Monday, November 29, 2010

A review of Special Interests

An interesting editorial from the NYT discusses the issue of the corporate takeover of Washington in a very well-written piece. The essential gist, as you can probably guess, centers around the recent decision from the Supreme Court that allows private companies to make anonymous donations of any amount to any candidate they wish. According to the polls and studies done since this was passed, the vast majority of this newly-freed money is going to GOP candidates and their affiliates, particularly the Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber, according to a poll cited by the article, received $86 Million from large insurance companies to block Health Care Reform. This money, like funds during the campaign cycle, will likely be used to lobby Washington support, buy ads on T.V., radio, and in print, and run "objective studies" into the negative effects of the new health care system. I'm sure I can guess, as you can, the outcome of these studies.

The problem is that this recent ruling is just the tip of the iceberg, and is only the most recent and direct assault on individual liberty and equality in our country. It has been years, decades really, since individual citizens were on equal footing with corporations. Our country may recognize corporations as individuals, but that does not mean they should have the same (and in many cases, more) rights as individual flesh-and-blood citizens.

What we need in this country are some strong legal walls to separate the political sphere from the rest of the spheres of influence. This is a problem that has many symptoms all over the place.

Firstly, it is apparent in the fact that a person now has to be a multi-millionaire just to run a significant campaign for office, even at the state level. This keeps out most of the middle-class and everyone below, despite whether these people may have good ideas on how to solve issues. It also means that those who are elected have a vested interest in lowering taxes on the upper class because they are all considered in the upper class. The fact that it takes so much money just to run a successful campaign means that those who run are more likely to depend on contributions, particularly those who give large amounts of money such as corporations and private interest groups.

Secondly, it is apparent in the laws and regulations, or lack thereof, that have recently been passed through our Congress. These laws and deregulation have been toted as significant steps forward in reining in uncontrollable and wasteful spending as well as corrupt business practice, but all their solutions are presented in the realm of the current problems. They do not work to correct the underlying illness, merely help alleviate the symptoms a little while longer.

Finally, it is apparent in how we view these corporations and their role in our society. Conservatives would have us believe that the free market of Capitalism is the absolute best solution for everyone, even those in the lower classes. This idea that companies and bigger-is-better economics has led our leaders to adopting laws and regulations that help these companies thrive and grow larger, engage in riskier and potentially more profitable practices, and work with impunity. The longer this goes on, and the more control and independence we give large corporations, the more clandestine their practices become, and the more the American people see and feel the negative effects of a deregulated private sector. Our view of corporations as private and independent entities has moved beyond Capitalism, however, because this independence and privacy has reached a point where there is no oversight, no trickle-down of funds, and no mass competition. It has all been fazed out and conglomerated.

The road to correcting these problems will be long and difficult, and will challenge many people's perceptions of what Capitalism and Freedom really mean. The fact is, Freedom does not mean doing whatever a person wants. In this country, freedom means acting freely within the realm of what is legal and moral. Corporations have not acted in a legal, ethical, or moral way in a long time, and this is the first thing that must be re-established. How do we do this? We regulate. In the past, lawmakers have argued that regulations hinder profits by requiring companies to go through needless red tape. That "red tape" includes oversight of finances and business practices, inspections of facilities, and reviews of appropriate employee benefits. We have seen what happens when these things are removed: companies work in a less ethical way to maximize profits. Regulation is necessary to effect positive change. Regulation does not kill profits, it reduces a companies ability to engage in clandestine practices and forces them to work under the scrutiny of the People.

The next thing we have to do is separate corporate interests from Washington, and turn Congress into a group that will work for the benefit of the people and not their financial backers. We do this by reinstating limits on corporate donations and actually keeping track of these donations. Require all candidates to disclose the source of all donations, public and private, and only allow a certain amount of corporate money to be given to a candidate. The only thing that keeps an individual from having the same representation as a company in Washington is money. Therefore, we must allow these two things the same footing. Unfortunately, as I've said before, it is difficult to run a solid campaign, especially nationally, without millions of dollars in assets. However, the DNC and RNC have millions of dollars from their own fund raising that they can give to campaigns, and this money is already well-documented.

Finally, we need to redefine the Corporation. This means doing away with laws that require businesses to think primarily about their own bottom lines, and focus instead on consumers. We need laws that prevent corporate malpractice, encourage competition between small and large businesses, and that promote the welfare of the individual in the practices of the corporation. This is not how we have seen businesses being run in America in decades, but is how they are supposed to be. A CEO should not be in a high-rise office, making careless decisions with a golden pen that can cut the livelihood of his employees and defraud investors and consumers. A CEO should be on the ground floor, understanding the people and seeing their impact. There is nothing wrong with profits, personal or professional, but there must be limits placed on the disparity between the top and bottom earners in a company. That a CEO makes millions a year while low-level employees work twice as long for pennies an hour is a contradiction in the fundamental philosophy of the Capitalist corporation.

It is imperative that we address these issues before they consume our economy. If there are no solutions, or the wrong kind of solutions, our economy will simply falter and collapse, and our nation will soon follow. We live in the most prosperous and powerful nation in the world, and yet we are slipping in education, finances, trade, and economics the world over. We can come back, but we must make hard, objective decisions that will benefit us all in the long run. We must end the corporate takeover of Washington by doing the things that corporate-sponsored lawmakers have warned us against: regulating the markets and investment practices, limiting corporate interests in politics, and redefining corporations and private businesses under the law. When these changes happen, if they do, I believe we will see a large shift, not only in the private sector and its practices as a whole, but the actual mentality of our economic backbone: the private business owner.

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