Sunday, January 3, 2010

The business of America...or is America a business?

The business of America,” President Calvin Coolidge said, “is business.” His only famous quotation (after all, the guy’s nickname was “Silent Cal”), it is almost a mantra guiding the actions of Presidents, and Congresses, and state legislatures, since. It can be seen almost as a tautology, recognizing that successful businesses are essential to the economic success of the entire country, and the world. Pursued to perversion, with governments not just facilitating the success of business but doing anything businesses want, with no respect for the balance between business success and negative impact, however, it can have terrible results for society -- for many people, or, as in the recent implosion of the economy, for all people. Completely abandoning all regulation of financial derivatives, the housing market, etc., was predictably a bad idea. But, of course, those predictions were not heeded.

And are not being heeded. On the heels of the enormous public bailouts, absent any requirements that the financial industry actually do anything to help Americans (like, say, lend them money), we continue to see further deregulation. The Supreme Court will soon decide on whether to permit corporations, not just the individuals who own and work for them, to contribute to political campaigns. Many folks think that the conservative majority will say “yes”, based on the legal fiction that corporations are people, and therefore have First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.

Of course, corporations are not people, and the “founding fathers” who wrote both the Constitution and Bill of Rights had absolutely no intention of considering them as such. Indeed, given their experiences, most were quite suspicious of – often hostile to – corporations, which is why the Constitution provides for state control of them. This was because, as stated in an interesting discussion by Jan Edwards on the “Third World Traveler” website, “State governance was closer to the people and would enable them to keep an eye on corporations. In the eighteenth century, corporations had very few of the powers that we now associate with them. They did not have limited liability. They did not have an unlimited life span. They were chartered for a limited period of time, say 10 or 20 years, and for a specific public purpose, such as building a bridge. Often a charter would require that, after a certain amount of time, the bridge or road be turned over to the state or the town in which it was built. Corporations were viewed differently in early America. They were required to serve the public good.” Things, however, have changed, and this is apparently an area in which the “strict constructionists” on the Court are a little less strict.

Would this make a big difference? Well, perhaps conceptually it would, but corporations are already able to use their money to have great influence over policy. This includes the donations to candidates by the people associated with them, but more often and in greater amounts to the soft-money PACs to which they contribute. On the health care front, the New York Times recently ran an article (December 29, 2009) unfortunately titled Health Lobby takes fight to the states (I say unfortunately because, as the article makes clear, it is the lobby for the health care industry, not lobbyists for our health!) that looks at efforts in state legislatures to not participate in any health reforms that eventually pass Congress. The rationale for opposing the changes that would prevent insurance companies from denying coverage to people because of pre-existing conditions, and at least potentially extend coverage to the majority of the uninsured, is, according to author David Kirkpatrick, is based “on the grounds that it tramples individual liberty”. This is eerily reminiscent of the first point in Andy Borowitz’ December 17 piece, Senate Unveils CompromiseCare: “Under CompromiseCare (TM), people with no coverage will be allowed to keep their current plan”. Except that was intending satire; I don’t think that the 42 Florida Republican legislators pushing this plan meant to be self-satirical (but, hey, who knows?)

More interesting, and bringing this back to the influence of corporations on policy, Kirkpatrick notes that those 42 co-sponsors “…were almost all recipients of outsized campaign contributions from major health care interests, a total of about $765,000 in 2008, according to a new study by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonpartisan group based in Helena, Mont.” Amazing. The suggestion is that these wealthy corporations are buying votes. A reader might conclude that these legislators, and so many others, are corrupt scuzzbuckets. But it is, probably, coincidental.

Maybe. After all, in our current political culture it takes money to get elected, money to get the word out on your positions, money to get the word out smearing your opponent, to buy radio and TV time. And it is a known fact that very rich people and corporations give much more money to politicians than poor and working people. So why would we think that they wouldn’t have an influence on the votes of these legislators, or those in Congress? Whether it is a matter the legislators “paying their donors back”, or simply of those donors funding the election of candidates who really believe in the issues important to them -- such as corporate personhood, or that trying to ensure that people get health care coverage tramples on their individual liberty. Or maybe those candidates just care more about that individual corporation than are about those cheap poor people who don’t make campaign contributions. OK, they’re corrupt scuzzbuckets.

I don’t know why, at my age and my at least moderate knowledge of history, I continue to be amazed by this. After all, one of the most corrupt Presidential administrations was that of Warren G. Harding, whose vice-president (and successor) was ol’ Silent Cal himself. I think there are a lot of Americans who actually think that their elected officials should work on their behalf, not on that of a monied corporate elite; they were responsible for the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency. Perhaps they thought that was enough, and now they could go back to watching TV, or playing on line at Facebook and Foursquare.

But they have to stay involved, because the powerful have the resources to keep coming back. If the people can defeat them once, they will try again. If the folks who voted for Obama do not keep working, inertia will lead to control staying with those who can afford to buy politicians. We cannot allow our country to be sold to the highest bidder

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