March 3, 2012

Who's Running the Show?

When I was a young undergraduate studying economics, I thought the globalization of industries would benefit the world. My reckoning was this: As corporations expand across borders, nations will be motivated to find peaceable and well-reasoned solutions to problems. At the time, there was still a Soviet Union and the Cold War remained a fact of life. It seemed to me then that a real war would be less probable if Exxon was drilling Siberian oil wells and GE was building Moscow’s power plants. How could anyone chose to train bombs on the global enterprises that created economic prosperity?

Today I have a different view of the growing concentration of economic power. As a recent Time article states:

National governments have, over the past several decades, seen the most basic pillars of their power erode. Globalization has undermined their efforts to manage their borders. The ability to control their own currency has been lost but for all but a handful of major powers. Fewer than two dozen have the ability to sustainably project force beyond their borders. Meanwhile, corporations play against one another as they venue-shop for more attractive tax or regulatory regimes. This regulatory arbitrage undermines nations’ ability to enforce their own laws

This has occurred, in part, because corporations are amoral constructs created for a single purpose: to generate profits for shareholders. While we all recognize this to be the case, we’ve drank Ivan Boesky’s Kool-Aid in our belief that greed is good and the invisible hand works a kind of magic. Yet, can we reconcile this notion with an Apple executive’s recent assertion that, “We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems,” when that same company expects American taxpayers to protect its intellectual property rights and shipping lanes?

Corporations, as I said before, are amoral. They’re not evil, but unless regulated to do so, few will spend time considering societal needs beyond the needs of their shareholders. If they had a social conscience, we wouldn’t need regulators and regulations, but they are devoid of consciousness and intent. That being said, we’ve given them more rights than people possess. Here’s a case in point: The 14th Amendment was established to protect freed slaves and give them equal protections under the law. However, of the 288 cases brought under its terms, all but 19 have dealt with the interests of corporations. It has been used to block certain taxes, limit punitive damages, and define advertising copy as speech worthy of protection.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizen’s United only expands the influence of corporations by giving their well-heeled shareholders free reign to buy votes through unlimited PAC donations. Of the $60 million of PAC money raised since January 2011, 80% came from just 196 donors. More shocking, one of every four dollars came from just five people: Harold Simmons, owner of Contran, Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, Houston home builder and Swift Boater Bob Perry and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.

Isn’t it obvious that we no longer live in a nation where each person exercises a single vote in matters of great importance? We now have a dollar-per-vote system that is controlled by amoral corporations that care only to perpetuate their shareholder-enriching ways.