Corporate supremacy & the erosion of democracy.
Furthermore, global corporations are overtaking and destroying democratic processes--on the installment plan. They are global and therefore have no allegiance to any country or community--and they make no bones about it. I once sent a letter to the chief executive officers of the top one hundred U.S.-chartered corporations. The letter, paraphrased, read:
Dear CEO, your company was chartered in the United States and profited on the sweat of your American workers. When you got in trouble, you went to Washington for a bailout--not Bonn or Tokyo or Mexico City. When you got in trouble overseas, you contacted not Bonn or Paris or London but Washington for the U.S. Marines to help you. So would you please, at your annual meeting, stand up and, in the name of the corporation, pledge allegiance to the flag.
I received sixty-five replies to my request. Only one company thought it was a good idea: Federated Department Stores, because it wasn't going anywhere. Other companies were outraged--one CEO called me "McCarthy." And yet for one hundred years corporations have fought to get for themselves the same rights as human beings. And now, even though they are artificial entities and chartered by state governments, they have been granted the rights as persons under the U.S. Constitution (except the Fifth Amendment, the right against self-incrimination). For corporations to have all the aggregated power, privileges, and immunities that really only they can have is to make a mockery out of equal justice under the law. There cannot be equal justice between a citizen and Exxon or a citizen and All-State Insurance Company.
This was a major gap in the U.S. Constitution: the corporation was never mentioned, because it wasn't a factor in 1787. So now corporate power, corporate government, and corporate violations in the workplace and in the environment run rampant. Nothing in the Constitution states that a corporation isn't a person and won't be granted the same rights as human beings. A very important amendment is required to bring the Constitution up to date.
Until corporations are treated by law in a subordinated fashion to human beings, the United States will continually witness a complete perversion of corporate history. Corporations were chartered to become our servants, not our masters, but today the reverse is true. They control elections, dominate the media, commercialize children, and corporative universities. They even control trade agreements, turning them into reverse redress systems (such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and President George W. Bush's proposal to compact the whole hemisphere) in which commercial interests are supreme over labor, environmental, and consumer interests. Through genetic engineering, they have the legal right to a monopoly on life forms. No U.S. law stops Monsanto from patenting humanoids.
Corporations can know more about you than you know about yourself, because you can't remember everything. Your private financial transactions whirl around the world without your permission in computer databases, utilized by companies. Big business is also determining the global environment. These corporations oppose alternative energy sources like solar and wind and energy efficiency and instead push more fossil fuel use around the world, with little or no regard for environmental degradation. These global corporations are increasingly controlling governments, which then turn against their own people. Big business is very comfortable dealing with brutal dictatorships--as long as it can make a profit from mining concessions and other deals.
Notwithstanding billions of dollars of citizens' money, the pharmaceutical industry has little interest in researching for vaccines and drugs to cure global infectious diseases because there is little money in it. It can't charge people in the developing world what it overcharges Americans. So tuberculosis, AIDS, and other diseases are developing drug-resistant strains, while our privileged drug industry spends money on lifestyle drugs like Viagra and serums for restoring hair growth. Little money is expended on vaccines because people don't use them every day. This is why the Pentagon had a falling out with the drug companies over thirty years ago and started its own drug company--the Walter Reed Institute of Health--in order to work on malaria, hepatitis, and other hemorrhagic diseases. This was necessary because U.S. troops are exposed to such diseases.
In the United States, ethical boundaries once observed have been demolished. Businesses market directly to children as young as three and four, so that children can then nag their parents. It is an attempt to undermine parental authority, since the parents now are commuting longer and farther away from their children in trying to pay the bills. Businesses study the psychology of these children at ages two, four, six, eight, and ten. They know when the kids are lonely and when they cling to their parents. In some ways, they know more about the kids than their parents do.
I have attended some of business' expensive marketing seminars and seen deliberate marketing techniques mercilessly exploiting the vulnerabilities and the sensory nodes of children in order to convey three main values: low-grade sensuality such as junk food that predisposes them to obesity and early diabetes in record numbers; addiction as a way of life; and violence as a solution to life's problems. So children are spending their lives eating junk food on the sofa and looking at screens, day after day--even going to school and looking at screens. A society that looks at screens is a prison or corporate power. And screens disrupt socialization of these youngsters, shrink their attention spans, and diminish their vocabulary.
Indeed, the structure of the U.S. economy undermines the family unit and, day after day, separates parents and children. Children are thus growing up corporate, growing up knowing more about logos than about the Constitution, growing up knowing more about pitch men and women and cartoon characters selling products than about the real heroes in U.S. society and history. Youths are no longer taught civic skills. They aren't taught how to contribute to the community. And they aren't taught in ways that allow them to spend more time with adults. Children of this generation spend fewer hours with adults--including their parents--than any generation of children in history. This isn't the way to raise a generation that will alert itself to the erosion of democracy and the growth of corporate supremacy. Instead this generation is being taught to believe rather than to think, to buy rather than to reject.
Society subjects Americans to such compulsory consumption that, in order to make ends meet, most families now require more than one breadwinner. And this results in a host of functions that used to be provided for free: daycare, counseling, and recreation ($70 Nintendos instead of kick-the-can in the backyard). People are forced to buy a gallon of gas for every twenty-four miles, on average, their vehicles travel, instead of every sixty or seventy miles. What is needed instead is a displacement of certain kinds of consumptions, such as replacing fossil fuels with solar and wind energy or pharmaceuticals with healthy lifestyles. People also must start consuming things that are recyclable or pre-cyclable. For example, today on college campuses many students are carrying mugs instead of a one-use plastic cup. Presumably this saves the schools some money, which can help reduce tuition increases. With a reordering such as this, less and less consumption will be dictated by concentrated power and abuse--by a president who tells citizens to shut up and get in line, or shut up and shop.
This brings us to an important realization for the future. Unfortunately, Bush cannot be defeated in 2004 unless the American people see two things happen. First, if the economy continues to tank and people blame his tax cut to the wealthy and a lack of good economic policies for reviving the economy. Second, if people see national security as the biggest issue--but not national security as defined by Bush. I define national security much more broadly, including workplace safety, environmental protections, and access to health care. Americans must support the candidate with the most consistently progressive platform, ignoring whether that person is "electable" Because if we constantly claire that those candidates who we agree with are unable to win, they won't. The only way a real breakthrough in American politics can happen is if people support the person they really believe in--the candidate who wants to empower the citizens. That will be the only way to gain any improvement.
Yet the corporate funding of elections is a major impediment to the process--and this is another indicator of democratic decline. Whoever dreamed of an election system in which politicians are marketed to the highest bidder? Of course, corporations have more money than individuals; 80 percent of the money spent on federal elections comes from businesses. The ratio of business money to labor money used to be three to one in favor of business--it's now fourteen to one and the gap is expanding. Thus, quite obviously, most candidates for public office now spend more time raising money than talking with voters. In California, senatorial candidates spend 90 percent of their time dialing for dollars because they have to raise at least $30 million--they actually consume $30 million in fifty weeks.
Instead, public elections should be publicly funded through a well-promoted option of up to $100 on tax returns. If someone wants to give, he or she would simply check the box. This would allow qualified candidates to use public money--and prohibit them from using private money. They could also be given a certain amount of radio and television time before the election. This can be a condition of licensing radio and television stations: to give up some of the public property so that elections are clean instead of dirty.
Americans must look at all of our national assets: besides the public airways, the public lands, and the public works, we possess $5 trillion in worker pension funds, $350 billion in public education, as well as government research and development programs. Such assets can enable very formidable challenges to the corporate supremacy that now diminishes and weakens out democratic society.
Yet the biggest asset of all is in out own heads. If we could only eliminate the cobwebs that have clouded us into powerlessness and inhibited us from feeling that we can change anything, then we would have the most powerful force for democracy, the greatest instrument ever devised by the human mind to solve human problems. This is what Citizen Works is trying to do. The organization is mounting a major drive against corporate crime, fraud, and abuse which, in the last three years alone, bas usurped trillions of dollars from millions of workers. Despite all the indictments over recent scandals, not one CEO has yet been sent to jail. The settlements for ten Wall Street firms were a laughable slap on the wrist. They weren't even required to adroit wrongdoing and their $1.4 billion assessment fee is deductible--we are all sharing in it. That was considered the toughest fine in corporate history and it isn't even one day's revenues for firms like Citicorp.
Citizen Works now has a free weekly Internet newsletter on corporate crime, fraud, and abuse. Just punch in www.citizenworks.org to read about what's going on around the country: what proposals, legislation, and corporate reforms are coming up. After its first year, the number of subscribers to this newsletter--even though it's been featured on the front pages of magazines such as Business Week, Fortune, Newsweek, and Time--has finally exceeded the number of dues-paying members to the Corvair Club of America. So there may be hope yet.
Longtime consumer advocate Ralph Nader has founded many nongovernmental organizations including Citizen Works and Public Citizen and was the Green Party's presidential candidate in 2000. This article is adapted from portions of his May 11, 2003, speech at the American Humanist Association's sixty-second annual conference in Washington, D.C.
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|Date:||Mar 1, 2004|
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