Corporate Power

I taught Business Ethics for many years and during those years I came across a great many reports of the abuse of the power of corporations. It became increasingly clear as I read and thought about this misuse that it stems from the fact that the publicly owned companies ignore the stakeholder because they are primarily (if not exclusively) concerned about the return on the dollar, i.e., profits that can  be paid out to shareholders (and overpaid CEOs who typically make 400 times as much as their  average employee). What I now take to be an obvious fact has many ramifications.

I have posted before about the oversight on the part of the founders who were so sensitive to the abuse of power and who simply did not see the possible abuses of power that might result from the millions of dollars the corporations rake in every year. — and this despite the fact that Jefferson, for one, was fully aware of the dangers of immoderate wealth in the hands of a few. But the founders simply couldn’t see this coming, clearly. They did realize, however, that the Constitution was a document that required up-dating from time to time; it is not written in stone. Henry Adam thought that when Grant was elected there would be a drastic overhaul of a document he realized was already out of date. But that didn’t happen. But, surely, one of the issues that needs to be addressed in our day is the abuse of the power of corporations that can simply buy elections and determine who is allowed to hold public office and what those who have been elected will do when in office (if they want to be reelected).

In 2010 the Supreme Court decided by a vote of 5-4  in the “Citizens United” case that corporations are “persons” and have rights of free speech as protected by the First Amendment. Under that umbrella, they were given the green light to contribute to political campaigns — which they have subsequently done, in spades. Elections were increasingly a battle of the rich against the also rich, but the contributions of the corporations — not to mention those who run the corporations — have upped the ante considerably. Now we find ourselves faced with continuous requests for money from candidates and political parties to “take on” the corporations — as though this can be effectively accomplished.

I don’t buy the notion that corporations are persons and I think the claim I have seen argued that, as persons, they might somehow be shamed into behaving ethically is a bit dubious. If the shame were to result in lower profits corporate CEOs would simply pass along the losses to the customers until the PR people could direct attention elsewhere and convince the public that no real harm was done. This was the case with the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the waters off Alaska a few years ago when Exxon sent a team of people up to the region of the spill where they cleaned up several hundred yards of oil from the shoreline and then had it filmed and used the film in a public relations campaign to convince customers that they had eradicated the effects of the spill. Ignored altogether, we have since discovered, were hundreds of yards of shoreline out of sight that remained covered in oil. It seems to be in the corporate DNA to do whatever it has to do to “right the ship” in the case of an accident and make sure the image of the company is not seriously damaged. They have public relations people who do nothing else but address this issue. And they have lawyers, who they often call “ethics officers,” whose job it is to see that they take no steps that could possibly end them up in court — because they identify morality with legality and pride themselves in “doing nothing wrong.”

The recent attempts by the current administration to weaken, if not eradicate altogether, the E.P.A. and other regulatory agencies is extremely disturbing because history has shown that the corporations will not police themselves and if their feet are not held to the fire they will do whatever it takes to increase profits, full stop. In an economy like ours regulations are anathema to the corporations and their highly paid officers. But from the public’s perspective they are essential.

Furthermore, those corporations should not be regarded as persons and given the right under the First Amendment to contribute to political campaigns. The founders missed this one, but we are becoming increasingly aware of the abuses of power by the corporations and the need to rein them in by limiting their impact on the public domain. The first step, clearly, is the rejection of the Citizens United decision which at least two of the judges who voted for it now realize was a mistake. And, if we cannot revise the constitution, we can certainly modify it to see to it that controls are placed on otherwise unfettered power. That is, we can if we have the will.

Big Chem

Readers of these blogs will have figured out that I am no friend of large corporations. I taught business ethics for years, which involved the reading of innumerable case studies, and it became crystal clear to me that publicly owned corporations are corrupt at the core: stockholders, not stakeholders, are the only concern, and profits are the name of the game, simply. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the founders of this nation understandably failed to anticipate the immense power corporations could have and the recent Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court that defines corporations as persons and grants them “free speech” in giving as much money as they want to already corrupt politicians simply puts an explanation point at the end of the sentence. And we are about to enjoy the benefits of this decision in the form of obscene amounts of money spent on political campaigns. What was already nauseating will now get worse.

In any event, Big Oil has taken the brunt of my criticism, for the most part, as I recalled such things as the way Exxon went to Prudhoe Bay after the Valdez oil spill and cleaned up a few hundred yards of shoreline and then had photos taken to show how they had cleaned up their mess — while thousands of yards of shoreline and countless damaged bird and marine species went ignored. And we are now discovering that the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by British Petroleum has apparently affected marine life in that region in ways yet to be determined: mutations are already being noted. In the meantime Big Oil continues to rake in the profits, aided by $4 billion in annual tax subsidies, while the clean energy industry tries desperately to keep its head above water. So Big Oil deserves the castigations it receives from this modest blog site, and more.

But so does Big Chem it appears. A recent article in the New York Times reveals that Big Chem has been assiduously bribing Congressmen to look the other way and ignore the growing numbers of scientists who have been warning us all about the dangers of endocrine disruptors which are “everywhere. They’re in thermal receipts that come out of gas pumps, and A.T.M.s. They’re in canned foods, cosmetics, plastics, and food packaging.” What do these disruptors do? They “are hormone-mimicking chemicals that have grotesque effects.”

These chemicals have been tightly controlled in England and Canada, but they are still everywhere present in this country. The chemical companies have been successful in lobbying our lawmakers into guaranteeing that they be allowed to continue to make huge profits at the cost of genetic and health damage to humans and other animal species — such as male frogs with female organs, male fish producing eggs, male alligators with tiny penises. In humans, these chemicals cause breast cancer, infertility, low sperm counts, genital deformities, early menstruation, and even diabetes and obesity.

But these chemicals will continue to be produced unless congress acts to prohibit them, or at least strictly regulate them — a possibility that seems remote since the scientific community, led by such eminent scientists as Linda S. Birnbaum, the nation’s chief environmental scientist and toxicologist, has for several years sought government intervention, to no avail. For there is money to be made, a great deal of money; and much of it will find its way into the pockets of accommodating members of congress.