National Democratic Party – Pole Vaulting Back Into Place

Seeking to capitalize on the Republicans’ disarray, public cruelty and Trumpitis, the Democratic Party is gearing up for the Congressional elections of 2018. Alas, party leaders are likely to enlist the same old cast and crew.

The Democratic National Committee and their state imitators are raising money from the same old big donors and PACs that are complicit in the party’s chronic history of losing so many congressional, gubernatorial and state legislative races—not to mention the White House.

The large, embattled unions are preparing to spend millions on television ads and unimaginative get-out-the-vote efforts, without demanding fresh pro-worker/pro-union agendas from the Democratic politicians they regularly endorse.

The same old political consulting firms, which also consult profitably for corporations, are revving up their defeat-prone tactics and readying their practice of blaming the candidates—their clients—when their strategies and lucrative ad buys don’t work.

The party’s scapegoating machine remains well-oiled. To explain why they cannot defeat the cruelest, most plutocratic, anti-worker, anti-consumer, anti-environment, anti-patient Republican Party in history, the woeful party leaders blame gerrymandering (in which they also engage), the Green Party, the Koch Brothers, voter suppression, “lying” Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the “Red States,” and more.

So what’s the plan for the Democratic Party? Their new slogan, developed at some cost by political consultants, is “A Better Deal.” Mention this to John Larson (D-Conn.), a leading Democrat in the House of Representatives, and you’ll hear scorn and ridicule.

Major Democratic operatives and leaders flocked last week to the posh La Costa Resort in Southern California to discuss the Democracy Alliance’s theme of “Beyond Resistance: Reclaiming our Progressive Future.”

Aside from their usual avoidance of taboo subjects such as the corporate crime wave’s ravaging of workers, consumers and the poor, or the need for a “universal basic income,” (something which was supported in the nineteen seventies by no less than President Richard Nixon and market fundamentalist economist Milton Friedman—for more information visit basicincome.org) what were the Democratic strategists doing in this ostentatious venue?

A super wealthy waterhole like La Costa Resort with its spas, pools and golf courses is not a place that signals solidarity with the working class. But then what can be expected of a party that has let the Republicans seize control and power over the interpretation of the Flag, the Bible and the Pledge of Allegiance.

Trenchant and prescient criticism of the Democratic Party by its own prime loyalists goes back many years. In 1970, John Kenneth Galbraith, eminent economist, author and adviser to John F. Kennedy, wrote an article for Harper’s, warning about the decline of the party’s representation of the people’s interest. Twenty years later, Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, wrote a column in the Washington Post calling the Democratic Party “dead.”

It was in the ’70s that the Democratic Party started abandoning the South and pursuing a blue-state focus in presidential campaigns. This geographic neglect atrophied the party all the way down to local races. Presently, the Democrats are paying the price in their inability to support the campaign for U.S. Senate by former prosecutor, Doug Jones, against Roy Moore, an accused the child-molester, religious hypocrite and prevaricator. This is a crucial contest in a narrowly divided Senate. In their coverage of this competitive race inside a very “red” state, the New York Times reports:

“With a fairly anemic state party, there is little existing infrastructure for routine campaign activities like phone banks or canvassing drives … There are no beloved statewide officeholders or popular party elders to rally the troops.”

“He’s got to do it all by himself,” said a former chairman of the state Democratic Party, Mark Kennedy.

The other milestone event in 1979 that has turned into a disastrous millstone around the Democratic Party’s neck was the party leadership accepting California Congressman Tony Coelho’s strenuous urging that it start pushing hard for the same corporate campaign cash that the Republicans had long solicited. The full-throated devouring of cash register corporate politics was the final slide into the pit of institutional corruption for the Democrats.

If the Democrats do not compete to win in all states – blue and red, and if they do not rely on the kind of small-donor fundraising so immensely successful in Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign, they will continue to lose elections under the failed leadership of Nancy Pelosi. She recently unfurled her mantra for 2018: “money, message and mobilization”—in that order, of course.

As former White House Counsel, Bill Curry, has repeatedly said in his incisive columns for Salon, “policy precedes message.” Without authentic policies for the people of our country, “message” following “money“ simply becomes the same political consultants’ con game.  “Mobilization” is not possible when voters feel there is no political movement prepared to work on their behalf.

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Public Cynicism Enables Costly Political Hypocrisy

The political hypocrisy of crony capitalism –  touting market capitalism while making taxpayers fund corporate welfare – is a rare and unfortunate case of bipartisan consensus. Republicans openly embrace it, but many Democrats also fall prey to government-guaranteed corporate capitalism when they believe it to be politically expedient.

Maybe these examples will get you steamed enough to tell your members of Congress – “enough already!”

Jeff Bezos recently launched a bidding war pitting cities against one another for Amazon’s second headquarters. Imagine shelling out at least 7 billion taxpayer dollars in return for Amazon’s unenforceable promise of 50,000 jobs and $5 billion in capital investment.

The bidding frenzy with the taxpayers’ money, without a taxpayer referendum, should be an embarrassment to the mayors who are bidding for Amazon’s business. Mayor Jeff Cheney of Frisco, Texas (population 160,000) wants to build the city around Amazon and its taxpayer-funded entitlements. Philadelphia’s officials have offered a slew of tax incentives for Amazon’s empty promises. Never mind that existing businesses would continue to pay taxes that are waived for a giant company that is emptying out property tax-paying Main Street, USA.

So far, Amazon has managed to flim-flam local leaders across North America. GT Bynum, Tulsa’s Mayor, is doing somersaults. No problem with tax escapes. “Whatever it takes,” he assures them. From the Mayor of Washington, DC to the Mayor of Ottawa, Canada, cities are promising whatever it takes to bring this predatory-pricing Moloch to their city.

Egging them on before the October 15, 2017 deadline for submissions, Bezos’ spokesman, Adam Sedo, imperiously declared: “We invited cities to think big, and we are starting to see their creativity.”

San Jose, California’s Mayor Sam Liccardo said “no way.” In a column printed by the Wall St. Journal, Liccardo wrote: “My city won’t be offering incentives to Amazon. Why? Because they are a bad deal for taxpayers. With many subsidies, the jobs a company brings to an area don’t generate revenues commensurate with public expenditures.” He cites the cost to Boston’s taxpayers for luring GE’s headquarters from Connecticut to be $181,000 for every job promised. Iowa, he added, gave Apple $213 million in tax escapes to locate a 50-job data center in Waukee, IA.

Besides, wrote the forthright Mayor Liccardo, the presence of a skilled workforce, good schools and infrastructure “play a far larger role in determining boards’ corporate location decisions.”

“Why are they doing this whole dog and pony show?” asks Matthew Gardner, from the nonpartisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. “They would like a package of tax incentives for something they were going to do anyway.” Professor Art Rolnick of the University of Minnesota went so far as to call Amazon’s bidding wars “blackmail.”

Meanwhile, Emperor Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, gets to sit back and watch his “candidates” fight it out.

A Taiwanese giant, Foxconn, the builder of Apple’s iPhones in China, enjoys a similar advantage. To build a flat-screen plant, by sheer coincidence, in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s district, Ryan’s buddy, Governor Scott Walker, compelled his Republican legislature to cobble together a $3 billion taxpayer-funded package for an unenforceable promise of 13,000 jobs (from an initial 8,000 jobs after more taxpayer cash was assured).

The whole deal, repeatedly trumpeted by Trump, with a company notorious for not following through on previous deals elsewhere, was pushed on Wisconsin’s elected officials by funding from the extreme right-wing Charles Koch Foundation and the Bradley Foundation.

Not to be outdone, Trump’s energy secretary, Rick Perry, is pushing $3.7 billion in loan guarantees to the failing, long-delayed, red-ink doused Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant in Georgia. Add this sum to the $8.3 billion already extended in taxpayer-guaranteed loans to this “boondoggle” and still the New York Times reports that these guarantees “might fall short of what will be required to complete the costly reactors.”

These corporate interests see American taxpayers as a limitless honey pot for their giant, bungling, conniving businesses. At the same time, Trump’s director of management and budget, Mick Mulvaney, constantly justifies ruthless cuts to important public programs by citing taxpayers’ rights. Apparently, these rights are not applicable to protecting taxpayers from predatory big-business executives hungry for corporate welfare that gets Mulvaney’s regular approval.

Public cynicism allows the costly hypocrisy of politicians to thrive. So watch out for the “pox on both your houses” public sentiment. Beware of crony capitalism – it turns politicians against the taxpayers they allegedly represent in favor of unaccountable corporate interests. Don’t let the “welfare kings” pick your pockets, by letting Congress wallow in cash register politics misusing the very power you have delegated to it.

For more information on accountability in sustainable economic development, see goodjobsfirst.org.

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The Serious Price Of The Hyper-Convenient Economy

Apart from sensual appeals, the chief marketing wave in our country is selling convenience. It has reached a level of frenzy with companies like Amazon and Walmart racing your order to your doorstep (with Amazon now wanting the electronic key to your house).

Ever since the industrial revolution, when the division of labor between consumers and producers widened and deepened, the convenience of not having to grow your own food, weave your own clothes and build your own shelter have become a given of economic progress. Expert specialization has tended to make products better and more standardized as well.

But, in recent decades, adding tiers of conveniences touted by the vendors’ television/radio/print advertisements has rarely mentioned the downsides.

For example, consider the fast food industry. Fast food was sold to the American consumer as convenient, tasty and always available. For these shallow advantages, many consumers chose to give up home-made and nutritious meals for those with heavy doses of fat, sugar and salt—all deadly when taken in such excessive amounts by tens of millions of children and adults. Food that “melts in your mouth,” and “tastes great” usually comes with additives that turn your tongues against your brain and bodily health.

There is the convenience of credit and debit cards. It started in the nineteen fifties when a businessman found it inconvenient in restaurants to have to make sure he had enough cash. Why not sign up restaurants to take the Diner’s Card? Before long the question became, why not take it all the way to enable massive impulse buying, massive invasion of privacy, revolving debt traps, bankruptcies, and the iron collar of unilaterally determined credit scores ratings? Why not deliberately overextend  credit and turn consumers into hooked supplicants who won’t complain  to their car dealers, insurance agencies or landlords for fear of a complaint lowering scores and ratings?

What could be more convenient than signing on the dotted line of fine print contracts or click-on agreements? You don’t have to read, understand, bargain or reject. It’s easy, if you don’t mind having your rights taken away on page after page as fees, penalties and other overcharges plus closed courtroom doors plunge you into contract servitude or peonage.

Like any steps of “progress,” convenience taken too far induces dependency, ignorance of the product and service and more loss of voice, self-determination and self-reliance.  Today, rampant advertising and telemarketers tell  you to sign up to have your groceries be home-delivered. For some people with disabilities, this can be a plus, if you get what you ordered. For most people, the price is a loss of sociability, of going to markets where real people have meaningful interactions with learn from one another.

The promotion of touted quick-fix drugs, when successful, less invasive treatments are available with fewer deadly side-effects (note the pain-killer epidemic that will take 60,000 American lives this year) is accelerating beyond tranquilizers and sleeping pills. The advance of biologics could make Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) an understatement of silent manipulation and mind control.

How about the convenience of online gambling, pay-day loan rackets and cosmetic surgery—all loaded with their unpublicized and underreported costs or the “convenience” of outsourcing your judgement and self-control by omnipresent apps?

But surely the “free” Facebook and Google do not come with such costs, do they? In return for this “free” service, you surrender your most personal information, which they turn into massive profits without giving you a share. Then they data-mine your buying profile for in-house use or outside sale; they select the news you get and expose you to anonymous, and often fraudulent, solicitations and propaganda. If these violations are invasive and omnipresent for you, just consider how it will affect your children and grandchildren?

Technology driven by narrow commercial interests needs to provoke us into asking, “What’s all this convenience doing over the long run? What kind of community and society is coming out of this un-assessed marketing?” For a better future, we must mobilize, community by community, for some inconvenient thoughts and organization. Unless, that is, the corporate future doesn’t need us.

To get started, encourage your friends and neighbors to sign up for Jim Hightower’s Hightower Lowdown newsletter.

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Why Harvard Law School Matters: A New Critique

As Harvard Law School celebrates its 200th anniversary with two days of events attended by hundreds of alumni, some law students, led by Pete Davis (’18), are inviting the Law School to engage in extraordinary introspection as it looks toward its third century.

Mr. Davis, after two years of observation, participation, conversation and research, has produced a major report titled “Our Bicentennial Crisis: A Call to Action for Harvard Law School’s Public Interest Mission.” Over the past sixty years, many of the beneficial changes at the law school were jolted, driven or demanded by a small number of organized students calling for clinical education, for women and minorities to be admitted as students and faculty, for more affordability, for more realism in their legal education and for more intellectual diversity among the professors. (The critical legal studies scholars obliged them up to a point.) Over time, the law school administration, with faculty persuasion, responded.

The bicentennial report by Pete Davis asks important questions about the law writ large square in the context of the law school’s long declared mission statement: “to educate leaders who contribute to the advancement of justice and the well-being of society.”

Out there in the country, the rule of law and justice is relentlessly overwhelmed by concentrated, unjust power. Just consider the stark reality that our profession’s legal services are unaffordable to most Americans and, as retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has been tirelessly arguing, legal aid resources for access to justice are consistently pathetic.

But the reality of raw economic, political and technological power over a just legal order has broader consequences. From the lawlessness of presidential war-making exercised abroad daily, to the plutocrat-shaped and dominated corporate state, to stifling the fair usage of our two pillars of private law ― contracts and torts ― there is an undeniable crisis outside of Harvard Law School that Davis factually and normatively contends is aided and abetted by the culture, incentives and practices at our alma mater.

The underlying moral basis of law has been supplanted by the commercial motivations and their tailored analytic skills. For most students, Harvard Law has long been a finishing school (a farm team, if you will) for lucrative corporate law practice in service to ever larger global corporations. The corporate attorneys weave strategies that mature the authoritarian corporate state (recall President Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex as one example) to undermine a weakening democratic society and support corporate supremacy.

As institutionalized lawlessness robs our country of its potential and promise, the opportunities for Harvard Law, a well-endowed, proud historic law school, to be a leading institution for justice, become ever more significant and urgent. The civic jolt, as always, comes from the rising of the deprived, denied, excluded and disrespected citizenry, from an informed and motivated student body ― seeking higher estimates of their own significance in contemporary history and drawing on their forebears’ finest initiatives ― and a faculty that lifts its horizons beyond its specializations and moves from knowledge to action ― as a few Harvard professors have done. It helps to nourish a media that recognizes law schools as heavily underutilized but very important national resources. In short, law schools need a constant dose of demands and invitations that come from higher public expectations.

Looking at HLS 200: HLS in the World ― Friday’s numerous sessions ― one wonders about key subjects left out, such as corporate crime, consumer protection and the role of large corporate law firms.

“Our Bicentennial Crisis” was written by Pete Davis to be discussed, analyzed and amplified by the Harvard Law School community, including its alumni, and the affected public at large. Copies will be distributed to all the law schools in the country and other civic and public organizations.

The law school administration, so historically adept at waiting out its student and alumni critics, would do well to engage with an open and sensitive mind. With Dean John Manning taking the helm, a fresh attitude, unencumbered by past decisions, can encourage constructive engagements in the coming weeks. Our country’s crises are worsening, the needs are great and the existing capacities at HLS should rise to meet, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., “the felt necessities of our times.”

(“Our Bicentennial Crisis” is available online here.)

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Why Is Nobel-Winning Economist Richard Thaler So Jovial?

When Professor Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago received the news that he had won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for “contributions to behavioral economics,” he faced an eager press with unusual mirth. What’s the story behind Professor Thaler’s jovial response?

Maybe he is laughing because the joke is finally on the empirically-starved economists whose dominance of the field is finally being challenged by a handful of increasingly noticed “behavioral economists.” In turning the tide of mainstream economic thought, Thaler and his colleagues reject the myth of the hyper-rational consumer – “homo economicus” – who are primarily motivated to maximize utility. It has been a struggle for these less dogmatic economists who for almost three decades have incurred ridicule and condescension by the mathematical economists of the Chicago School of Economics, before people started questioning theories of consumer behavior that are absurd on their face.

Years ago, I asked my Econ 101 professor after class whether the basis of economics is psychology. He gave me an incredulous look and asserted that economics was far too precise a discipline to be so vaguely rooted.

Perhaps Professor Thaler had a similar inquiry as a student watching his economics professors mark up the blackboard with intricate models of how markets and consumers work. Perhaps he was struck by a clear contradiction; He would ask, “Really?” Repeatedly, he would ask “Really?” because this was not how consumers he knew, including himself, operated when they bought or didn’t buy goods and services.

Thaler’s skepticism helped him produce books and articles showing an obvious but powerful truth: that people are consistently and predictably irrational and will act in a way that undermines their own self-interest. And contrary to the dogma of mainstream economics, the market overall doesn’t filter out such irrationality to avoid messy realities.

It’s a small wonder Dr. Thaler is jovial. He has reproduced what the much deprecated Home Economists and later the leading consumer advocates have documented ad infinitum. He built with more bracing analyses concise narratives involving many examples taken directly from consumer protection studies, together with his own common sense observations and candid descriptions of his own irrational behavior. For this he receives his profession’s most coveted prize, while home economists and consumer advocates keep toiling away, their heroism unsung to the majority of consumers who would benefit from this consumer-based wisdom regarding  buying and saving smarter than they have been doing  (e.g., avoiding frauds and harmful irrational choices) so as to protect their health, safety and pocketbooks.

The Nobel Committee praised Thaler as “a pioneer on integrating economics and psychology.” Maybe this is true in the case of the ‘dismal science’ of economics, but it does not account for the thousands of people who have worked to advise people to buy more nutritious foods, choose safer cars and medicines, be more savvy in buying insurance and borrowing and reject the deceptive ads from avaricious vendors flooding the airwaves.

Many mainstream economists got their kicks, promotions and consultantships by playing with complex numbers having concern for human experience, whether manipulated, gouged or drawn from ignorance, despair, fear, lack of time or gullibility. No matter their irrelevance to the real world, these economists were remarkably arrogant toward any of their “soft-headed” colleagues who worked in what was once called the ‘political economy’ or in the field of ‘consumer economics.’

I recall sharing a dinner table in the late nineties with Federal Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook (an adherent of the Chicago School of Economics), who sneeringly described Derek Bok of Harvard as someone who wouldn’t recognize a regression analysis if it hit him between the eyes.

Getting closer to reality, to on-the-ground evidence of the many human behavioral variables that cannot be quantified by computers so smugly, is the real challenge of social science. Thaler et al. now have the ‘prestige’ to press these other corporate economists to jettison their myths, climb down from their abstraction ladders and face the facts, urgencies and injustices of their time. Getting a grip on the way things really are may deny them some riches from their corporate patrons, for whom they so often shill. But it may encourage economists to embrace what their profession should be about: independent thinking, expanding knowledge and service to the public.

In a backhanded slam against his pompous or indentured (take your choice) brethren, Professor Thaler made a key point (quoted in the New York Times) in a presidential address at the American Economic Association in January 2016: “I think it is time to stop thinking about behavioral economics as some kind of revolution,” adding that, “all economics will be as behavioral as the topic requires.”

In an important sense, however, behavioral economics is a revolution – a revolution against the pitiless abstractions that have shaped the phony cost-benefit equations of corporatist economists who still work to undermine regulatory law and order in the fight against serious corporate misbehavior.

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Obama: Too Cool For Trump’s Crises

Back in the 1970s, there was a best-seller, widely read in the business community, called “Winning Through Intimidation.” Barack Obama should pick up a copy, because that is what Donald Trump may be doing to him. Obama stays mostly silent as the belligerent Trump rolls back or destroys the legacies of Obama’s eight years in office. The mere thought of tangling with the Trumpster’s foul, prevaricatory, sneering tweets offends Obama’s own sense of civil discourse between politicians.

Given the present crises, this revulsion is just another form of self-indulgence by the former, self-described community organizer, senator and president. There is no other political leader, in our celebrity culture, as well known or so high in the polls. Consequently Obama owes a different attitude and level of engagement to the American people.

In a previous column, I described some of these engagements, none of which involve a Twitter fight with Trump. They provide focal points for Americans to rally around agendas and opposition to the politics of anxiety, dread and fear generated by the unstable occupant of the White House. That is, a way to respond to Trump’s raging tantrums, fact-impairment, loss of self-control and ego-centric vanities.

Obama could, for example, work to strengthen civic groups and help substantially to create new organizations to address urgent needs (such as averting wars); he could back opposition to Trump’s destructive policies that are running America into the ground while shielding Wall Street and the dictatorial corporate supremacists whose toadies Trump has put into high government positions.

Obama is a big draw and can raise hundreds of millions of dollars faster than most. Furthermore, he has the unique ability to fill the void the mass media is desperately looking to fill by serving as a counterweight to Trump. Hillary, hawking her latest book, doesn’t fit the bill here.

Instead, Obama, besides raising funds for his presidential library (about $1 billion), is getting press primarily for being paid $400,000 or more per speech before Wall Street and other big business audiences. Most recently, the “New York Times” located him in Sao Paulo, Brazil, speaking generalities to businesspeople who were charged from $1,500 to $2,400 to hear him say essentially nothing of note. The speech title was grandly cheerleading: “Change the World? Yes, You Can”—a nod to his unofficial 2008 campaign slogan, “Yes We Can.”

Obama’s spokesman would not say how much Obama gets to keep of the approximate $2 million generated by this event, which was sponsored by the Spanish bank Santander and Brazilian media conglomerates. The paying attendees were attracted to his celebrity status and didn’t care about the sizable tab probably picked up by their companies. One attendee was quoted by the Times as saying, “It was a bit disappointing. I don’t feel like he said anything new.”

There is plenty to be said in the U.S. that is both new and significant by Obama. However, apart from a few words here and there on bigotry and immigration, Obama has preferred to bounce between high-priced lecture gigs and wealthy watering holes where he is a guest of the super-rich, and to work on his book, for which he is receiving over $30 million. Michelle Obama is receiving many millions of dollars for her book and has also been attending celebrity-filled gatherings. When asked at one such event, whom she would most like to be if she had another career, she answered, Beyoncé.

Meanwhile, down at the grassroots level, where people live, work and raise their families, tens of millions are without living wages or health insurance. Underemployment and people dropping out of the labor market in frustration over their rejected skills, mask what is in reality a deceptively low unemployment rate, and yet poverty indicators are everywhere. Under Trump, families will be exposed to more hazards in the workplace, the environment and the marketplace, and they will face rip-offs by companies that have been liberated from regulatory law and order.

The list of protective programs and responsible business laws destroyed by Trump’s wrecking crew of a cabinet grows longer every week.

It isn’t as if Barack Obama doesn’t realize what he is doing and what is happening to him in this self-enriching bubble he has shaped, post-presidency. He can’t seem to help himself, and going to nearly 500 fat-cat political fund-raisers outside Washington, D.C. as President didn’t help to change or expand his chosen circle.

In his best-selling 2006 book, “The Audacity Of Hope,” then Senator Obama admitted:

I found myself spending time with people of means — law firm partners and investment bankers, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists. As a rule, they were smart, interesting people. But they reflected, almost uniformly, the perspectives of their class: the top one percent of the income scale.

Classic Obama: Say the right thing, and the people won’t mind so much when your words don’t match your deeds.

Think of your millions of supporters, Mr. Obama. They want you to regularly stand up for them and fight the Trump-led assault on our weakening democracy.

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How Big Corporations Game Our Democracy Into Their Plutocracy

A major chapter in American history–rarely taught in our schools–is how ever larger corporations have moved to game, neutralize and undermine the people’s continual efforts to protect our touted democratic society. It is a fascinating story of the relentless exercise of power conceived or seized by corporations, with the strategic guidance of corporate lawyers.

Start with their birth certificate–the state charters that bring these corporate entities into existence, with limited liability for their investors. In the early 1800s, the Massachusetts legislature chartered many of the textile manufacturing companies. These charters could be renewed on good behavior, because lawmakers then viewed charters as privileges contingent on meeting the broad interests of society.

Fast forward to now. The charter can be granted online in a matter of hours; there are no renewal periods and the job is often given over to a state commission. Over the decades, corporate lobbyists have had either the legislatures or the courts grant them more privileges, immunities and concentration of power in management, rendering shareholders–their owners–increasingly powerless. The same corporate fixers work for corporations and their subsidiaries abroad to help them avoid U.S. laws, taxes and escape disclosures.

Remarkably, the artificial creation called the “corporation” has now achieved almost all of the rights of real people under our “We the People” Constitution that never mentions the words “corporation” or “company.”

Corporations cannot vote, at least not yet; only people can. That was seen as a major lever of democratic power over corporations. So what has happened? Commercial money to politicians started weakening the influence of voters because the politicians became increasingly dependent on the corporate interests that bankrolled their campaigns. The politicians use their ever-increasing corporate cash to saturate voters with deceptive political ads, and intimidate any competitors who have far less money, but may be far better representative of the public good.

To further shatter the principle of voter sovereignty, corporations have rewarded those politicians who construct restrictive political party rules, gerrymander electoral districts and obstruct third party candidate ballot access. By concentrating political power in fewer and fewer hands, corporate influence becomes more deeply entrenched in our democratic society. Politicians quickly learn that political favors will attract more corporate campaign cash and other goodies.

Institutions that are supposed to represent democratic values, such as Congress and state legislatures are meticulously gamed with the daily presence of corporate lawyers and lobbyists to shape the granular performance of these bodies and make sure little is done to defend civic values. These pitchmen are in the daily know about the inner workings of legislative bodies long before the general public. They often know who is going to be nominated for judicial and executive branch positions that interpret and administer the law and whether the nominee will do the bidding of the corporate bosses.

Then there is the press. Thomas Jefferson put great responsibility on the newspapers of his day to safeguard our democracy from excessive commercial power and their runaway political toadies. Certainly, our history has some great examples of the press fulfilling Jefferson’s wish. For the most part, however, any media that is heavily reliant on advertisements will clip its own wings or decide to go with light-hearted entertainment or fluff, rather than dig in the pits of corruption and wrongdoing.

What of the educational institutions that purport to convey facts, the lessons of history and not be beholden to special interests? The corporate state – the autocratic joining of business and government – exerts its influence all the way down to the state and local levels, not just in Washington. It works through boards of education and trustees of colleges and universities, drawing heavily from the business world and its professional servants in such disciplines as law, accounting and engineering.

Moreover, the most influential alumni, in terms of donations, endowments and engagements, come from the business community. They know the kind of alma mater they want to preserve. The law and business schools are of particular interest, if only because they are the recruiting grounds for their companies and firms.

Their subversion even extends to the sacrosanct notion of academic freedom – that these institutions must be independent centers of knowledge. For example, Monsanto, General Motors, Exxon and Eli Lilly are only a few of the companies that have pushed corporate, commercial science over academic, independent science through lucrative consultantships and partnerships with professors.

The unfortunate reality  is that the wealthy and powerful are driven to spend the necessary time and energy to accomplish their raison d’etre, which are profits and the relentless pursuit of self-interest. Citizens, on the other hand, have so much else on their minds, just to get through the day and raise their families.

The path forward is to learn from history how citizens, when driven by injustice, organized, raised the banners of change and concentrated on the ways and means to victory. These initiatives require civic self-respect and an understanding that the status quo is demeaning and intolerable.

The requisite to such an awakening is the awareness that our two precious pillars of democracy – freedom of contract and freedom to use the courts – are being destroyed or seriously undermined by corporate influence. The contract servitude of fine-print contracts, signed or clicked on, is the basis of so many of the abuses and rip-offs that Americans are subjected to with such regularity. Add this modern peonage to the corporate campaign to obstruct the people’s full day in court and right of trial by jury guaranteed by our Constitution. The plutocrats have succeeded in gravely doing just that. Tight court budgets, the frequency of jury trials and the number of filed wrongful injury lawsuits keep going down to case levels well under five percent of what the needs for justice require.

Some fundamental questions are: Will we as citizens use our Constitutional authority to reclaim and redirect the power we’ve too broadly delegated to elected officials? Will we hold these officials accountable through a reformed campaign finance system that serves the people over the plutocrats? Will we realize that a better society starts with just a few people in each electoral district and never requires more than one percent of the voters, organized and reflecting public opinion, to make the corporations our servants, not our masters?

See my recent paperback, Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think.

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Big Institutions: Immunities, Impunities and Insanities

One of the first times I used the phrase “institutional insanity” was in 1973 to describe the behavior of scientist Dixy Lee Ray, chairperson of the presumed regulatory agency, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). I pointed out that her personal and academic roles were quite normal. But her running of the AEC—pressing for 1,000 nuclear plants in the U.S. by the year 2000 (there are 99 reactors left in operation now), and going easy on a deadly, taxpayer subsidized technology that was privately uninsurable, lacked a place to put its lethal radioactive wastes, a national security risk, replete with vast cost over-runs, immunities and impunities shielding culpable officials and executives, should a meltdown occur and take out a city or region (all to boil water to produce steam to make electricity)—was a case study in “institutional insanity.”

Both the AEC and its successor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), captured by the atomic energy industry, operate this way to this day, no matter the near misses, the spills, growing corporate welfare outlays, and the inadequate maintenance of aging nuclear power plants.

Our moral and ethical codes and our civil and criminal laws were originally designed to hold individuals accountable. The kings of yore operated under a divine right of being above the laws.

With the rise and proliferation of ever more multi-tiered governmental and corporate bureaucracies, methods of immunity, impunity and secrecy were built into these structures to shield them from moral/ethical codes and laws. Increasingly, we are ruled by no-fault big corporations and their no-fault toady governments.

Some comparisons are in order. If your neighbor entrusted you with her savings and paid you a fee for doing so, you then purchased stocks for her account while you’re selling them for your account, deceiving the cheated neighbor in the process, would you escape the law? That is just some of what the Wall Street Barons did on a massive scale about ten years ago. No one was prosecuted and sent to jail for this corporate crime wave.

Suppose you hired a security person for your defense who, at the same time, wasted your money and couldn’t account for your payments because his books were unauditable. Would you keep doing business with him? Wouldn’t you demand an audit? Well on a hugely larger scale, this is the Pentagon contracting system and your tax dollars. Why not demand that the defense department stop violating federal law, as it has since 1992, and provide Congress with auditable information so that its accounting arm, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) can audit the notoriously porous Pentagon books.

Suppose the head of your neighborhood association kept sugar coating problems, kept lying to you, kept describing conditions that weren’t so and kept doing things that would enrich himself in conflict with his duties. Would you keep supporting him in that position? Probably not. Well, that is your president, day after day.

What if your neighbor kept dumping polluted water and solid waste pollutants on your lawn and all around your house? Would you demand that your town or city stop this contamination, or sit quietly and accept this abuse because you don’t believe in regulation? Well, Trump’s EPA wrecker, Scott Pruitt, is busily weakening environmental protections and even taking away environmental crimes investigators and forcing them to be his personal security guard.

Let’s say your farmers’ market vendors sensed that you were very dependent on the food they provide and they proceeded to triple the prices, it’s not difficult to predict your reactions. Yet that is what the drug companies have done with many of your important medicines over the past 10 years. Yet where are the outraged demands for the government to have the power to negotiate volume discounts, facilitate generics, restrain prices for drugs rooted in your taxpayer funded research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and allow imported competition from Canada?

You get into a bus or cab and the driver regularly cheats you into paying several times more than you should pay and then covers it up. When you find out about it, all hell breaks loose next time you confront him. What about Wells Fargo bank—they knowingly created unauthorized, false credit card and auto insurance accounts, wrongly billing customers millions of times. Imagine: no criminal prosecutions yet, no wholesale resignation of the well-paid Board of Directors, and very few customers are leaving the bank. Wells Fargo keeps reporting great profits while hassling victims into settlements. What’s one takeaway? The bigger the crook, the bigger is our surrender. Too big to fail or jail!

The neighbor in charge of the rural, communal drinking water well knows it’s being contaminated by a party that was his previous employer and expects to be hired back by his old boss. Your children as well as their parents are at risk. Well, welcome to Trump’s deregulations of food, drug, auto pollution, and workplace investor safety. They’ve come from the industries’ payroll and expect to come back with a big raise.

There are just a few contrasts between individual and institutional crimes and wrongdoing and our different responses toward them. Facebook, Google and Equifax can misuse your personal information to your perceived disadvantage and they repeatedly get away with it.

The White House under Bush/Cheney can unconstitutionally ignite wars, lie to the people about the reasons, produce millions of casualties and untold destruction of innocent peoples’ homelands, get re-elected and later retire with huge speech fees without being chased by the “sheriffs.”

It is doubtful whether you would allow your hamlet’s political leaders to get away with such violent assaults, even if they wanted to do so.

If our moral/ethical/legal codes cannot reach up to the tops of these institutions on behalf of wronged, injured individuals and communities and societies, we’ll get what we’ve been getting, which is worse and worse immunities/impunities with each passing decade.

Isn’t this a fault/no fault paradox worth thinking about?

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The Censorious Vortex Of The ‘Flash News’ Barons

For decades, the factors that decided what noteworthy stories would not find their way into print or on the air came down to the media’s ignorance, laziness or from advertising restraints. How else can one explain the many years that passed before the tobacco, auto and junk food industries became the subject of regular consumer reporting? For too long, the explosive material for good journalism in these and other areas had remained hidden in plain sight.

With the intensification of soundbite journalism, fueled by audiences’ increasingly short attention spans, Twitter addiction, the stupefaction of video culture and a willful disregard of both history and contemplation, a new form of censorship has emerged. The domination of “breaking news” — increasingly defined by episodes of violence, natural disasters and celebrity/political outrages and lurid scandals — is rampant.

When any one of these sensationalized episodes is seen as the “big story,” its massive over-coverage crowds out much of what normally would be communicated through the media. At their most frenetic periods, Fox News and CNN represent the worst of these lucrative culs de sac.

More and more, this phenomenon of fewer and fewer types of stories crowding out diverse and crucial reporting has become contagious. Our self-selecting social media bubbles further isolate us by validating, but not challenging, our opinions. Sunday morning network television “news” shows display the same subject, the same invited guests that were in that week’s newscasts. It has become almost impossible to introduce any subject matter, especially fresh disclosures and reports, outside of this tightening circle of opinion oligopolists.

Notice the near maniacal focus on Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, which amplified his insults, falsifications, howls of outrage and damaging rhetoric. Shut out was any attempt by civic groups to widen the election period’s public discussions of important topics that were taken off the table by the two parties and unchallenged by a dittohead media.

When I ask modestly liberal syndicated columnists why they are not writing about what in earlier times would have been their chosen stories, they tell me that editors demand that they address what has already been “in the news.”

I began to notice our various citizen groups experiencing difficulty in getting “newstime” or “newsprint” because their subjects—clearly newsworthy and affecting people directly—weren’t already in the corporate news media by some high profile story. Among the many severely neglected topics are looted pensions, food and auto safety, hospital malpractice, a predatory pharmaceutical industry, massive billing frauds, the dark sides of corporate welfare, an unauditable Pentagon budget and the devastation caused by stock buybacks. The paucity of “beat” reporters due to ever-winnowing newsroom populations has worsened this spreading blackout. Meanwhile, thousands of commercial radio stations using our public airwaves for free are increasingly syndicated and automated.

This contagion has spread to public radio and public broadcasting. They too have to be, to use the current euphemism, “contemporary.” More experienced and thoughtful perspectives, expressed in paragraphs rather than Tweets, are not “contemporary.” Former regular guests on NPR and PBS, if they are not part of the commentariate for the day’s “breaking news” are no longer regular. Even the prime national and state programs for NPR and PBS are falling in line. Check out the exclusion on Charlie Rose and Judy Woodruff’s Newshour.

Last year, the mass media declined to cover any part of eight days at our “Breaking Through Power” convocations at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. These were gatherings of more accomplished civic doers and advocacy leaders—many having fundamentally shaped our country for the better— mobilizing around more reforms and redirections than ever brought together in modern American history. They came prepared to share their compelling stories, warnings and plans for action with an eager press. They were not seen as breaking news and therefore “not contemporary” (see breakingthroughpower.org).

Even the estimable Minnesota Public Radio has narrowed its vision. I had complained about the cessation of interviews for my books, reports and commentaries in recent years. Nancy Cassutt, executive director of news and programming for Minnesota Public Radio explained: “we prefer to pick show topics using our editorial judgment about what is in the national conversation, once we do that we search for the voices with diverse opinions and backgrounds to build the show.”

Unfortunately it is not Minnesota Public Radio that determines what is in the national conversation. That choice comes from a very select group of producers, editors, performers and corporate advertisers from Washington, DC and New York City.

In today’s media ecosystem, I could not, for example, have been invited on Meet the Press to introduce my charges against the auto industry’s unsafe vehicles. Scientist Michael Jacobson could not have gotten national media for his revelations concerning the lethal effects of sugar, fat and salt in processed, non-nutritious foods. Likewise Dr. Sidney Wolfe could not have reached millions of people through national news networks and the Phil Donahue Show to alert the public about dangerous medicines. Because they were able to reach and inform the public, their groups expanded and changed America for the better.

Alas, no more such access. The fractured, increasingly cluttered and trivialized Internet is no substitute. The trends are getting worse, especially for younger people. Enough of us, individually or in new organizations, must reclaim the use of our FCC-licensed public airwaves, demanding conditions for serious programming in our community cable contracts and creating a climate for reading and contemplation in our educational institutions.

Remember the high points of American history. Major justice movements were achieved with one percent or less of the population serving as active citizens reflecting majority public opinion. That is what will lead to a more serious media and redefine for them what is truly “contemporary,” because what is portrayed as “contemporary” in the media should reflect the necessities of the people, and not the whims of media executives and advertisers.

If you want a different example of what is newsworthy, tune in to my weekly radio show, the Ralph Nader Radio Hour.

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Destructive Stock Buybacks—That You Pay For

The monster of economic waste—over $7 trillion of dictated stock buybacks since 2003 by the self-enriching CEOs of large corporations—started with a little noticed change in 1982 by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) under President Ronald Reagan. That was when SEC Chairman John Shad, a former Wall Street CEO, redefined unlawful ‘stock manipulation’ to exclude stock buybacks.

Then after Clinton pushed through congress a $1 million cap on CEO pay that could be deductible, CEO compensation consultants wanted much of CEO pay to reflect the price of the company’s stock. The stock buyback mania was unleashed. Its core was not to benefit shareholders (other than perhaps hedge fund speculators) by improving the earnings per share ratio. Its real motivation was to increase CEO pay no matter how badly such burning out of shareholder dollars hurt the company, its workers and the overall pace of economic growth. In a massive conflict of interest between greedy top corporate executives and their own company, CEO-driven stock buybacks extract capital from corporations instead of contributing capital for corporate needs, as the capitalist theory would dictate.

Yes, due to the malicious, toady SEC “business judgement” rule, CEOs can take trillions of dollars away from productive pursuits without even having to ask the companies’ owners—the shareholders—for approval.

What could competent management have done with this treasure trove of shareholder money which came originally from consumer purchases? They could have invested more in research and development, in productive plant and equipment, in raising worker pay (and thereby consumer demand), in shoring up shaky pension fund reserves, or increasing dividends to shareholders.

The leading expert on this subject—economics professor William Lazonick of the University of Massachusetts—wrote a widely read article in 2013 in the Harvard Business Review titled “Profits Without Prosperity” documenting the intricate ways CEOs use buybacks to escalate their pay up to  300 to 500 times (averaging over $10,000 an hour plus lavish benefits) the average pay of their workers. This compared to only 30 times the average pay gap in 1978. This has led to increasing inequality and stagnant middle class wages.

To make matters worse, companies with excessive stock buybacks experience a declining market value. A study by Professor Robert Ayres and Executive Fellow Michael Olenick at INSEAD (September 2017) provided data about IBM, which since 2005 has spent $125 billion on buybacks while laying off large numbers of workers and investing only $69.9 billion in R&D. IBM is widely viewed as a declining company that has lost out to more nimble competitors in Silicon Valley.

The authors also cite General Electric, which in the same period spent $114.6 billion on its own stock only to see its stock price steadily decline in a bull market. In a review of 64 companies, including major retailers such as JC Penny and Macy’s, these firms spent more dollars in stock buybacks “than their businesses are currently worth in market value”!

On the other hand, Ayes and Olenick analyzed 269 companies that “repurchased stock valued at 2 percent or less of their current market value (including Facebook, Xcel Energy, Berkshire Hathaway and Amazon). They were strong market performers. The scholars concluded that “Buybacks are a way of disinvesting – we call it ‘committing corporate suicide’—in a way that rewards the “activists” (e.g. Hedge Funds) and executives, but hurts employees and pensioners.”

Presently, hordes of corporate lobbyists are descending on Washington to demand deregulation and tax cuts. Why, you ask them? In order to conserve corporate money for investing in economic growth, they assert. Really?! Why, then, are they turning around and wasting far more money on stock buybacks, which produce no tangible value? The answer is clear: uncontrolled executive greed!

By now you may be asking, why don’t the corporate bosses simply give more dividends to shareholders instead of buybacks, since a steady high dividend yield usually protects the price of the shares? Because these executives have far more of their compensation package in manipulated stock options and incentive payments than they own in stock.

Walmart in recent years has bought back over $50 billion of its shares – a move benefitting the Walton family’s wealth – while saying it could not afford to increase the meagre pay for over one million of their workers in the US. Last year the company bought back $8.3 billion of their stock which could have given their hard-pressed employees, many of whom are on welfare, a several thousand dollar raise.

The corporate giants are also demanding that Congress allow the repatriation of about $2.5 trillion stashed abroad without paying more than 5% tax. They say the money would be used to grow the economy and create jobs. Last time CEOs promised this result in 2004, Congress approved, and then was double-crossed. The companies spent the bulk on stock buybacks, their own pay raises and some dividend increases.

There are more shenanigans. With low interest rates that are deductible, companies actually borrow money to finance their stock buybacks. If the stock market tanks, these companies will have a self-created debt load to handle. A former Citigroup executive, Richard Parsons, has expressed worry about a “massively manipulated” stock market which “scares the crap” out of him.

Banks that pay you near zero interest on your savings announced on June 28, 2017 the biggest single buyback in history – a $92.8 billion extraction. Drug companies who say their sky-high drug prices are needed to fund R&D. But between 2006 and 2017, 18 drug company CEOs spent a combined staggering $516 billion on buybacks and dividends – more than their inflated claims of spending for R&D.

Mr. Olenick says “When managers can’t create value in the business other than buying their own stock, it seems like it’s time for a management change.”

Who’s going to do that? Shareholders stripped of inside power to control the company they own? No way. It will take Congressional hearings, a robust media focus, and the political clout of large pension and mutual funds to get the reforms under way.

When I asked Robert Monks, an author and longtime expert on corporate governance, about his reaction to CEOs heavy with stock buybacks, he replied that the management was either unimaginative, incompetent or avaricious – or all of these.

Essentially burning trillions of dollars for the hyper enrichment of a handful of radical corporate state supremacists wasn’t what classical capitalism was supposed to be about.

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