Saturday, 26 February 2005

Fighting Corporate Power

[UPDATE: This has generated some worthwhile debate over at WatchBlog.]

That title suggests a belligerent anti-corporate agenda of the sort that draws wails of mockery from most conservative and libertarian quarters. But this warrior against corporate excess and power is perfectly happy to stipulate that much is owed over the last century and more to enterprises which have their genesis in corporate activity. I'll also allow that there are instances where regulations on industry go too far and squelch desirable innovation. But the strong trend over the last quarter century has been a disturbing acceleration of the ability of corporations to wield their wealth to gain power to create more wealth. It is terribly naive to believe that the common good will be preserved by the scruples of CEOs and market forces when so much power has been accorded the corporate decision makers.

No I do not hate corporations or believe that corporate executives are evil, but yes I do believe the current trend toward corporate empowerment is nearly as dangerous and frightening as the fundamentalist extremism of some Muslims or Christians. At least those threats are drawing widespread concern and attention from powerful adversaries, whereas the opponents of extended corporate power are routinely labeled as leftist or Communist in an attempt to marginalize that natural opposition. Unlike fundamentalist extremists, corporations hold great power for good in the world, but in the absence of a reasoned and effective authority to rein in their potential excesses, that potential will be squandered. Those corporations with the greatest proclivity to contribute to the common good are either overwhelmed or pressured away from doing so by their need to compete with the under-regulated competition who do not share their scruples.

I've written before about the need for right regulation, rather than necessarily harsher or more lenient regulation, but the current trend is certainly dangerously in favor of deregulation, both here in the United States and internationally. Many people have the perception that there is some sort of balance, at least in the United States, between those protecting the interests of corporations and those protecting the interests of workers, consumers, and the environment. Some incredibly believe that corporations are too pushed around. That comes from our tendency to focus on a story at a time, rather than looking at the big picture.

We see the investigative reports, some of which are eventually adjudicated against the corporate interest, but those are the tip of the iceberg and those stories which don't make the news overwhelmingly favor the corporations. Indeed many of them are hardly stories at all, as there are not the resources to engage every instance of regulatory change in favor of corporate interests. The current administration, and that of former President Reagan, were both relentless in rewriting regulations and procedures, and in reducing the extent of enforcement of existing laws, when it came to protecting the interests of those whose money did so much to elect them. Even though Bush I and Clinton were both far more moderate in their approach, the moneyed interests of corporations still played a huge role in retaining much of their gains during the Reagan era, and the current administration has unabashedly pushed through a flagrantly pro-corporate agenda.

Jim Hightower in "Thieves in High Places: They've Stolen Our Country and It's Time to Take It Back" uses over five pages chronicling 125 actions of the Bush Administration, which he declares represent only a subset of their "assault on Mother Nature to empower their polluter pals at the expense of our earth, our health, and future generations." Here's but a small subsample:
+ Delayed implementation of mining regulations intended to protect watersheds + Tried to shrink boundaries of nineteen national monuments and to allow oil and gas drilling on all public lands + Froze environmental rules finalized by Clinton, including one to minimize discharges of raw sewage + Defunded program to implement court rulings in Endangered Species cases brought by citizens + Suspended the right-to-know regulation requiring utilities to inform consumers about arsenic in their water +
Rejected freedom-of-information request for a list of corporate participants in Cheney's energy policy task force + Supported nuclear industry's proposal to store waste in Yucca Mountain, despite scientific objection + Cut 270 positions from the EPA's enforcement division + Announced a plan for recycling radioactive waste into consumer products, from lawn chairs and zippers to spoons and baby cribs + Stalled implementation of rules requiring utilities to reduce toxic emissions from expanded power plants + Relaxed nationwide permit rules so coal companies, developers, and others can fill in thousands of streams, swamps, and other wetlands, without public notice or comment + Issued a new policy abrogating the national goal set by Bush I of "no net loss" of wetlands + Announce new targets for power plant emissions, allowing 50 percent more sulfur emissions (acid rain) than current law, three times more toxic mercury emissions, and tons of additional nitrogen oxide (smog) + Killed funds to support environmental education in public schools + Eliminated funds for EPA grants for graduate student research in environmental sciences + Increased taxpayer subsidy for timber company purchases of trees from our national forests by 35 percent + Tried to strip the state of California's right to review Bush proposals to allow oil drilling off its coast + Eliminated scientific committees that disagreed with its policies, stacking new committees with scientists who have ties to regulated industries, including on PC&E hireling who fought Erin Brockovich + Expanded oil exploration in Colorado's Canyons of the Ancients National Monument + Killed a proposal to establish a citizen review panel to oversee the trans-Alaska pipeline + Supported plan to let chemical giants in Louisiana emit more cancer-causing pollutants in exchange for reducing emissions of less dangerous pollutants + Doubled the number of open-pit limestone mines to be opened in the Florida Everglades, eventually creating a thirty-square-mile hole in the middle of this irreplaceable water wonder + Put industry-backed amendment into Homeland Security Bill that effectively exempts chemical plants, utilities, and other polluters from the public's right-to-know laws, which require corporations to tell their neighbors what poisons are being spewed on them + Sent memo to all EPA employees urging them to "express support for the president and his program" when off duty + Withdrew Clinton rule requiring cleanup of polluted rivers and substituted a voluntary program + Cut the civil penalties that polluters have to pay by half + Stacked the CDC advisory committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention with industry scientists + Instructed EPA to discount by 63 percent the value of lives of senior citizens when assessing whether to impose new restrictions on industries that pollute the air
And the list goes on, and on, and on. Here's another subsample. Does Hightower have an agenda here? Sure. Does he paint each policy in the most unflattering light? Sometimes, maybe, but neither is he making this stuff up out of whole cloth. I've certainly not researched all of these items, but the trend is undeniable.

Indeed it can be exhausting to fight the current deregulatory madness, and no one person can do it alone, but I'm pretty sure there are plenty within the corporate world who are privately dismayed about the extent to which rules are disappearing, hence favoring their most unscrupulous competition. My hope is that such individuals can begin to network and find a public voice to add to the conversation, showing that it is not only the left, labor, environmentalists, and consumer rights groups who see the imbalance. One of the most hopeful developments over the last twenty years has been increasing cooperation between labor and environmentalists, who put aside years of distrust to work together on numerous issues of shared concern. The current extremism in protection of corporate interests, while extremely frightening, may yet plant the seeds for its own demise by going too far and alienating too many of its own putative interests.

Globalization further complicates potential solutions, but America remains the center of gravity of the corporate world, and to the extent that we abdicate our responsibility to keep corporations in check, how can we expect developing nations to exhibit any scruples.

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