Those Predatory Rich (Again)

The term in the title of this piece is from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book, The Bully Pulpit, about Teddy Roosevelt, William Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. I have referred to her book previously, but I wanted to return to it and share some of the excellent points Ms Goodwin makes. I have noted the rough parallels between the “robber baron” days and our own — specifically, the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the almighty power of the corporations, or “trusts” as they were called then. A critic might well point out that we have made great strides from the days of child-labor and the 12 hour work day. And this is true. But we still have a pathetically low minimum wage and there are folks out there who would love to reverse those strides and take us back to the “glory days” of laissez-faire economics, free enterprise, as they imagine it to be — free from governmental interference and those pesky agencies that put restraints on the obscene increase in profits.

Roosevelt himself was very much aware of the mentality of the “predatory rich” (Goodwin’s words) and that is what most interests me, because while many things have changed I don’t think that mind-set has changed much at all. We can see examples of it all around us as the number of homeless and disenfranchised grow, the middle class shrinks, and the corporations and folks like the Koch brothers continue to amass fortunes. It is most interesting to note that Teddy Roosevelt was himself a wealthy Republican and staunch supporter of capitalism who grew to see more and more clearly the moral depravity that is bred by an unfettered economy when the government looks the other way and a small group of men are allowed to take the reins in their own hands and focus exclusively on accumulating piles of gold. He was, of course, a “progressive” Republican, a reformer who saw the need to put restraints on the greed of those who see nothing but profits and losses, whose world has shrunk to the size of a gnat’s testicle and who seem to have no conscience whatever. Describing his notion of the balance that is needed, Roosevelt noted in a speech to the Union League Club:

“Neither this people not any other free people will permanently tolerate the use of vast power conferred by vast wealth, and especially by wealth in its corporate form, without lodging somewhere in the government the still higher power of seeing that this power, in addition to being used in the interest of the individual or the individuals possessing it, is also used for and not against the interests of the people as a whole.”

One would hope, wouldn’t one? In any event, after McKinley was shot and Roosevelt became president — much to the chagrin of the Republican bosses who tried to bury him in the Vice-Presidency to get him out of the governorship of New York where he was a pain in their collective ass, — he faced one of his major challenges. The miners in Pennsylvania went on strike; as the strike grew in size and violence and as Winter approached and coal became increasingly scarce, he wondered what the Constitution allowed him to do. He was in sympathy with the miners as he was with those poor folks in crowded New York tenements whom he visited, living together, five in the same room where they rolled cigars in sweat-shop conditions struggling to eek out a living. He knew the miners worked 10 hour days from the age of ten until they died at an early age from black lung disease, seldom seeing the light of day. And he knew that the owners were bound and determined to see that their plight did not improve at the owners’ expense.

One of the things that outraged him, as it did so many others, was the arrogance of the owners who had banded together and refused to listen to the legitimate grievances of the miners until they went dutifully back to work. The owners had already turned down an agreed-upon raise of 5% that would have cost them a mere $3 million dollars a year against their estimated profits of $75 million. Their attitude was clearly expressed in an open letter published by mine-owner George Baer which included the following paragraph:

“I beg of you not to be discouraged. The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for — not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the country, and upon the successful management of which so much depends.”

Needless to say, these words threw gas on the fire. They aroused the anger of thousands of people around the country, including the president. And they drew dozens of angry responses from newspaper editors around the country. Eventually Roosevelt was able to work a compromise by some brilliant machinations which drove the Republican bosses mad while reducing his chances of gaining the Republican nomination he so dearly sought. But he knew what was right and he knew he had to act accordingly. And he knew how to use the power of the press against those who ruled the Republican party. And that knowledge proved pivotal.

But what I want to focus attention on is the attitude reflected in those extraordinary words written by George Baer. As one editor noted, it smacks of the notion of divine rights of kings, except the sentiment here, strongly felt no doubt by his fellow fat-cats, is that property owners have a divine right to their property and to what is done with it — regardless of costs in human lives. Indeed, it is doubtful if men like Baer had any idea about the moral costs of their stunted perspective. In this comment he seems to be lost in his own convictions about Christian his right to lord it over others, if you can imagine such a thing.

It is one thing to insist that folks have a right to determine what happens with their property, but even John Locke, who was one of the first to defend free-enterprise capitalism, realized that there must be moral restraints on the amassing of great wealth. He insisted that one had a right to amass wealth only to the point where it interferes with the possibility of others amassing wealth as well. Adam Smith, who wrote the Bible on free-enterprise capitalism, agreed. They both simply assumed that human sympathy, fellow-feeling, would enter in and make the rich realize that there are limits to how much wealth they can collect without making life miserable for others. How naive! On the contrary, Baer’s letter reveals an attitude which we can see to this day among the predatory rich, which rests on the unquestioned assumption (on their part) that they have a right to as much money as they want and any interference with the steps they might take to gain that money are to be squashed, whatever the cost. I give you the predatory rich. You can have them.

Free Press?

Along with a number of my blogging buddies I have wondered aloud why there is so little genuine press coverage of such things as political debates. Why aren’t the politicians pressed harder by the reporters? Why aren’t we allowed to hear both sides of the issues? I have often thought that many of our problems stem from the fact that news has become entertainment, that, in general, what we are allowed to hear is determined by a few corporations that really want to amuse us and to think alike. When my mind wanders in this direction I hear a small voice in my ear whisper that this sounds like “conspiracy theory.” But the fact is that five major corporations in this country own 90% of the public media. These corporations determine what we hear and see and in large measure the way we think. For those of us who treasure our freedom, this is a serious problem. Some have said that in our day our freedom has increased, whereas the truth of the matter is that it has diminished.  The data in the following article suggest why:

The trend of media conglomeration has been steady. In 1983, 50 corporations controlled most of the American media, including magazines, books, music, news feeds, newspapers, movies, radio and television. By 1992 that number had dropped by half. By 2000, six corporations had ownership of most media, and today five dominate the industry: Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany and Viacom. With markets branching rapidly into international territories, these few companies are increasingly responsible for deciding what information is shared around the world.

What this means for all of us is that the free press which Thomas Jefferson once said was the cornerstone of our democracy has become the voice of a handful of giant corporations that clearly do not want the citizens of this country to exercise free choice. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that our freedom is largely an illusion, since the corporations are in control of the commercial messages that persuade us in hidden ways to make the choices that will increase profits for those companies that support the media through advertising. And this goes for our political choices as well — with rare exceptions. We are convinced that we have a great many choices, whereas in fact those choices are limited in ways we are largely unaware of. It matters not how many books we have to choose from in the library or the bookstore, it matters which ones we choose or if we choose any at all

But there is more. The free exchange of ideas was guaranteed by the F.C.C. in 1949 as a result of what was then referred to as the “Fairness Doctrine” which guaranteed that both sides of controversial issues must be made public. This doctrine was rejected in 1987 by the F.C.C. under the leadership of Mark Fowler who had been a member of then President Ronald Reagan’s campaign staff and who argued that the doctrine violated the first amendment. As a result, the door was opened to the media to indoctrinate rather than inform — present a single point of view repeatedly and ignore opposing views; this gave rise to such abortions as Murdoch’s Fox News.

Thus, it is not surprising that we now have entertainment in place of news, that the dogged and determined press of, say, the Roosevelt era that helped Teddy bring down the Trusts, is a thing of the past. What we now have is “news” presented by glib, beautiful people whose strings are pulled by a handful of giant corporations which prefer that we know only what they regard as important. That is to say, our democracy has been replaced (as Aldous Huxley predicted) by an oligarchy that calls the shots while the rest of us go through the motions and do what we are told and elect those politicians who are found to be malleable. Radical change is in order, but does not appear to be in the offing.

 

Teddy’s Transformation

One of the most captivating political phenomena in this country to my mind is the radical transformation of Teddy Roosevelt from his early years to his run for the presidency in 1912. He began as a wealthy, landed Republican with strong convictions about the benefits of free-enterprise capitalism and became a radical proponent of the rights of the common man (and woman) in his run for reelection in 1912. Along the way he was known for his progressive programs, his growing sympathy for the disadvantaged, and his hatred of the predatory rich — those whose only goal in life is to accumulate wealth with no concern whatever for their duties as wealthy citizens (you know, like the Koch brothers). During this period he was close friends with William Taft who wore himself out stumping for his friend during Roosevelt’s first run at the presidency. Teddy, in turn, after serving as sitting president for seven years, worked hard to make sure Taft was elected as his successor to carry on with his progressive programs. It is interesting in this regard that, despite his bluster, Teddy was successful in pushing through fewer progressive programs than his successor, even though he later criticized Taft for being too conciliatory and too willing to compromise with the trusts.

In any event, when the split finally came between Taft and Roosevelt, it was deep and wide. After the Republican convention in 1912 selected Taft as the Republican candidate for president, Roosevelt accused Taft of stealing the nomination and split with the Republican party to form  an Independent Party that embraced his principles and promised him another term in the White House. He ran a vicious campaign, one of the first in which the man himself actually rolled up his sleeves and went on the campaign trail, something the old soldier loved to do. He continued to attack Taft, often personally, and the rift between the two men became wider and wider — though Taft refused to lower himself to the ad hominem level where Teddy was very comfortable, preferring to remain as much out of the public eye as possible and responding only to a list of Roosevelt’s charges against his presidency that were clearly based on untruths.

But what is most interesting during this period is the platform that Roosevelt pushed through the convention he called in Chicago that nominated him for president. It reflected Roosevelt’s growing populism, his conviction that the people, including women, should be more involved in the political process and entitled to government protection against the blind greed that was motivating the corporate giants. He even advocated a judicial override system that would allow citizens to overthrow the decisions of the courts through a referendum! As noted in Doris Goodman’s excellent study of the Bully Pulpit, his platform included, besides a call for the right of women to vote,

“a living wage . . .  the prohibition of child labor, federal regulations of interstate corporations, a graduated inheritance tax, an eight-hour workday for women, new standards for workmen’s compensation, and finally a system of social insurance designed to protect citizens against ‘the hazards of sickness . . . involuntary unemployment, and old age’ to which employers and employees would both contribute.”

As Roosevelt himself noted, “Whatever fate may at the moment overtake any of us, the movement itself will not stop.” He was right, but also aware that as an independent president he would have no allies in Congress and his chances of pushing through any of these items were slim at best.

Because of the radical nature of this platform, which resembled in many ways the platform Woodrow Wilson ran on as the Democratic candidate, Taft had to distance himself from Roosevelt and adopt a decidedly conservative platform — despite the fact that he was at least as passionate about the rights of the disadvantaged and the excesses of the trusts as was his former friend. Needless to say, they split the Republican vote and assured Wilson of a victory (sound familiar?). If Roosevelt had remained in the Republican fold, his party would have had the necessary electoral votes to reelect a Republican president, as he himself acknowledged later on.

As it happens,Taft, who was a gentle man not cut out for politics at all, and Roosevelt, who had supreme confidence in himself and a fierce love of political infighting, managed to mend their tattered relationship and once again became close friends in their declining years — due largely to Taft’s persistent determination to knock down the fences between them and repair the damage. But the fact that stands out above the rest is the strange fever that attaches itself to many in the political arena that inflames their emotions and blinds them to the obvious. I am put in mind of Socrates’ admonition that a person cannot become involved in politics and remain true to himself. Roosevelt’s ego was immense, doubtless a part of his charm, but it became so large — as a result of his love of power, perhaps — that he nearly lost a dear friend and caused a split in the party to which he had devoted his political life. Ironic and a lesson to be learned. The ancient Greek dramatists would have loved this story.

The Predatory Rich

The term in the title of this piece is from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book, The Bully Pulpit, about Teddy Roosevelt, William Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. I have referred to her book previously, but I wanted to return to it and share some of the excellent points Ms Goodwin makes. I have noted the rough parallels between the “robber baron” days and our own — specifically, the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the almighty power of the corporations, or “trusts” as they were called then. A critic might well point out that we have made great strides from the days of child-labor and the 12 hour work day. And this is true. But we still have a pathetically low minimum wage and there are folks out there who would love to reverse those strides and take us back to the “glory days” of laissez-faire economics, free enterprise, as they imagine it to be — free from governmental interference and those pesky agencies that put restraints on the obscene increase in profits.

Roosevelt himself was very much aware of the mentality of the “predatory rich” (Goodwin’s words) and that is what most interests me, because while many things have changed I don’t think that mind-set has changed much at all. We can see examples of it all around us as the number of homeless and disenfranchised grow, the middle class shrinks, and the corporations and folks like the Koch brothers continue to amass fortunes. It is most interesting to note that Teddy Roosevelt was himself a wealthy Republican and staunch supporter of capitalism who grew to see more and more clearly the moral depravity that is bred by an unfettered economy when the government looks the other way and a small group of men are allowed to take the reins in their own hands and focus exclusively on accumulating piles of gold. He was, of course, a “progressive” Republican, a reformer who saw the need to put restraints on the greed of those who see nothing but profits and losses, whose world has shrunk to the size of a gnat’s testicle and who seem to have no conscience whatever. Describing his notion of the balance that is needed, Roosevelt noted in a speech to the Union League Club:

“Neither this people not any other free people will permanently tolerate the use of vast power conferred by vast wealth, and especially by wealth in its corporate form, without lodging somewhere in the government the still higher power of seeing that this power, in addition to being used in the interest of the individual or the individuals possessing it, is also used for and not against the interests of the people as a whole.”

One would hope, wouldn’t one? In any event, after McKinley was shot and Roosevelt became president — much to the chagrin of the Republican bosses who tried to bury him in the Vice-Presidency to get him out of the governorship of New York where he was a pain in their collective ass, — he faced one of his major challenges. The miners in Pennsylvania went on strike; as the strike grew in size and violence and as Winter approached and coal became increasingly scarce, he wondered what the Constitution allowed him to do. He was in sympathy with the miners as he was with those poor folks in crowded New York tenements whom he visited, living together, five in the same room where they rolled cigars in sweat-shop conditions struggling to eek out a living. He knew the miners worked 10 hour days from the age of ten until they died at an early age from black lung disease, seldom seeing the light of day. And he knew that the owners were bound and determined to see that their plight did not improve at the owners’ expense.

One of the things that outraged him, as it did so many others, was the arrogance of the owners who had banded together and refused to listen to the legitimate grievances of the miners until they went dutifully back to work. The owners had already turned down an agreed-upon raise of 5% that would have cost them a mere $3 million dollars a year against their estimated profits of $75 million. Their attitude was clearly expressed in an open letter published by mine-owner George Baer which included the following paragraph:

“I beg of you not to be discouraged. The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for — not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the country, and upon the successful management of which so much depends.”

Needless to say, these words threw gas on the fire. They aroused the anger of thousands of people around the country, including the president. And they drew dozens of angry responses from newspaper editors around the country. Eventually Roosevelt was able to work a compromise by some brilliant machinations which drove the Republican bosses mad while reducing his chances of gaining the Republican nomination he so dearly sought. But he knew what was right and he knew he had to act accordingly. And he knew how to use the power of the press against those who ruled the Republican party. And that knowledge proved pivotal.

But what I want to focus attention on is the attitude reflected in those extraordinary words written by George Baer. As one editor noted, it smacks of the notion of divine rights of kings, except the sentiment here, strongly felt no doubt by his fellow fat-cats, is that property owners have a divine right to their property and to what is done with it — regardless of costs in human lives. Indeed, it is doubtful if men like Baer had any idea about the moral costs of their stunted perspective. In this comment he seems to be lost in his own convictions about Christian his right to lord it over others, if you can imagine such a thing.

It is one thing to insist that folks have a right to determine what happens with their property, but even John Locke, who was one of the first to defend free-enterprise capitalism, realized that there must be moral restraints on the amassing of great wealth. He insisted that one had a right to amass wealth only to the point where it interferes with the possibility of others amassing wealth as well. Adam Smith, who wrote the Bible on free-enterprise capitalism, agreed. They both simply assumed that human sympathy, fellow-feeling, would enter in and make the rich realize that there are limits to how much wealth they can collect without making life miserable for others. How naive! On the contrary, Baer’s letter reveals an attitude which we can see to this day among the predatory rich, which rests on the unquestioned assumption (on their part) that they have a right to as much money as they want and any interference with the steps they might take to gain that money are to be squashed, whatever the cost. I give you the predatory rich. You can have them.

History Spirals

There are several theories about history. One is that history repeats itself in cycles so if we want to plan for the future we must learn from the past. Another view is that history is a straight line on which present and future events are totally unlike the past, in which case there is not much to learn from reading history. A third view is that history is a spiral in which present and future events resemble, to a degree, past events but are always full of novel and unpredictable situations. In this case, we can learn from history, but are not able to say that the future will be just like the past. I tend toward the third view. I think there is much to learn from reading history, but we must acknowledge that the future will be full of surprises. Humans don’t really change that much, but circumstances do change enough to make prediction difficult.

With that in mind, I reflect on the situation that confronts us today in which the middle class is disappearing in the widening gulf between the very wealthy and the very poor. It resembles, in many respects, the situation that we read about at the turn of the last century, the age of the infamous “robber barons.” The period is described for us by Doris Goodwin in her excellent book The Bully Pulpit in which she says:

“At the start of [Teddy] Roosevelt’s presidency in 1901, big business had been in the driver’s seat. While the country prospered as never before, squalid conditions were rampant in immigrant slums, workers in factories and mines labored without safety regulations, and farmers fought with railroads over freight rates. Voices had been raised to protest the concentration of corporate wealth and the gap between the rich and the poor, yet the doctrine of laissez-faire precluded collective action to ameliorate social conditions.”

These conditions brought about the age of the “progressive” Republican party and the “Trust Busters” with Teddy in the lead.  Roosevelt became famous and beloved because he was viewed, despite his patrician background, as “one of us,” complete with his cowboy and rough-rider images. He was a brash extrovert, an astute politician, and was smart enough to befriend members of the “third estate” to take on the machines and giant trust companies that controlled politics. He was also a man of wide interests and remarkable intellectual acumen who connected with the common folks around him because he really did believe that everyone deserves a “square deal.”

I have often wondered during Barack Obama’s presidency why he hasn’t used the media to arouse the public more than he does. Reagan knew how to use it, and Obama has considerable rhetorical skills and could go before the public and make his case for some of the programs he has been unable to work through a small-minded and obtuse Congress. Immediately after the shootings in Sandy Hook, for example, he could have gone before the public with an appeal to encourage them to put pressure on an intransigent Congress, urging some sort of  gun control. But he maintained his usual low profile, despite the fact that the vast majority of the citizens in this country, and even a majority of those who hold NRA memberships, wanted some sort of gun control measures. Obama simply rattled his verbal sabre a bit and the time passed for action without anything being done, despite his promises to the distraught parents of the slain children.

So, as one looks around to see if there is any politician determined and brave enough to take on the likes of the NRA and the other corporate giants who have taken over the reins of government, any possible “Trust Busters,” one sees only a couple of faces that stand out — such as Bernie Sanders, whom many reject as a bit “out there,” and Elizabeth Warren, who is relatively new at the job, but does seem to be bright enough and determined enough to take on the powers that be. Can she establish the rapport with the press that Teddy Roosevelt had in order to arouse the giant that is the citizenry in this country, asleep on its couch watching the latest sporting event? Or will she be bought out or silenced somehow, as we in Minnesota suspect Paul Wellstone might have been when he became a thorn in the side of the powers that be? In that regard, while we do live in an age that resembles in many respects the world in which Roosevelt lived, it is also an age in which the wealthy have refined their slight-of-hand tactics to very effectively manipulate the strings of power, clandestine maneuvers have become the order of the day, and the corporations have become owners of most, if not all, of the public media. One must wonder if Warren’s voice, as an example, would be allowed to be heard if that voice was saying the kinds of things the media don’t want the people of this country to hear? Gone is the “Golden Age of Journalism.” McClure’s Magazine is no more.  Now we have Fox News and the corporate-owned media simply entertain; they provide precious little information. Where are the voices that need to he heard?

These are interesting questions, and it remains to be seen if there is anyone in the political arena who, with or without the help of the third estate, is willing and courageous enough to take on the powerful lobbies and corporations that support them and go toe-to-toe with the unscrupulous powers that pull the strings in Washington. And if there is anyone courageous enough, will they be able to swim against such a powerful current? If the answer to these questions is “no,” then we are not likely to see another Teddy Roosevelt emerge, take the country in hand, and lead it out of our present morass. What then?

Conservative Types

There are at least two different types of conservative, the “intellectual conservative,” and the “dollar conservative.” The former wants to conserve the very best of the past and learn from it going forward into an uncertain future. The latter, of course, simply wants to make more and more money. Please don’t confuse the two.

I have posted a number of blogs critiquing the dollar-conservatives, those types the wealthy Republican Teddy Roosevelt described as the “predatory rich,” those “mere money-getting Americans, insensible to every duty, regardless of every principle, bent only on amassing a fortune.” These are the folks who don’t want to pay taxes — except to support “defense” — and want to tear down the agencies of government that are designed to control our mindless determination to destroy the planet, all in the name of greater profits. I have noted the obvious fact that taxes, while there is assuredly waste, are the glue that binds this society together; among other things, they go to support those agencies that have been put in place to fill the void created by the “predatory rich.” Moreover, they help those who are in greater need than those who pay them, to wit, people, like you and me who have come on hard times and need a hand up.

This country was never healthier, financially, than right after the Second World War when the wealthy paid their fair share of their wealth into taxes. They now pay little or nothing at a time when there is great need to collect and spend tax monies wisely and the country as a whole ranks 32nd out of 34 among the world’s largest countries in percentage of income paid in taxes. And yet we hear that we are taxed “enough already” and there are shouts of complaint from the predatory rich that taxes should be done away with, along with the agencies they support. Meanwhile, these dollar-conservatives are busy hiding their wealth in off-shore accounts or taking their money elsewhere by moving themselves and their companies to countries that have lower labor costs and income tax rates. All of which is to the detriment of the disappearing middle class, those in real need, and the maintenance of the infrastructure that allows us to carry on in our daily lives.

But intellectual conservatives, such as myself — who lean decidedly to the left politically and willingly (?) pay our taxes — are concerned about the disappearance of rich veins of intellectual wealth that are also disappearing from the country as a result of various popular waves generated by the counter-culture that are in danger of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Notably, the urge in our colleges and universities to read only contemporary tracts and literature that reflect the views of a small group at the center of this movement has grown to dominate the college educational scene. The result is that our future leaders, when they read at all, are told to read material that has a very short shelf life and which almost certainly promotes the political agendas of the ones assigning the material. It is said that the so-called “classics” by “dead, white European males” are totally irrelevant to today’s needs. And while I think this is true of some, perhaps many, of the books we have treasured for centuries, we need to be wary about replacing the books that past minds have drawn from to the benefit of our current age only to replace them with inferior material that tends to state the obvious and will soon pass into oblivion. The one expands the mind, the other shrinks it.  Young people can learn a great deal more about justice by thinking their way through the dialogues of Plato and discussing them in small groups than they can be sitting passively and listening to a zealot go on about his or her favorite injustice lately committed.  Additionally, they learn to think in the process. It’s a zero-sum game, and one that is played by many with little or no consideration for the price that is paid by all of us in turning our backs on seminal ideas that have brought us so many of the benefits we take for granted.

Like so many words we use carelessly, we need to be sure how we use words like “conservative,” because there are conservatives of many stripes, and they don’t all get along. I know I am myself reluctant to be confused with the “predatory rich” who want nothing more than to continue to accumulate wealth until the day they die.

Corporate Persons

In 1905 in his annual message to Congress, President Theodore Roosevelt declared:

“All contributions by corporations to any political committee for any political purpose should be forbidden by law; directors should not be permitted to use stockholders’ money for such purposes; and, moreover, a prohibition of this kind would be, as far as it went, an effective method of stopping the evils aimed at in corrupt practices acts.”

As retired Supreme Court Judge John Paul Stevens points out in his discussion of an amendment he has proposed to the U.S. Constitution that would curb excessive spending on political campaigns, the courts consistently maintained for years that corporations are not persons and therefore not entitled to the same rights as citizens of this nation. For one thing, corporations cannot vote, whereas citizens can. Conservative Justice William Rehnquist in 1982 wrote for the unanimous court in Federal Election Commission v. National Right to Work Committee, “there is no reason why Congress’ interest in preventing both actual corruption and the appearance of corruption of elected representatives may not be accomplished by treating. . . corporations differently from individuals.”

The change in the Court’s position came about indirectly, beginning in 1990 in a dissenting opinion written by Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy to Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce in which they contended that corporate speech, like other expressive activities by groups of persons, was entitled to the same First Amendment protection as speech by an individual. This opened the can of worms that has become the ugly Citizens United Supreme Court case that recently maintained, drawing on Scalia and Kennedy’s opinion above, that since corporations have the same free speech rights as individuals, they have the right to support political candidates without restrictions. As Stevens notes in this regard, “[Scalia’s arguments in 1990] provided the basis for the court’s five to four decision in Citizens United overruling  the Michigan case and apparently affording the same constitutional protection to election-related expenditures by corporations as to speech by individuals.” Sheer magic: political donations are a form of free speech and corporations are people even though they cannot vote and (so far as we know) they cannot copulate.

Needless to say, the Citizens United case stands in glaring opposition to the concerns raised in 1905 by President Roosevelt and upheld by the courts for 105 years thereafter. Roosevelt was expressing the obvious concern about the undue influence of wealth on elections that would tilt the playing field and render ineffective the attempts by the less wealthy to have any voice in politics whatever. As Stevens says, one of the many consequences of this imbalance is the “public’s perception of the role of money in influencing the outcome of elections. Voters who would believe that the power of the purse will determine the outcome of elections are more likely to become bystanders rather than participants in the political process.” Indeed. One need look no further for an explanation as to why citizens have become increasingly disenchanted with the political process and why several analysts have determined that America has become a de facto oligarchy and can be regarded as a democracy in name only.

Stevens does not suggest an amendment to deal directly with the issue of whether corporations are or are not persons — as is currently under discussion nation-wide — but rather an amendment that simply allows states and the Congress to set “reasonable limits” to campaign contributions without insisting that these limitations are in any way in conflict with the First Amendment: limits on campaign spending should not be considered limits on free speech. But whether this Court or this Congress could manage to work with a nebulous concept such as “reasonable limits” is questionable, so the issue remains how to put restraints on those with great wealth who would make the government dance to the tunes they play on their diamond-studded harmonicas. — especially since those who might place those restraints on the wealthy are busy dancing to their tunes.  As things now stand, the recent Supreme Court decisions have given the corporations and the 1% of this country who control the vast majority of the wealth virtual control of the political process. Corporations and the very wealthy can determine who runs and who gets elected — and what those people will do once elected.

In a masterpiece of understatement, Stevens concludes that “The decision in Citizens United took a giant step in the wrong direction.” Teddy Roosevelt would agree.

 

res publica and Republicans

Years ago, before the Flood, I reviewed a book written by the Ripon Society. It led me to do some research about that group since the book was well written and struck a comfortable balance between political conservatism and “bleeding heart” liberalism. I confess I find the political middle ground more firm than the ground at either extreme. At the time I wrote the review the society embraced moderate Republicanism. I discovered some interesting things about the group, including the fact that it was the first major Republican organization to support passage of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s. In the early 1970s, it called for the normalization of relations with China, and the abolition of the military draft.

That was then. That was when the Republican party traced its heritage back to Thomas Jefferson who traced his roots back to Cicero and the republican ideal of the “public thing,” the res publica. The founders all had read their Cicero in Latin, of course, and they tended to idealize the Roman Republic of Cicero’s days when individuals were admonished to put the common good ahead of their own in the name of “public virtue.” It was the ideal Augustine had in mind when he established his monastery which became the model for similar Christian communities throughout Europe: committed to the common good, seeking to control man’s natural wish to put self ahead of the good of all.

But, as I say, that was then: the days of Jefferson, and later Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Today the Republican party is the party of Michele Bachman, Newt Gingrich, the Tea Party, the spiritually certain, Fox News, and the corporations that want to squash the common good in the name of increased profits. And the Ripon Society seems to be leaning precariously to the right these days. It is difficult to see any connection whatever between today’s grasping and greedy Republican party that would trash social and environmental programs in the name of saving a few tax dollars and the Roman ideal. The idea of the common good has disappeared behind a stinking cloud of greed and self-interest, the very thing Cicero tried so hard to prevent. And yet these people claim to be “Republicans.”

The Republican party is not alone in its preoccupation with greed and self-interest, of course. Both parties are in the pockets of the corporations and tend to ignore the commonwealth as they push their own agendas — whatever those might be. But on balance, the Democratic party tends to care about people above profits — as a general rule — even as it seeks to solve all problems by throwing money at them. So for all its shortcomings, the Democratic party does seem more concerned about the common good, more concerned about the welfare of others and the survival of the planet. However, the more adept members of this party become at playing the political game (and they seem to be learning quickly) the farther they will remove themselves from Cicero’s ideal of the res publica, the public thing, the commonwealth. If that ideal is to mean anything again it will require a third party that remains disconnected from corporate wealth and special interests. Don’t hold your breath.

Simple Solution?

Our economic woes which seem to dwarf all others in the minds of so many voters may not be that hard to remedy. France seems to have found a path to the solution as a recent article on Yahoo points out:

PARIS (Reuters) – France’s new Socialist government announced tax rises worth 7.2 billion euros on Wednesday, including heavy one-off levies on wealthy households and big corporations, to plug a revenue shortfall this year caused by flagging economic growth.

If the solution is seemingly fairly straightforward, the problem remains how to get this Congress to act — as the brilliant “Non Sequitur” comic pointed out recently:

There’s another problem, of course. Americans are deathly afraid of the term “socialism” even though they don’t know what it means and despite the fact that since Teddy Roosevelt over a century ago this country has introduced a number of measures that are plainly socialistic — from health care and aid to education to welfare, Social Security, and worker’s compensation. In fact, if we left it to private enterprise, this country would be in deeper do-do than it already is, at least as far as the average American is concerned. The determination of the government to intercede when private corporations contaminate our air and water, destroy the earth, and ignore the suffering of those who struggle is what has kept us afloat. We should not fear to take further steps in the same direction we have been headed in for over 100 years. As France’s example suggests, the solution to our economic problems may be fairly straightforward: raise taxes on the wealthy and close corporate loopholes while we cut subsidies to Big Oil.

In the end, however, it won’t happen because the corporations, in spite of the Federal controls they bitch about, still have a winning hand and they will continue to fight any attempts to levy higher taxes on themselves and those who run their companies, as the recent defeat in the Senate of the so-called “Buffett Rule” demonstrated. And with the most recent Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act which may disallow the commerce clause as rationale for progressive acts of legislation in the future we seem to be moving further away from not only a more humane and public-spirited government but also from a solution to our economic woes which is simple in principle but nearly impossible in fact.

Corporate Responsibility

The latest story out of Brazil regarding the oil spill last November deserves some thought. The story begins “Brazilian prosecutors say they will bring criminal charges against 17 executives from the US oil company Chevron and drilling contractor Transocean after a new leak of crude.” The oil company was already facing a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit over the November spill. Apparently the court doesn’t feel this was adequate. This raises some interesting questions.

To begin with, what responsibility do 17 executives bear for the mistakes of the corporation they work for? Indeed, what is a corporation? The U.S. Supreme Court insists a corporation is a person and entitled to rights under the constitution, including free speech. This allows corporations to spend millions of dollars on political candidates who will advance their agenda. I have addressed this issue in an earlier blog and won’t kick a dead horse. But the question of who, precisely, is responsible for an oil spill (in this case) is philosophically interesting.

The philosopher Peter French argued some years ago that corporations should accept total responsibility for their actions and should even bear the shame of past mistakes, like Hester Prinn. This is a hard argument to swallow, but it is designed to address the fact that a simple fine doesn’t really punish a corporation because it will simply pass the cost along to the customers. If a corporation leaks millions of gallons of crude oil into the ocean it should not only pay a fine, French maintained, but it should be shamed into serious compensation, even penance (by paying for self-defamatory advertising attacking the corporation’s public image). But this pushes the analogy between corporations and persons too far, it seems to me. Corporations do not have rights, they have privileges. As such they cannot be regarded as persons in a moral sense, and one wonders just how it would be possible to shame them in the first place. Indeed, they seem to be shameless.

But whatever philosophical or moral stratus they have, corporations should be held responsible for their actions, which may or may not mean bringing 17 executives to trial for the sins of their company. The whole corporation is not equivalent to the sum of the parts. But this is not a bad start, though in this case it seems to be more an expression of frustration, as though someone must be punished and a simple fine hardly suffices. Something more needs to be done. It’s possible the court is trying to embarrass the corporation. Perhaps they read Peter French!

Let’s reflect on the origins of corporations for a moment. Once again we can learn from Henry Adams who was on to something in 1905 when he pondered the nature of corporations which were still aborning. Reflecting on Teddy Roosevelt’s attempts at Trust busting, Adams mused, “The Trusts and Corporations stood for the larger part of the new power that had been created since 1840, and were obnoxious because of their vigorous and unscrupulous energy. They were revolutionary, troubling all the old conventions and values, as the screws of ocean steamers must trouble a school of herring. They tore society to pieces and trampled it under foot.” Indeed, and they still do!

Adams was clearly one of the best minds this country ever produced. And his take on corporations is, as always, provocative. And this only a relative few years after they appeared on the horizon! One can only imagine what he would say today if he could see the unlimited power they have and reflect on the fact that they have been granted “person” status by a politically biased Supreme Court. I dare say he would allow the executives of Chevron to be punished, and then look around for others to share in the punishment as well. I’m with him.