think that government works for them. Some of the same representatives helping Big Oil are proposing cuts to the Federal Pell Grant program which, according to the Education Trust, would hurt 10 million low-income students who just want to go to college and prepare themselves to succeed.
The same people giving relief to the richest companies want to cut 20 percent from the food stamp program, even though many rely on it to feed their children.
Those who say that oil subsidies are "only four billion dollars a year" were, a few months ago, suggesting that funding for NPR is expensive -- even though it's 1,200 times less costly.
This whole debate shines a light on a few simple questions: Who is government for? The special interests or the common interests? The rich or everyone?
It's time for government to put people before the privileged. The oil companies have done very well; they've achieved the American Dream. Now, they should stop hogging that Dream, and give others a fair shot at moving ahead in life.
Let's use these tax breaks to help struggling families, promising students, and budding entrepreneurs in sectors like clean energy.
Oil companies won't miss these subsidies. After all, they're only four billion dollars a year.