After viewing this film, I was left wondering if it is appropriate to allow extreme wealth to have such a disproportional influence over the democratic process?
In the landmark ruling, “Citizens United vs. The Federal Election Commission” the US Supreme Court upheld the idea that government cannot restrict free speech even when the entity engaging the process is a corporation. In a 4 to 3 vote, it was decided that corporations are entities that have heavy investments in the direction of US policy, in the same way that most individual citizen have, and thus have the same rights to express themselves as people do. It means that a corporation has a voice independent of the executives and staff of a company (which would exercise their own civic responsibilities), and that corporate voice has a legitimate right to be heard. Corporations are encouraged to bring to bear all of their available resources to support the candidates and legislation that best represent their business goals.
This is interesting because global business goals are not necessarily synonymous with the goals of creating a “more perfect union” here in the United States.
There is a tremendous, almost unimaginable disparity between the lower & middle classes and the ultra-wealthy in the United States. The film above does a great job of capturing the lifestyle gap between the wealthy and the ultra-wealthy, but doesn’t hardly mention the massive number of poor people throughout the world. The richest 1% of people in the United States hold about 38% of all privately held wealth in the United States, while the bottom 90% hold 73% of all debt. The richest 20% of people in the United States own 80% of the wealth, while the bottom 40% own only .2% of the wealth. It is extraordinarily difficult for average people to contribute substantially to the democratic process when they are so outmatched in resources. Any policy that does not support the goals of the ultra wealthy simply cannot gain traction in a system where public officials are dependent upon large amounts of money to remain in office. However, that has always been our system and the fact that the wealth gap is much greater now than ever before, is a different challenge. If we say that this current system is acceptable (which I don’t), the recent Citizen’s United decision positions corporate revenues that run into the trillions of dollars (exceeding that of most countries) behind policy that has little, or nothing, to do with the welfare of 80% of the population of the United States. It supports the goals of the wealthy with insurmountable force. It compounds the power gap exponentially and clearly sends the message that our government does not represent all of the citizens of this country. Democracy is dead.
I like Pam White’s short article, in the Boulder Weekly, where she writes about the legal benefits of incorporation: “So now corporations get to have it both ways. When it comes to crime and punishment, the individuals who make up a corporation can’t be thrown in prison. But when it comes to participating in our elections, they have the same rights as you and I. Except that you and I don’t have billions of dollars to ensure that politicians hear our voices.”
The underlying imperative for most companies is to produce wealth and therefore growth. Most companies see themselves in an incredibly competitive marketplace, where every possible opportunity to save money contributes to their ability to stay alive. The idea that a company can act in the interest of the greater good is seen as an excessive luxury that puts the company at risk. Companies will use every legal, and frequently illegal, option at their disposal to reduce their burdens, increase their productivity, and extend their foothold in an ever hostile marketplace. Corporations will do what needs to be done in order to gain an advantage over the competition, frequently at great expense to society.
Consider the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where BP (similar to all other oil companies) have signed environmental impact statements that claim knowledge, resources, and ability to stop worst case disasters. These are legal documents that normal business people will take seriously. It took 5 months to stop the oil leak, and the clean up never really happened. The reality is that nobody, not one single company, had the knowledge or technology to end this incident quickly and control the damage. This was a systemic failure on the part of an entire industry. The “.com” bust, the sub-prime housing bubble / Wall St collapse, the environmental disasters inflicted by Mansanto, the Exxon Valdez failure, Enron, Bernie Madoff, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. The list of corrupt and greedy corporations (and corporate leaders) is endless. These large companies that want to influence the Democratic process have endless resources, but feel no obligation to improve the human condition (unless it means they can grow to make more money).
In “The Value of Nothing: How to reshape market society and redefine democracy,” Raj Patel offers an observation regarding the behavior of corporate America, by matching symptoms against the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. He shows that the American Psychiatric Association classifies psychopaths and sociopaths as having “antisocial personality disorder.” To be diagnosed with the disorder the patient must meet three out of the following seven criteria:
1. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest,
2. Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure,
3. Impulsivity, or failure to plan ahead,
4. Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults,
5. Reckless disregard for safety of self or others,
6. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations,
7. Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mis-treated, or stolen from another.
Patel continues throughout chapter 3 to show how these unhealthy behaviors are typical of large international companies (like Mc Donald’s). So, are corporations the same as healthy, well adjusted people, like our Supreme Court would have you believe? No, not really. Does a corporation have a voice separate from the executives who run the company (which presumably act upon their own civic responsibilities)? Probably, but it is not a voice that is fundamentally concerned with the good of others, like mentally and spiritually stable humans are. A corporate voice is not concerned with the extinction of unknown species, nor are they concerned with the environmental cost of destroying forests, mountain tops, or watersheds, so long as it doesn’t affect their ability to stay alive in the marketplace.
The ultimate issue is that most of the natural world, and much of the human world has no value to business. The aesthetic things, or the moral ideals, the artful commentaries, the millions of indigenous people on the planet, as well as most of the species of plants and animals are “priceless.” In other words, they have no value. This is what makes the old American Express commercials so funny, yet extremely ironic. You know the ones, “Green Fees: $240, Lessons: $50, Golf Club: $110, having fun: priceless.” That last one, the one that is “priceless,” that is the one that has no value in business, yet it is the most important human value. This is funny for a second, but only until you think about it.
Allowing corporations the right to influence our democracy to such a great degree severely undermines our ability to sustainably live on this planet, and it is just one of those things that “The Comfortably Numb” will let happen because they are too busy and apparently too comfortable to be bothered with picking a fight with the corporate world and the US government (which is charged with creating a more just and perfect union for all of its citizens, not just the top 1%).
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”