By Ralph Nader
Back in the mid-nineteen-fifties, the prolific, progressive political economist, Harvard’s John Kenneth Galbraith, developed his “theory of countervailing powers.” He asserted as big business got bigger, its overreach would be constrained by strong labor unions, regulators, and antitrust enforcement. Inside the realm of large companies, big retail chains could check the power of large manufacturers.
Around the same time, the savvy corporate lawyer/author, Adolf Berle developed his concept of “pension fund capitalism.” That is, fast-expanding worker pension funds would own large amounts of the shares of large corporations as investments and thereby have commensurate influence over them and over Congress.
As the years passed, these two scholars came to realize that the stamina, resilience, and single-minded cohesiveness for maximizing sales, profits, and executive pay by corporate bosses overwhelmed the countervailing forces, including corporate shareholder-owners, not so singularly motivated.
The remarkable, many-faceted display of resurgent controlling power is able to game, co-opt, corrupt, weaken, replace, or escape forces designed to make CEOs behave and make corporations accountable to shareholders and other stakeholders.
1. The top choice for taming excessive corporate power is governments at the national, state, and local level because the government is the only real source of law and power with the potential to restrain corporate crime, fraud, and various abuses. The corporate power formula is: finance lawmakers’ campaigns, shape the selection of executive branch nominees, surround them with sweet-talking lobbyists holding carrots in front and sticks behind their back to get top government appointments in the executive and judicial branches to be from the corporate ranks or ideologies, and dangle lucrative post-government service positions in industry and commerce for compliant former government officials.
When global capitalism becomes prominent, corporations get trade agreements through Congress that are really not “free trade,” but corporate-managed trade to the detriment of democracy and domestic labor, consumer, and environmental interests. (See, Global Trade Watch: https://www.citizen.org/topic/globalization-trade/).
As with all their campaigns, big business vastly outnumbers their opponents with enormous monies and legions of full-time staff.
2. Slashing labor union power from its peak in the nineteen sixties was fairly easy. Neutralize the National Labor Relations Board, block labor empowerment legislation, pass right-to-work (right to shirk) laws in 21 states for a pull-down effect on the remaining states; use automation and leaving the country as cudgels; publicize union corruption, co-opt leaders of unions when possible, control many worker pension plans, and make sure the suffocating Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 remains untouched and undiscussed. Disable OSHA, the job safety agency, and keep the Secretary of Labor a second-class status.
3. Civic and worker access to the courts? No problem. Get corporatist judges installed right up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Unleash the corporate law firms to tie up the people in one-sided fine print contracts that block consumer remedies and take away consumer rights while weakening tort law through state legislative regulation of judges and juries.
4. Entrench asymmetric entitlements, dominated by corporate welfare, bailouts, handouts, and giveaways rarely overseen by Congress and immune from annual renewals. The rip-off by corporate contractors of the American taxpayer goes far beyond the military-industrial complex that President Dwight Eisenhower warned about in his farewell address. Taxpayers are shut out, and not allowed to have ‘legal standing to sue’ for waste, corruption, or unlawful government contracts.
5. Big business domination of small business has been reduced to a normal practice of doing business, whether by anti-competitive behavior (as on Amazon’s platforms), cruel franchise servitude by giant chains, or by running small inventors and entrepreneurs into the ground with costly litigation or the threat of such harassment.
6. Immunities and Escapes. When multinational corporations choose not to pay taxes, they go to foreign tax havens (as described so well in Chuck Collin’s new book The Wealth Hoarders (https://inequality.org/wealthhoarders/) or push for carve-out escapes in the tax code with their Democratic and Republican allies in Congress.
Corporations also profit from their own harms, as has been the case with pushing opioids, overdiagnosing and overprescribing medicines (with negative side-effects), and fostering a marketplace of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes with their well-documented, insidious promotions aimed at children of junk fat, sugar, and salt in food and drink.
As for the countervailing “independent” professions of law, accounting, science, medicine, and engineering, forget it. They long ago lost their independence to the heavy corporatization of their daily practice, including the professional graduate schools.
Taken together, we are sequestered in a mature no-fault and immune corporate state the likes of which was called “fascism” by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1938 message to Congress successfully urging the establishment of a commission to investigate concentrated corporate power. The commission did admirably, but then nothing happened as World War II took over the nation’s politics.
Here and there in the past eighty years, there have been victories for the people. Constraining the power of the tobacco, auto, and asbestos industries, for example. These triumphs provide us with the key to subordinating corporatism to the supremacy of the people’s sovereignty (remember “we the people” is in our Constitution’s preamble, not “we the corporations” which are never mentioned once). These successes (civil, consumer, environmental, and worker rights) improved our society because laws got through Congress. If you want to make big companies servants of the people, it usually has to go through a super-majority of only 535 people who are members of Congress and want your votes, which companies do not have – at least not yet.
It’s your Congress, People! Reclaim it from the corporatists. It’s in your hands. Lives, healthcare, livelihoods, your descendants and the planet will be so much better off if you spend a fraction of the time you spend on your hobbies holding your two Senators and Representatives accountable to the people first.
It’s Easier than You Think (See, Breaking Through Power: https://nader.org/books/breaking-through-power/).