Tag Archives: corporations

Freedom (Comcast’s) vs. Rights (Yours)

Freedom can be a bad thing,
if it’s the freedom of the strong to push the weak around.

In American politics, few words have a more positive ring than freedom. We bill ourselves as “the land of the free“. We send troops to bring freedom to other countries. (Our invasion of Afghanistan, for example, was Operation Enduring Freedom.) In the Cold War, our side was the Free World. When France opposed our invasion of Iraq, congressional cafeterias renamed french fries as freedom fries.

Our economic system also claims freedom as one of its top virtues. Milton Friedman’s defense of unfettered capitalism was Free to Choose. The low-tax, small-government, regulation-cutting group in the House calls itself the Freedom Caucus.

The word is so popular that it’s hard to challenge. (Try to imagine someone running as the anti-freedom candidate.) But it needs to be challenged, because often what gets justified by the prestige of freedom are policies that favor the strong over the weak. In particular, certain kinds of freedom have to be restricted in order to establish another good thing, rights.

I first started talking about this more than year ago in a historical context: During Reconstruction, the rights of the newly freed slaves only existed as long as the Army was nearby to restrain their former masters from re-enslaving them. When the Army was withdrawn from the South in 1877, black rights began to vanish until by the turn of the century Jim Crow was fully established. In the rhetoric of that era’s Southern whites, this was a freedom issue: The oppressive federal troops had to leave so that the Southern states could be free to govern themselves as they saw fit.

I drew this conclusion:

Your freedom just needs the government to get out of your way, but your rights require government involvement.

This week we got a more topical example: Senate Joint Resolution 34, “Disapproving the Federal Communications Commission’s Rule on Privacy of Customers of Broadband Services”, which recently passed the Senate on a straight party-line vote and the House with a few Republican defections. The Electronic Frontier Foundation summarizes:

Should President Donald Trump sign S.J. Res. 34 into law, big Internet providers will be given new powers to harvest your personal information in extraordinarily creepy ways. They will watch your every action online and create highly personalized and sensitive profiles for the highest bidder. All without your consent. This breaks with the decades long legal tradition that your communications provider is never allowed to monetize your personal information without asking for your permission first.

There has been absolutely no public clamor for this. Nobody has been writing their senators to say, “I wish Comcast could spy on everything I do on the internet, so that they could sell whatever they figure out to people I know nothing about.”

Now that Republicans have a majority of FCC commissioners, similar things have been happening on that level: Last month, the FCC stopped a new data-security rule from taking effect. The rule

would have required ISPs and phone companies to take “reasonable” steps to protect customers’ information—such as Social Security numbers, financial and health information, and Web browsing data—from theft and data breaches.

Again, how many Americans want ISPs to be careless with their personal data? Or to shrug and say, “shit happens” if it gets stolen by hackers? And again, this was a partisan thing: The rule came from the old Obama-dominated FCC and it was blocked by the new Trump-dominated FCC.

Why? Two things are going on here: First and most obvious, special-interest politics: The big ISPs spend way more on lobbying and campaign contributions than you do, so their desire for profit wins out over your desire for privacy.

But what makes this a partisan issue? Democrats can be bought too, so why isn’t corporate money swaying them as well? The answer is that philosophically proposals like this fit a Republican freedom agenda, but not Democratic rights agenda. Freedom is about getting government out of the way. In essence it restores what Founding-era philosophers used to call “the State of Nature“. The State of Nature includes all kinds of wonderful freedoms, but one of less wonderful ones is that the strong are free to push the weak around.

Rights, on the other hand, are airy-fairy things until there is some institutional mechanism to enforce them, and the State of Nature knows nothing of such institutions. In the State of Nature, for example, you may claim a God-given right to criticize the local strongman. But if he is also free to burn your house down, your right doesn’t amount to much. In practice, the weak have no rights until some institution like government restricts the freedom of the strong.

That’s the issue here: Without meddlesome FCC regulations, your right to privacy on the internet is an airy-fairy thing that the ISPs are free to ignore.

In short, freedom is not always your friend. The more freedom big corporations have, the more you will be under their thumb.

Preserving the Cult of the Job Creator

Members of the donor class must accept Trump’s personality cult to maintain their own.

Amazingly, on Wednesday somebody wrote an entire article about the presidential race that said hardly anything about Donald Trump. Even more remarkably, the article was an endorsement of Trump.

It’s true: Home Depot co-founder (and billionaire Jeb Bush donor) Bernie Marcus managed to endorse Trump without mentioning any particular thing he imagines President Trump will do, other than Make America Great Again and take the country in some unspecified “new direction”. No Mexican wall, no Muslim ban or database, no trade war with China, no deportation force rounding up 11 million people, no renegotiating the public debt, no ordering our military to commit war crimes, no nukes for Saudi Arabia. None of the positions Trump has made famous garner a single line.

OK then, maybe Marcus just dislikes Hillary Clinton. But why? That also is a little hard to get a handle on, because his denunciations of Clinton (or maybe President Obama; they’re interchangeable) are vague to the point of vanishing into rhetoric. Clinton will “push the [Supreme] court leftward for generations”, but no specific legal issue explains why Marcus believes that would be bad. Like Obama, Clinton is “hostile to free enterprise” in some unspecified way. Together, Clinton and Obama “have peddled a dangerous sentiment that government can provide for Americans better than the private sector.”

I’d be really interested to find a quote in which either Clinton or Obama actually expressed that sentiment, much less “peddled” it. (As No Democrat Ever said: “Damn this free enterprise system! Why can’t the government just own everything?”) I’ve listened to a lot of speeches from both of them, and I’ve never heard it. [1]

When otherwise intelligent people justify their actions and beliefs with vague claims that don’t stand up to scrutiny, I start to wonder what’s happening under the surface. Something about Clinton, Obama, and Democrats in general pisses Bernie Marcus off. What could it be?

Our main clue is the third major topic in Marcus’ article, one that he discusses at greater length and with more feeling than either Trump or Clinton: Home Depot, and (by inference) himself. In particular: all the wonderful opportunities that it/he has magnanimously provided for others. For example:

One young man started with us at 17 years of age, bringing carts in from the parking lot. Ultimately, he became a regional president. Imagine Americans vilifying this young man, who became a millionaire and earned every penny of it.

Indeed: imagine. You have to imagine, because in reality no one is vilifying Americans for getting ahead by working hard. If anyone were doing that, Marcus could quote them. But no one is, so he has to imagine.

He imagines a lot of other things too. What if the oppressive regulations of “Obama/Clinton-style government” had existed back in the 1970s when his wondrous Home Depot was getting started? Well, a (briefly) small business like his just couldn’t have happened under those conditions, because under Dodd-Frank, bankers would have required a solid balance sheet rather than basing their loan decisions on his “character and determination”. [2]

And Home Depot couldn’t have gone public under Sarbanes-Oxley because … I’m not sure why. IPOs continue to happen. Facebook went public. UnderArmour. Chipotle. But Home Depot wouldn’t have been able to figure it out for some reason.

And that would have been horrible for America because

the risks we took in the 1970s have resulted in millions of jobs – not just at The Home Depot, but at our suppliers, our vendors, and even our customers’ businesses.

This is where I think we start getting to the root of things, because by this point Marcus has left reality completely behind and vanished into self-glorifying mythology.

You see, Marcus may think of himself as a champion of small business and a job creator, but the reality is the exact opposite. Other than WalMart and maybe Amazon [3], I can’t think of any corporation that has destroyed more small businesses than Home Depot.

Whatever Marcus may imagine, Home Depot didn’t create the home-improvement retail market, it captured that market from other businesses that were already serving it.

Not so long ago, hardware stores and electrical supply shops and paint stores and lumber yards were just about all locally owned by businesspeople you could meet and talk to. If you were a tool-loving kind of guy [4] and could scrape some money together, you could start such a business and be your own boss. Now that’s a much dicier proposition — not because of Dodd-Frank or Sarbanes-Oxley or even ObamaCare, but mainly because of Home Depot (and its rival Lowes).

I haven’t done enough research to back this up with numbers, but looking at the merchandise and staff of my local Home Depot, I strongly suspect that (all together) those locally-owned stores of the 1970s employed more people, and probably stocked more American-made products. [5] Looking at the full picture, I’d guess that Home Depot isn’t a job creator at all, especially if we’re talking about American jobs. It’s more of a job destroyer.

So while you can argue that Home Depot captured its markets fair and square (because it provides a larger selection of products at a better price, or for some other reason), you can’t give it credit for millions of jobs, or any jobs at all.

Understanding the job-creator mythology and how divorced it is from reality puts us in a position to explain why Marcus (and so much of the donor class that supported Romney and Bush) has to come around to Trump eventually, even if all his policies and positions are too embarrassing to mention: Republicans have incorporated job-creator mythology into their larger myth of America, while Democrats have not. The reason Marcus and his compatriots think Democrats like Clinton or Obama (or me) are so hostile to “free enterprise” is that we don’t worship them the way they think they deserve to be worshiped.

Democrats readily acknowledge that billionaires like Marcus and corporations like Home Depot are currently King of the Hill. But they want to believe that they created the hill.

Republicans are happy to tell them that they did. Democrats, on the other hand, tell the story this way: Business in the United States has always been a game played under certain rules. Under the rules of the 1970s and the decades that followed, Home Depot succeeded and Marcus became a multi-billionaire. We don’t begrudge his success, or the success of his 17-year-old cart-pushing millionaire employee either (assuming that guy really exists). Marcus won the game and captured the prize, so congratulations to him.

But we’d like to shift the rules so that in the future the workplace becomes safer and less discriminatory, so that workers don’t have to go bankrupt if they or their children need serious medical care, and so that those cart-pushers who don’t rise to be regional presidents still make a wage that lets them feed their families without food stamps. With those amendments, we want the game to continue, and businesspeople to keep on winning or losing according to how well they play.

Maybe Marcus and his fellow Kings of the Hill would win the game under those rules too, or maybe not. But that doesn’t matter. Either way, it’s not the end of free enterprise. Conversely, restoring the rules of the 1970s or 1950s or 1850s won’t make America great again, whatever great and again mean in that context.

Understandably, though, Bernie Marcus and his friends are not going to come around to the Democratic point of view, no matter how reality-based it is. They see themselves as Gods of the Hill, and view our attempts to landscape the hill as sacrilege. I can only hope that their self-deifying religion is still a minority faith.

[1] Preserving a role for the private sector is kind of the point of ObamaCare: How do you get healthcare to millions more Americans without the government taking over everything, by working through the existing insurance companies, drug companies, hospitals, and clinics? That’s what the conservative Heritage Foundation designed their proto-ObamaCare system to do, way back in 1989.

[2] They also couldn’t have considered his race. I wonder how many black businessmen were getting loans based on their “character and determination” back in the 1970s. I also wonder how much money the banking industry has lost over the years due to lenders making loans unjustified by financial principles. That was a major cause of the S&L crisis of the 1980s. To the extent that current law limits the digression of federally-insured bankers, it happens for good reasons.

[3] One of my friends recently closed a local bookstore that had existed in the same location since the 1920s. I never heard him complain about government regulation, but Amazon seemed to be a much bigger problem. I suspect a lot of small businesspeople would tell a similar story.

[4] Yeah, you probably did have to be a guy. It was the 70s.

[5] You can argue that retailers sell Chinese products because that’s what’s available, but the big-box stores — especially Walmart — have been instrumental in pushing their suppliers to manufacture overseas.

Starve the Corporate Beast

One of the background themes of The Weekly Sift is that profit-making corporations are dangerous, because they have no morals. I don’t mean that as an insult and I’m not trolling. I just mean that, as a point of fact, corporations have no morals. Their goal is to maximize profit. If they can profit by curing cancer, they will, but if they can profit by giving people cancer, they’ll do that too. It makes no difference to them.*

Especially since Citizens United, you need to understand that any dollar you give to a profit-making corporation is likely to be used against you. Sometimes the assault is obvious, like Chick-fil-A funding anti-gay organizations; if you’re gay and you eat at Chick-fil-A, you’re funding efforts to take away your rights. Other cases are more subtle, like UPS having a seat on the board of ALEC. I’m sure union members ship via UPS all the time without realizing that they’re conspiring in their own destruction.

But what can you do? I don’t care for Verizon’s lobbying on net neutrality, but they have the only cell network that covers all the places I go. If I want an iPad, I can’t get an equivalent product from some tinkerer’s booth at the farmers’ market. And I’m sure my gas purchases have funded plenty of climate-denial propaganda, but my town is set up for cars.

If you try to be a purist about these kinds of things, you’ll end up living in a Unabomber cabin someplace. So the better question is: What’s the low-hanging fruit? You probably can’t (or don’t want to) disentangle yourself from corporate octopus completely, but how much of your money can you route around it without joining a hippie commune or something?

The answers below are not exhaustive and follow a few simple themes: Join co-ops, which are owned by their customers. Deal with local businesses that are owned by individuals or families. If you have to deal with a corporation (and often you do), pick smaller ones over bigger ones — and look for the occasional corporation that is owned by its employees.

Financial services. The no-brainer here is bank at a credit union. You won’t just pull your money away from the bankers who crashed the economy, you’ll get a better deal. This week my credit union gave me an .85% interest rate on an 11-month CD. The best a local profit-making bank would give me was .4% if I stretched it out to 14 months. Whether you’re looking for checking, savings, car loans, or low-interest-rate credit cards, your best bet is probably a credit union.

Like all co-ops, a credit union is owned by its members, who elect its board. So your money is not going to pay outrageous CEO bonuses or get lost gambling on derivatives or building some temple-of-finance edifice. The stock-holders are the customers like you. So the credit union will pay more on your savings and charge less on your loans.

Years ago, you could only join a credit union if you worked at a place that had one, or had some other special connection. But the rules got loosened in 1998, and now there are local credit unions that accept anyone who lives in a particular area. For example, anybody who lives in New Hampshire can join Granite State Credit Union.

Mutual insurance companies are also member-owned, but you need to be careful: Some companies retain “mutual” in their names for historical reasons, but their structure is more complicated. If your policy doesn’t come with voting rights, you’re not really a member-owner.

For more complicated financial services, you might have several other member-owned options.

If you are (or were) in the military, or one of your parents is a USAA member, you can join USAA and get a full range of financial services: brokerage, insurance, whatever.

If you work for an educational institution or some other non-profit, probably not-for-profit TIAA-CREF is one of your retirement-plan options. (I’ve had a TIAA-CREF 401(k) for 29 years.) In addition to 401(k)s, they offer life insurance and individual investment products like mutual funds and brokerage accounts. Possibly anybody can go to their web site and open an individual account, but I haven’t found a FAQ that says that.

But even if you don’t have a military or non-profit connection, Vanguard has brokerage and mutual fund services available to the general public. Like USAA and TIAA-CREF, Vanguard isn’t exactly a co-op, but it is organized in a creative way that avoids Wall Street: It is owned by the mutual funds it manages, and those funds are owned by their investors.

Finally: You can cut the Visa/Mastercard oligopoly out of a transaction by paying cash. Usually you don’t see the difference, but the merchant pays something like 2-3% — which is how some cards can give you 1% cash back on your charges. This is a judgment call. I’ll pocket my 1% if the merchant is another big corporation like Exxon-Mobil. But I’ve started paying cash to local merchants. More of my money stays in the community.

Groceries. The easiest way to reduce the amount of your grocery budget that goes to profit-making corporations is to join a food co-op, if your area has one. More and more of them are springing up. (In my state, one has just opened in Keene, and I’ve pre-joined one that is trying to open in Manchester.)

A food co-op looks just like a grocery store and anybody can shop there, but it’s member-owned. So if you join you can vote and you’ll get a dividend if the store makes money. Because members vote, a food co-op can manifest values other than cost. For example, it can favor local farms or organic agriculture, or whatever the member think is important. Probably some things will be cheaper at Walmart, even after your dividend, but you won’t be mistreating your workers and none of your money will support a right-wing political agenda. This article includes links to help you find food co-ops near you.

Another option is a farmers’ market, where you can buy directly from the local producers. On summer weekends I can see one out my window, but if you don’t know where the nearest one is, check the Local Harvest website.

In community-sponsored agriculture, you buy a share of a local farmer’s output. It helps if you have some way to store the excess and are creative enough in the kitchen to adjust your menu to what’s in season. But if you fit that description, a CSA share isn’t just socially responsible, it will save you money.

Finally, one of the big supermarket chains in the rural Midwest is employee-owned: HyVee.

Retail. Depending on where you live, you might have all kinds of unexpected co-op options. For example, the Black Star brew pub in Austin is a co-op. It’s owned by 3,000 beer-drinkers and managed by its workers. I’ll bet it will never have a Friday’s-style drink-watering scandal.

Book co-ops show up here and there. When I was a graduate student in Chicago, I joined the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, which has expanded since I left. Back in the 80s, I paid $10 for a membership, and when I left town a few years later they bought my share back for $13.

This week I rejoined for $30. The share buy-back provision still applies. You can order books online or get e-books from their partner Kobo. Prices are generally below list, but I suspect not as low as Amazon — for now. Personally, I worry what Amazon will do after it drives Barnes&Noble out of business, as it probably will. In general, we seem to be headed for a retail world of Amazon vs. Walmart, with everyone else reduced to bit players. Maybe avoiding that future is worth paying slightly higher prices now.

Clothing co-op stores exist, but tend to be high end: REI is a co-op. Patagonia is a B-corporation, a relatively new type of company whose structure makes it less purely profit-driven.

Avoid chain restaurants. It should be obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people just don’t think about it. A local restaurant isn’t just less corporate, it keeps money in your community. It’s not just that the owner lives nearby, but the business also probably has a local accountant, a local lawyer, and so on.

Chains aren’t even necessary on car trips any more. Yelp will find you local restaurants wherever you happen to be. And my personal research says that if an interstate exit has a Denny’s, a McDonalds, and some local diner, the diner is pretty good. (The best fried chicken I’ve ever had came from just such a place: the Jubilee Cafe off I-74 in Kickapoo, IL.)

Use the post office. That speaks for itself, I guess.

Utilities. You’re more-or-less stuck with the utilities that serve your home, but the next time you move you might look for an area with municipally owned utilities.

Cable TV probably should have been a municipal utility, but most places took the short-cut of granting a monopoly to a private company. Now a handful of conglomerates dominate the business. But depending on what you watch, you may be able to fire your cable company.

Software/internet. Open-source software is free to use and has gotten pretty good. The Open Source Alternative website lets you specify the commercial software you want to replace, and tells you what your open source options are.

Lately I’ve been using Duck Duck Go as an alternative to Google or Bing. It’s also commercial, but claims not to collect data on users and profile them. I still revert to Google for a few things, but for the most part DDG does what I want with less annoyance.

Some of those suggestions will save you money, while some will raise your costs a little. But none require you to adopt a completely different lifestyle. I find that I feel less trapped when I route some of my money away from the corporate power structure. And if we can get a lot of people to do it, some larger changes become possible. I’ll cover that next week when I review Gar Alperovitz’s new book What Then Must We Do?.

In the meantime, use the comments to tell me what I left out.

* I’m sure it does make a difference to many of the people who work in corporations, and even to some CEOs. But if their moral values consistently reduce profit, they’ll be replaced.

Nobody Likes the New Capitalist Man

A number of insightful recent books and articles point out various pieces of the following picture:

  • People are fascinating bundles of benevolence and selfishness.
  • A well-designed market can channel people’s selfish tendencies into actions which, in the aggregate, achieve beneficial social ends.
  • Our economic theory models markets, not people, so only human selfishness is relevant. Homo economicus is entirely selfish.
  • Because the conditions that nurture benevolence are invisible to market theory, an “optimized” market system may inadvertently poison benevolence. In other words, market theory may create the perfectly selfish people it postulates.
  • For-profit corporations are artificial entities designed for the market. Consequently, they are defined to be the perfectly selfish, totally profit-driven players market theory postulates.
  • “Good management” means training each employee to internalize the values of the corporation.
  • Top managers are valued for their ability to “make the tough decisions”. In other words, they eliminate all human values other than profit from their decision process.
  • Increasingly, all the rewards of the corporate system flow to those at the top.

Put all that together, and you see that we have created a system that trains us to be bastards, and rewards us according to how well we have managed to stamp out our benevolence.

When you put it that way, it sounds kind of crazy, doesn’t it?

Let’s start with the upside of this vision: If our economic system is making us into worse people than we would otherwise be, then we could be better people and live in a nicer world if we just stopped making ourselves worse. This is not the utopian vision of the “new Soviet man“, a society-centered being who will spontaneously appear (for the first time in human history) after the revolution. It’s the far more modest observation that human beings have benevolent as well as selfish tendencies, and that creative system-builders could figure out ways to make use of human benevolence and nurture it.

That’s the uplifting message of The Penguin and the Leviathan by Yochai Benkler. Benkler says that through most of history, big cooperative projects only happened through “the Leviathan” — the state, exercising top-down power to make people play their parts. (Picture slaves dragging blocks to build the pyramids.) With capitalism comes the alternative of “the Invisible Hand” — the market, in which many individual decisions can add up to something big. (Think about how we wound up with lots of personal computers rather than the “big iron” IBM originally offered.)

Most of our political debate is about the Leviathan vs. the Invisible Hand: Will we get things done through government or by manipulating the incentives of the market?

(One hybrid observation doesn’t get enough attention: A corporation or cartel can dominate a market to the point that it essentially becomes a government, usually an unelected and unaccountable one.)

Anarchists have long claimed that another choice is possible: voluntary cooperation. But until recently, it was hard to find examples on scales larger than a barn-raising.

Then came the open-source movement, which Benkler identifies with the Penguin, the logo of the open-source Linux computer operating system. The Internet grew up together with a host of open-source projects created and maintained by volunteers: Linux, Apache, Mozilla, and eventually Wikipedia. Each in its own way defeated corporate-sponsored for-profit competitors. (Some, like Linux, eventually drew in corporate support, but on their own terms. IBM pays employees to contribute to Linux, but IBM still can’t own Linux.)

Benkler doesn’t claim that we could live in a complete open-source utopia; only that the principles that make open-source projects work have unexplored potential. Many people in our society are starved for opportunities to express their inventiveness, skill, and creativity in ways that do not pay them money, but win them the admiration of a peer group that shares their values. Similar motivations could complement monetary incentives more broadly.

He reviews much of the recent research into cooperation, reaching this conclusion:

In hundreds of studies, conducted in numerous disciplines across dozens of societies, a basic pattern emerges. In any given experiment, a large minority of people (about 30 percent) behave as though they really are selfish, as the mainstream commonly assumes. But here is the rub: Fully half of all people systematically, significantly and predictably behave cooperatively. … In practically no human society examined under controlled conditions have the majority of people consistently behaved selfishly.

The bulk of the book explores non-internet examples of how these principles play out in Japanese management, in community policing, in politics, and elsewhere. He concludes by offering principles for “growing a penguin” — designing a system that nurtures cooperation rather than incentivizing selfishness.

One of Benkler’s political examples — the get-out-the-vote strategy of the Obama campaign — is examined in more detail in The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg. It turns out that who people vote for may be determined by self-interest, but whether they vote isn’t. Nobody really believes their single vote will decide the election, so purely selfish people will stay home and pursue their other interests. The most effective method of motivating marginal voters, it turns out, is to appeal positively to their civic pride, while subtly reminding them that their non-voting will be a matter of public record. In laboratory experiments, this pride/guilt combination is more effective than paying people to vote.

Staying positive for a bit longer, Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, which I have reviewed before, finds that online gamers hunger for the chance to be a respected member of a questing community. She reports that many gamers feel their online persona is a better person than they are in their offline jobs and relationships. Like Benkler, she examines ways that the design principles of games could be used to encourage cooperative and altruistic behavior in real life.

Now let’s look at the negative side, starting with a book that walks the line between seriousness and tongue-in-cheek humor: Assholes, a theory by Aaron James. A sociopath is someone who lacks any moral core, but uses other people’s moral scruples to gain an advantage over them. An asshole, according to James, is different: He has a moral sense, but his moral vision comes with an unassailable sense of entitlement. So, for example, he understands perfectly why other people should wait their turn in a line, and is honestly incensed when they don’t. But he also feels — not occasionally, but constantly — that his special situation or status entitles him to cut to the front.

Like Benkler, James recognizes that most people aren’t assholes. (If they were, there would be no lines. We’d all just shove our way to the front.) But late in the book he considers whether a society can reach a tipping point, where there are so many assholes that the rest of us are driven to behave like assholes just to avoid constant exploitation.

From there he considers how capitalism can devolve into asshole capitalism. Suppose some social change causes the system to send

a powerful entitlement message, for instance, that having ever more is one’s moral right, even when it comes at a cost to others. As asshole thinking and culture spread and take hold, the asshole-dampening systems that used to keep assholery in check become overwhelmed. Parents start preparing their kids for an asshole economy, the law is increasingly compromised, the political system is increasingly captured, and so on. As some switch sides while others withdraw, cooperative people find it more difficult to uphold the practices and institutions needed for capitalism to do right by its own values. … Society becomes awash with people who are defensively unwilling to accept the burdens of cooperative life, out of a righteous sense that they deserve ever more.

James applies this model to various countries and concludes: “Japan is fine, Italy already qualifies as an asshole capitalist system, and the United States is in trouble.” (One symptom of Italy’s trouble: Even Silvio Berlusconi’s supporters understood that he was an asshole. Nobody cared.)

And that brings us to Gus DiZerega’s blog post Capitalism vs. the Market. In some ways this belongs to the same genre as my own Why I Am Not a Libertarian — insights that begin with a critique of a simplistically appealing libertarian worldview. DiZerega views the fundamental libertarian error as upholding corporate capitalism because markets are good. DiZerega agrees that markets are good, but corporate capitalism is something else entirely.

Markets, he says, are ways that producers and consumers send each other signals about supply and demand. The market doesn’t tell you what you should do, just what it will cost you. For example, the slave market won’t tell you whether or not you should free your slave, just how much money you’ll be passing up if you do.

But in corporate capitalism the market usurps the decisions once made by humans.

To succeed in managing a capitalist institution a person must always try and buy for the lowest price and sell for the highest before any other value enters in.  Any corporate CEO allowing other values to trump this principle will see his or her decisions reflected in lower share prices.  If these prices are much affected the corporation risks the likelihood of being taken over in an unfriendly acquisition, its management ousted, and financial values once again elevated above all others. In other words, as a system of economic organization capitalism defends itself against richer human values by penalizing and expelling people who to some degree put them ahead of profit when making economic decisions.

In theory corporations are owned by people. But in practice you cannot remove your capital from a corporation. All you can do is sell your shares to someone else. By selling, you disassociate yourself from practices you may consider immoral, but you do nothing to end them. Think of slavery again: You can free your slave, even if it lowers your net worth. But if instead you own shares in Rent-a-Slave, Inc., all you can do is give or sell those shares to someone else. No slaves are freed when you do.

So if I don’t want to profit by addicting people to drugs that kill them, I can sell my shares in tobacco companies. But the tobacco companies themselves roll on. To the extent that they are profitable, the new owner of my shares will make money and gain power in society. Even individually, power accrues to people who have no values beyond profit.

The libertarian ideal is of people who are free to live by their own values, trading with each other without coercion.

Capitalism is different. It is the gradual overwhelming and destruction of all values that are not instrumental. … Once capitalism exists non-instrumental values are actively selected against, and receive little opportunity for expression.  Human beings become profit centers for corporations, and nothing more. … Capitalism cannot distinguish love from prostitution.

I wish DiZerega had said “corporate capitalism” rather than just capitalism, but otherwise I agree. As I put forward two years ago in Corporations Are Sociopaths, we have created entities that embody all of our worst traits. James and DiZerega are pointing out what then happens to us and our society when those created entities are allowed to dominate.

Monopoly’s Role in Inequality

For several years I’ve been dipping into the subject of rising inequality, usually in book reviews like this one of Hacker and Pierson’s Winner-Take-All Politics. But all along a mystery has been nagging at me, and I think I’m finally getting to the bottom of it.

Inequality. The basic story is simple: Inequality in the United States has risen dramatically since the mid-70s. And the effect gets more extreme the farther out you go. It isn’t just that the top 10% is pulling away from the bottom 90%. The top .01% is pulling away from the top .1% even faster. The multi-billionaires are pulling away from the mere billionaires. (If you want graphs and numbers, look here.)

Obviously you can’t account for all that with education or competition from China. Maybe those factors explain why unskilled workers are having such a tough time, but they say little about the millionaire/billionaire divergence. Ditto for tax rates. Sure, the rich pay a much lower tax rate than they used to, but the explosive growth in their net worth is much bigger than tax rates can account for, and the mega-rich don’t get a significantly better tax deal than the ordinary rich. (Plus, tax cuts start with Reagan in 1982, not the mid-70s.)

Clearly something has happened to the structure of the market, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what.

Monopoly. Barry Lynn’s book Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction looks like the puzzle piece I was missing. Lynn claims our economy is now full of monopolies and near-monopolies — businesses big enough to dictate terms to their customers and/or suppliers.

In the mid-20th-century industrial economy, you got mega-rich by imitating Henry Ford: You figured out how to make things people wanted for a price they wanted to pay. Now you get mega-rich by building choke-points between producers and consumers.

WalMart exemplifies the current paradigm. WalMart makes nothing, but it is big enough to dictate how its suppliers will make things and what prices they can charge. In many of its rural markets, WalMart also dictates what people can buy. If your product isn’t on WalMart’s shelves, it’s not for sale. (WalMart also drives consolidation elsewhere in the economy, which produces big fees for Wall Street. For example, Procter & Gamble bought Gillette largely to improve its negotiating position with WalMart. In slightly different ways, Amazon and Google are trying to duplicate the WalMart model in the online economy. If your book isn’t on Amazon, it’s not for sale.)

Many near-monopolies are less visible than WalMart or Amazon. Lynn begins his book with the story of a pet-food recall, which suddenly made it obvious that many “competing” brands of pet food were actually all packed in the same factory. And Ford lobbied for the government bailout of “competitors” GM and Chrysler because it feared their common suppliers would go bankrupt. Many markets, Lynn says, are hydras: The countless brands on the shelves are just heads that spring from a common body.

The ends against the middle. Reading Lynn, I’m getting a clearer vision of how markets work. The purest form of market is what you can see at any big farmer’s market: Lots of consumers dealing directly with lots of producers. It’s rare that anybody gets really rich from these interactions, but many small producers have a chance to make a living and become independent.

Obviously the global economy has to be more complicated than that. But markets are created by rules, and the rules can be structured to favor either the ends (producers and consumers) or the middle. Producers and consumers benefit from transparent markets, where the rules force middlemen to treat everyone more-or-less the same.

But markets can also be structured to give middlemen as much freedom as possible. The most profitable way to use that freedom is to create choke-points where a toll can be extracted or one producer can be played off against another. In an opaque market, the way to get rich is not to produce things, but to build middleman power that allows you to dictate terms up and down the supply chain. (I don’t have space to go into it here, but keeping the internet transparent is what net neutrality is about, and why Comcast doesn’t like it.)

In a nutshell, what has happened since the mid-70s is that deregulation of old markets and under-regulation of new markets has made our economy more opaque. The people in the best position to take advantage of this are the very rich. Meanwhile, workers and small businessmen — the middle-class people who actually make stuff and deliver services — lose out. In the short term consumers may win or lose, depending on whether the middlemen’s advantage is in raising or lowering prices. But in the long run consumers lose options, power, and quality.

The most interesting thing politically is how the rhetoric of freedom works. Freedom for the middleman leads to domination of producers and consumers. “Freedom” seldom works out to mean more options for everybody.

One worked-out example. If you’ve watched much cable or satellite TV lately, you probably saw Viacom’s ads against DirectTV, like this one.

If you’re a DirectTV subscriber, Comedy Central (and other Viacom channels) went dark for nine days before the two corporations resolved their dispute, so you had to do without The Daily Show or watch it online.

Here’s the point: Maybe you couldn’t watch Jon Stewart for a week, but the problem had nothing to do with either you or Jon Stewart. He wasn’t asking for a raise; you weren’t balking at the price of watching the Daily Show. But both you and Jon were irrelevant when two giant middlemen had a power struggle.

Each brought a lot of power to the struggle. In most of its markets, DirectTV is the only alternative to the local cable monopoly, while Viacom is one of a handful of megacorps that dominate TV content. (Disney, Time Warner, NBCUniversal, NewsCorp, and CBS are the others. National Amusements owns a big chunk of both Viacom and CBS. Comcast plays both sides of the street, being both a cable monopoly and a partner with GE in NBCUniversal.)

Viacom thought it had the upper hand, so it was demanding a bigger payout from DirectTV and insisting DirectTV carry its new Epix channel. I haven’t sorted out yet who won.

These middlemen outweigh both you and Jon Stewart. If Jon doesn’t work for one of the six big media companies, he can’t reach a major audience. If you don’t deal with either DirectTV or a cable monopoly, your TV choices shrink considerably.

Transparent markets. But it’s not hard to imagine a TV system that works differently: Cable or satellite systems could be common carriers, making a fixed amount whenever they connect a TV producer with a TV consumer. Cable and satellite would still compete, but only by changing that fixed amount or by offering more reliable service to the consumer.

With that kind of middleman transparency, small TV companies could spring up and get their shows seen, so Jon Stewart would have a lot more than six choices. You and Jon would have more power, Viacom and DirectTV less.

Even more interesting is what happens to the profit motive: The way to make money in this transparent system is to create shows people want to watch and deliver them reliably. Wheeling and dealing to amass middleman power wouldn’t accomplish much.

Government regulation would probably be necessary to bring this system about, but it would still be capitalism. The marketplace would just be structured differently, so that the benefits and opportunities of capitalism would accrue to producers and consumers rather than to financiers and empire-builders.

Probably this restructured marketplace would lead to more small companies and fewer megacorps, more millionaires and fewer billionaires.

Picture the same transparent-market principle spreading across the economy: More small businesses, more places to look for jobs, greater variety of products, and more opportunity to go into business for yourself. Less inequality.

Working for the Man and other short notes

Our 24/7 news media covers fires and hurricanes pretty well, but does a bad job on major stories that develop over decades. Thursday, Salon published an article that deserved major-media attention, but didn’t get it: 21st Century Chain Gangs by Steve Fraser and Joshua Freeman.

What they’re pointing to isn’t news because it isn’t new: NewsOne.com connected many of the same dots in October (Big Business or Slave Labor? What Prisoners Make in Jail). Vicky Palaez (The prison industry in the United States: big business or a new form of slavery?) was on the story in 2008. Nobody noticed then either.

Here are the dots:

  • Compared to other countries, the United States jails an incredible number of people: 2.3 million in 2010, about 25% of all the prisoners in the world. The prison population continues to increase, even as all forms of violent crime are going down.
  • Prisons are increasingly privatized. More people behind bars means more money for corporations like CCA.
  • Through organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the private prison industry lobbies for legislatures to jail more types of offenders and lengthen prison sentences. The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik describes CCA as: “a capitalist enterprise that feeds on the misery of man trying as hard as it can to be sure that nothing is done to decrease that misery.”
  • Increasing numbers of prisoners (about a million, currently) are leased out to private industry. They work for wages that are sometimes less than $1 an hour, and the workers are in no position to complain if they aren’t treated well. The old trend was to move call centers to India; the new trend is moving them to prison.

Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean was sentenced to row the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. (How else are you going to get people to row galleys?) We seem to be headed back in that direction. Why should companies pay real American wages when they can get real Americans to work for less? And as legitimate jobs dry up (or lose their purchasing power) due to competition from rightless workers at home and abroad, crime becomes more tempting.

An elaborate parody imagines what the Bank of America should say on its web site. The parody comes from Yes Lab, home of the Yes Men.

The Vatican is cracking down on American nuns, who worry too much about social justice and not enough about the culture wars. The solution? Put a man in charge: Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain.

Nuns need to learn to take their political cues from male leaders like Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky, who this week compared President Obama to Hitler and Stalin.

I didn’t expect the revolution to be started by Citigroup shareholders.

A USA Today reporter investigating illegal Pentagon propaganda activities mysteriously becomes the target of an info op.

Attack those who are attacking the status quo (as James McWilliams does in “The Myth of Sustainable Meat“) and the major media (like the NYT) will beat a path to your door.  Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms (who you may remember from The Omnivore’s Dilemma) answers.

Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick reports that conservative judges are feeling increasingly unfettered by standing precedents. Bush-appointed Circuit Court Judge Janice Brown recently wrote an opinion calling on the Supreme Court to return to pre-New-Deal interpretations of the law, an issue that ought to be way beyond her pay grade.

An ad by Californians for Populations Stabilization features an attractive and sensible-looking young man making this argument against immigration:

Immigrants produce four times more carbon emissions in the U.S. than in their home countries.

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? We don’t hate Mexicans, it’s just that letting them into California is killing the planet.

But where does that argument come from? ThinkProgress traces the 4-fold-increase calculation to a report by the anti-immigration think tank, the Center for Immigration Studies.

Here’s everything you need to know about the Center: They gave the 2004 award for “excellence in the coverage of immigration” to Lou Dobbs, for the same CNN program The Nation summed up as “nightly nativism“.

And here’s the logic of their report:

this study postulates a broad correlation between a person’s annual income and his or her annual CO2 emissions

In other words, immigrants have a bigger CO2 footprint in the U.S. because they make more money here. So this isn’t just an argument for keeping immigrants out of the U.S., it’s an argument for keeping poor people poor.

What if we applied the same logic to other groups? “Don’t create jobs, because the unemployed have a smaller carbon footprint.” or “Raising taxes on the rich will shrink their carbon footprint.”

Or why not go all the way? “We want to cut CO2 emissions by starting a worldwide recession.” But no. In any context but immigration, the message we get from the right is more like this:

Two groups that need help with their messaging. (1) a religious group:

(2) a university (click for bigger image)

I hesitate to link to this because (1) the study sounds very preliminary, and (2) the public got burned so badly by false reports of an autism/vaccination link. But a new study links autism to consumption of high fructose corn syrup.

A dissenting view comes, naturally, from the Corn Refiners Association.

Anders Behring Breivik is on trial for the murder of dozens of teen-agers at a camp run by the Workers’ Youth League of Norway’s Labor Party. A chilling article in the respected journal Foreign Policy sees him as “the tip of the iceberg in a rising sea of radical Islamophobia in Europe.”

The kids were mostly blond Norwegians unconnected to Islam, but Breivik blames the Labor Party for Norway’s increasing multiculturalism.

The Writing Center at St. Mary’s University gets schooled:

Property vs. Freedom

If you strip it down to its essence, the battle over SOPA/PIPA is Property vs. Freedom: the media companies want to defend their intellectual property, while Internet-users want to defend their freedom.

You won’t often hear it characterized that way in the corporate media, though, because Property and Freedom are supposed to be inseparable, like Love and Marriage. Sing it, Frank:

This I tell you, brother:
You can’t have one without the other.

Or, as Ron Paul more prosaically put it in 2004:

The rights of all private property owners … must be respected if we are to maintain a free society.

Simply saying the phrase “Property vs. Freedom” marks you as some kind of extreme Leftist. All right-thinking people know that Property can’t possibly oppose Freedom.

Last summer I wrote Six True Things Politicians Can’t Say. Well, here’s another one: The relationship between Property and Freedom is highly contentious. (On second thought, the Love-and-Marriage parallel isn’t that bad.)

Get off my lawn. Why is that relationship so contentious? It’s simple: The essence of Property is the right to tell people to get off your lawn, and to sic the police on them if they don’t. If you can’t do that, it’s not really your lawn.

So naturally Property increases Freedom for the owner. Once you have the right to sic the police on trespassers, your lawn becomes available for cookouts, gardening, minimally supervised children, and all sorts of other expressions of freedom.

But look at it from the other side. What if you’re constantly being forced off other people’s lawns and own no property you can retreat to? How free is that?

Free to be Jim Crow. Now read the Ron Paul quote in its full context. On the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Wikipedia entry, text of bill), which banned racial discrimination in “any place of public accommodation” (like the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro) and in hiring, Paul portrayed the law in this light:

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave the federal government unprecedented power over the hiring, employee relations, and customer service practices of every business in the country. The result was a massive violation of the rights of private property and contract, which are the bedrocks of free society.

In other words, business owners lost some of their right to tell black people to get off their lawns. Definitely it was a diminishment of Property. But was Paul right that it was a net loss of Freedom, or did the freedom gained by blacks more than make up for the freedom lost by businesses?

Why is it your lawn anyway? Post-slavery America may look like an exceptional case, but actually it was just a particularly egregious example of a general rule: Never in the history of humankind has private property been fairly distributed. By the time American blacks stopped being property themselves, all the good stuff was already owned by whites.

Welcome to Freedom, suckers! Now get off my lawn.

One standard pro-property response to this point is that in a free economy property tends to move to the people who earn it through hard work and ingenuity, so mal-distributions even out over time. Maybe the newly-freed slaves did get a raw deal, but that was a long time ago. According to this point of view, by now their great-great-grandchildren must be pretty much where they deserve to be.

But far from an exception, the race problem is a convenient color-coding that makes the general historical pattern easier to see. Michael Hudson described that pattern like this:

The tendency for debts to grow faster than the population’s ability to pay has been a basic constant throughout all recorded history. Debts mount up exponentially, absorbing the surplus and reducing much of the population to the equivalent of debt peonage.

In other words, the typical trend is not for things to even out after a few generations, but for unfair distributions of property to get moreso. Sing it, Billie:

Them that’s got shall have.
Them that’s not shall lose.

The only exception I can think of is post-World-War-II America and Europe, where property tended for decades to become more evenly distributed. But far from the natural workings of a free economy, that outcome required inheritance taxes, progressive income taxes, public education, laws to break up monopolies and protect unions, a significant social safety net, and many other government interventions.

Freedom and public property. America’s two greatest symbols of freedom are the Cowboy and the Indian, both of whom own little, but live in a vast public common where they can hunt in the forests, drink in the streams, and swim in the lakes without worrying about ownership.

Contrast that freedom with economic blogger Noah Smith‘s account of downtown Tokyo.

there are relatively few free city parks. Many green spaces are private and gated off (admission is usually around $5). … outside your house or office, there is basically nowhere to sit down that will not cost you a little bit of money. Public buildings generally have no drinking fountains; you must buy or bring your own water. Free wireless? Good luck finding that!

Does all this private property make me feel free? Absolutely not! Quite the opposite – the lack of a “commons” makes me feel constrained.

To me the lesson is clear: For all but the fabulously wealthy, freedom is maximized by balancing public and private property. It’s nice to have your own lawn, but public property you can’t be chased off of — roads, parks, sidewalks — is even more important. It’s also nice to have public access to water and sanitation, and not to be at the proprietor’s mercy whenever you enter a store, restaurant, or theater.

Intellectual property. Applying that logic to intellectual property gets you to the kind of public/private balance we used to have: Copyrights and patents grant creators and inventors valuable temporary rights, while producing a rich public common allowing fair use of recent creations. And since everything eventually becomes public, a balanced copyright law increases the value of the public domain by encouraging the creation of works that otherwise might be impractical.

Protests of SOPA and PIPA make no sense until you understand that we have lost that balance.

Consider how the music-downloading problem arose: By controlling distribution, media corporations inserted themselves as toll-collectors between creators and users. You’d pay $20 for a CD you could easily copy for $1, knowing that precious little of the difference made it back to the artist. Napster-users had few moral scruples against “stealing” music because the system was already amoral. (Call it the Leverage Principle: “The rich and powerful take what they want. We steal it back for you.”)

Also, endless copyrights have dammed the flow of material into the public domain. When Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse in 1928, he was granted a 28-year copyright with the prospect of renewing for another 28 years. Evidently, the prospect of Mickey entering the public domain in 1984 didn’t deter Walt from creating him.

But every time that expiration date approaches, the Disney Corporation leans on Congress to extend the length of existing copyrights. Tom Bell illustrates how copyrights lengthen as Mickey ages.

Unless corporate money loses its primacy in our political system, nothing created after 1928 will ever enter the public domain. Unlike Mickey, the vast majority of that cultural treasure-trove will be orphan works that no one has the right to use. (For a book-length treatment of these issues, see The Public Domain, which the author has graciously put in the public domain.)

As Lawrence Lessig has pointed out, extending an existing copyright does nothing to promote creativity or otherwise advance the public interest:

No matter what the US Congress does with current law, George Gershwin is not going to produce anything more.

In short, the Infosphere is slouching towards Tokyo. Gradually the public common is shrinking towards the day when almost everything of value will be corporately owned.

SOPA/PIPA. The Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the equivalent Protect Intellectual Property Act in the Senate are two more corporate attempts to buy laws that serve the private interest but not the public interest. (Interestingly, Politico covers the SOPA protests as a battle between Hollywood and Silicon Valley, as if the public were not involved.)

These laws would make search engines, internet-service providers, and other middlemen responsible for blocking access to web sites that copyright-holders claim are pirating their works. Since they bear no comparable responsibility for defending fair use, their safest course will be to block any site Disney or Time-Warner complains about.

Consider the quotes and images in this article. Traditionally, they would be considered fair use. But what if somebody complains? Is WordPress really going to pay a lawyer to read this article and write an opinion? Or are they just going to shut the Weekly Sift down?

The protests worked, for now. Websites like Wikipedia went dark on Wednesday to protest SOPA/PIPA, and a massive public response forced many lawmakers to change their positions.

But it’s naive to think that’s the end of the story. Corporate money is relentless. When public outrage dies down, we’ll soon see the basic ideas of SOPA/PIPA back in some other form.

In addition to protests, we need a fundamental rethinking of intellectual property. As long as we’re just talking about theft and how to prevent it, we’re missing the point. The right question is how we restore the public/private balance to intellectual property.

We need intellectual property lines that are widely seen as legitimate. When we have that, the problems of trespassing and theft will become much, much smaller and easier to police.

Rootworms, Monsanto, and the Unity of Existence

You know what I envy most about the Right? They’re holistic.

I know that sounds crazy. Conservatives are individualists, liberals are the ones who understand that everything is connected. And yet … liberals get involved in labor issues (if they belong to a union), education (if they have children), race and gender (if they’re black or female), and so on. Otherwise, life is short and energy is finite. We can’t all be into everything.

But conservatives happily take on a wide range of issues, because they’ve got an ideology that pulls it all together.

This week there was a news story about rootworms in corn fields in Iowa. Probably you’re not an Iowan, a corn-farmer, or a rootworm, so your eyes are glazing over. But bear with me. Everything is connected.

Bt and Monsanto. The rootworms are newsworthy because they’re not supposed to be there. The fields were planted with a corn seed that Monsanto genetically modified to kill rootworms. It contains a gene from bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring insect-killing bacteria. Apparently the Iowa fields have evolved a rootworm resistant to Bt, or at least to this particular expression of Bt.

That’s bad — and not just for Monsanto.

This possibility was considered when the Monsanto corn was approved by the EPA in 2003. The remedy was for farmers to plant 20% of their fields with non-Bt corn. Basically, you want to prevent insects with low-level resistance from mating with each other and producing high-level resistance. The 20% “refuge” area keeps non-resistant rootworms in the evolutionary picture, so that the species as a whole doesn’t become resistant.

Now it looks like 20% wasn’t enough. That’s what independent scientists told the EPA in 2003. They wanted 50% non-Bt corn, but Monsanto lobbied the EPA down to 20%. Now it looks like their lobbying screwed up their own product.

Everything-is-connected Lesson 1. Smart government regulations aren’t job-killing or money-wasting. Corporations are short-sighted. In the long run everybody — even industry — does better if government doesn’t let industry do whatever it wants.

Monsanto vs. the farmers who buy its seed. Since the dawn of agriculture, farmers have saved some of their crop to plant the following year. Since the dawn of the seed industry that has been a problem, because seed companies always want to sell farmers new seed.

So the 20th-century seed industry developed high-yielding hybrids that were either sterile or would regress in subsequent generations. You could save your seed, but if you wanted the 100-bushel-an-acre corn, you had to buy new.

When it couldn’t figure out how to make that tactic work for genetically modified seeds, Monsanto changed its retailing model to be more like Microsoft’s. Like Windows 7 DVDs, Monsanto’s seeds are just media. What farmers are really buying is a one-year license to use the patented genetic information in the seed. Farmers who replant the descendants of their purchased seeds risk being bankrupted by Monsanto’s patent-infringement lawsuits.

A lot of law had to be changed or re-interpreted to make this scheme work. For one thing, the whole idea that naturally occurring genes can be patented is not obvious, and may even be a little bizarre. Property law could just as easily have settled out the way that seemed like common sense to one unintentional patent-infringer: “I assumed that after I paid the tech fee [the seeds] were mine.”

Everything-is-connected Lesson 2. Conservatives talk about property rights as if they had been sacrosanct since God evicted his tenants from Eden. But in the real world property is whatever corporations want it to be. If centuries-old notions of property get in the way of corporate profits, the rules will be changed.

Everything-is-connected Lesson 3. The term judicial activism is hardly ever applied to cases that expand corporate rights. But patenting life-forms stems from Diamond v. Chakrabarty (1980), where it is the liberal dissent of Justice Brennan that invokes judicial restraint: “We must be careful to extend patent protection no further than Congress has provided.” He lost.

Monsanto vs. the farmers who don’t buy its seed. Some farmers who never bought Monsanto seed are growing patented plants because birds drop seeds on their property or pollen blows in from a neighbor’s field. Other farmers who stopped using Monsanto seed nonetheless see “volunteer” seeds from last year’s crop sprout in their fields.

Occasionally such a farmer loses a patent infringement suit. And no one knows how many innocent farmers — less determined than this family profiled by CBS — just pay up when confronted with evidence of patented plants in their fields and the threat of Monsanto’s expensive legal team. (Sixty different organic-farming organizations have preemptively filed suit against Monsanto to avoid being sued later for inadvertent patent infringement.)

Farmers who hope to export to countries that ban genetically modified crops are harmed if the wind blows Monsanto pollen onto their fields. But Monsanto’s licensing agreement puts this responsibility on the farmer who plants its seeds. So you can sue your neighbor, but not Monsanto.

Everything-is-connected Lesson 4. Corporatist political rhetoric often emphasizes freedom and responsibility. But it’s all one-way. The corporation has the freedom and you have the responsibility.

Organic insect control and the genetic commons. Being a naturally occurring bacterium, Bt is one of the few insect-control treatments available to organic farmers. They typically use it sparingly. Their first line of defense against insects is to rotate crops (as all farmers used to do). That way, eggs of corn-eating insects will hatch in a field of soybeans, and vice versa. When organic farmers use Bt, it is applied only to the insect-infested field, and it soon washes away.

Monsanto’s Bt seeds, by contrast, expose the entire field, all season long. And one of the seed’s touted advantages is that you don’t have to rotate. The Iowa fields where resistance developed had been planted in corn for many years in a row.

So, used as directed, Monsanto’s seeds are breeding Bt-resistant rootworms. (It’s not clear yet if the Iowa worms are universally Bt-resistant or just resistant to the particular protein Monsanto engineered its seeds to produce. In any case, they are a step in the direction of Bt-resistant rootworms.)

Once they exist, these rootworms are unlikely to respect property lines. They’ll be a problem for everybody, including the organic farms. So Monsanto has profited by using up a common resource that could have lasted for centuries otherwise.

Everything-is-connected Lesson 5. By their insatiable nature, corporations make all tragedy-of-the-commons problems much, much worse. Antibiotic-resistant disease is a similar story, as the meat industry uses massive quantities of antibiotics without concern for the consequences. Ditto for air quality, water rights, and any other common asset that a corporation can profit from. If there’s a horse in the common stable, a corporation will ride it to death.

How do we connect everything? Urban or suburban liberals may find such farm-based issues uninteresting, but conservatives of all stripes jump into opposition if anyone tries to fix the problem. Why? Because government is evil and industry is good. It’s that simple to them.

If liberals are going to unite efficiently, we need to develop a few reality-based but easy-to-apply lenses of our own, so that we have a common view of many diverse situations.

I propose this one: Corporate rights are driving out human rights.

Even if an issue seems to have nothing to do with you, check whether this lens brings it into focus. Because the battle for dominance between corporations and humans is everybody’s battle, and we need to fight it on all fronts.

One Word Turns the Tea Party Around

Did you ever watch one of those football blooper reels, where guys run for touchdowns in the wrong direction?

Sometimes they look really good doing it: fast, agile, determined. None of their teammates can catch up and turn them around.

This last year or two I’ve been feeling that way about the Tea Party — not the corporate lobbyists who run the organizations or the billionaires who fund them, but the rank-and-file types who wave signs and bring their babies to rallies. A few are the stereotypic gun-toting racists, but a lot of others are low-to-middle-class folks who have figured a few things out:

  • Honest, hard-working Americans are seeing their opportunities dry up.
  • The country is dominated by a small self-serving elite.
  • Our democracy is threatened.
  • The public is told a lot of lies.
  • People need to stand up and make their voices heard.
  • If we stand together, we’re not as helpless as we seem.

I could go on, but you get the idea. They’re on to something. The country needs people like this carrying the ball, if only they weren’t running the wrong way.

How they should turn around is pretty easy to describe. Tea Partiers think:

The threat to our way of life comes from government, and the solution is to shrink government while freeing corporations from government control.

Just flip government and corporations in that sentence:

The threat to our way of life comes from corporations, and the solution is to shrink corporations while freeing government from corporate control.

Perfect. Now you can explain things like too-big-to-fail banks gambling trillions on the unregulated credit-default-swap market, sinking the economy, and then getting the taxpayers to cover their losses.

And more: Did the USDA put salmonella in our meat? No, meat-packing corporations did. And they’ve got enough lawyer-and-lobbyist power to keep the USDA regulators at bay. Did the EPA dump raw oil into the Gulf of Mexico? No, BP did. They cut corners on safety and no regulator was in a position to stop them. Did the government kill the 29 miners at Upper Big Branch coal mine? No, Massey Energy did, and had enough clout to keep the mine going even after inspectors had found more than 500 safety violations.

By getting the government/corporation thing backwards, the Tea Party has channeled populist anger into the idea that corporations need even more power. Get those mean bureaucrats off the back of poor, beleaguered Goldmann Sachs. If we just let the Koch brothers’ paper plants dump more phosphorous into Wisconsin’s rivers, the economy will be fine. Let’s kill off the unions, and then the corporations that own the mines and the factories will treat working people with more respect. Let corporate money flow freely into political campaigns, and then the voice of ordinary Americans will really be heard in Washington.

Guys! The goal line is over here!

On the other hand, the government/corporate flip fixes just about all the Tea Party rhetoric. For example, John Boehner was trying to pander to the Tea Party when he said:

The bigger the government the smaller the people.

But what if he had said “The bigger the corporations, the smaller the people”? That would have been really insightful, and (among other things) would have explained why the working class needs more unions, not less.

Go to one of those Tea Party web sites full of their favorite anti-government quotes. Do the flip to make them anti-corporate, and you’ve got rhetoric that’s dead-on:

When one gets in bed with corporations, one must expect the diseases they spread. — Ron Paul

The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and corporations to gain ground. — Thomas Jefferson

The corporate solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem. — Milton Friedman

We are fast approaching the stage of the ultimate inversion: the stage where a corporation is free to do anything it pleases, while the citizens may act only by permission. — Ayn Rand

Ronald Reagan becomes the font of wisdom Tea Partiers believe he is:

In this present crisis, corporations are not the solution to our problem; corporations are the problem.

A corporation is like a baby. An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no responsibility at the other.

Lord Acton said power corrupts. Surely then, if this is true, the more power we give the corporations the more corrupt they will become.

Man is not free unless corporations are limited.

“We the people” tell the corporations what to do, they don’t tell us.

After the flip, even Sarah Palin makes sense:

People know something has gone terribly wrong with our corporations and they have gotten so far off track.

Grover Norquist is still a radical, but now he’s attacking the right problem:

We want to reduce the size of corporations in half as a percentage of GNP over the next 25 years. We want to reduce the number of people depending on corporations so there is more autonomy and more free citizens.

Here’s another rhetoric-flipping trick: Replace Washington with Wall Street. Then Rand Paul has it right:

Wall Street is horribly broken. I think we stand on a precipice. We are encountering a day of reckoning and this movement, this Tea Party movement, is a message to Wall Street that we’re unhappy and that we want things done differently.

Go Rand! Go Tea Party!

Now let’s translate the Founders:

A corporation, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one. — Thomas Paine

It is error alone which needs the support of the corporate media. Truth can stand by itself. — Thomas Jefferson

If ever time should come, when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in our corporations, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin. — Samuel Adams

Like fire, the corporation is a dangerous servant and a fearful master. — George Washington

When you understand who today’s powerful elite really is, many of the Tea Party’s favorite Founder-quotes don’t need any translation:

The issue today is the same as it has been throughout all history, whether man shall be allowed to govern himself or be ruled by a small elite. — Thomas Jefferson

All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree. — James Madison

There are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. — James Madison

So true, James. Little by little we are losing our privacy, our access to information, and even our political system to the corporations.

And in spite of the economic collapse Wall Street’s machinations have brought upon us, how do we explain the market-worship we see all over the corporate media? The 19th-century French economist Frederic Bastiat had that one nailed:

When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.

I got that from the Venango County Tea Party Patriots. Again, no translation is necessary once you know which way to look.

But that’s the real problem with the Tea Party rank-and-file: Like the guns of Singapore, they’re facing the sea when the attack comes over land. They know they’re under somebody’s thumb, but they’re confused about whose thumb it is. So when they strike back, they swing at the wrong guys.

If any Tea Partiers have read this far, I’m sure they think I’m the one who has it backwards. But I ask you, as you run free and clear towards the goal line: Whose goal line is that? Look up in the stands and see who’s cheering for you: The billionaires. The CEOs. The traders on the floor of the big exchanges. The investment bankers.

Isn’t that just a little strange? Have they all suddenly started rooting for everyday middle-class Americans?

Or are you running the wrong way?

Confessions of a Centrist in Exile

The Center is my home. But I can’t live there any more.

Re-assembling the elephant. Whenever I describe what I’m trying to do with my writing, two ideas rise to the top: First, whatever the subject, I’m trying to find the simplest explanation that is both accurate and sensible. And second, I’m trying to “re-assemble the elephant”.

That piece of my internal slang comes from The Blind Men and the Elephant: Each blind man touches a part of the elephant, and they come up with wildly incompatible descriptions. The elephant is like a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan, and a rope. Re-assembling the elephant means taking different people’s experiences seriously, and finding an underlying truth that makes sense of all their accounts.

As a dedicated elephant-assembler, I naturally view myself in the middle, between opposing worldviews. My best work builds bridges: Red Family, Blue Family (which led to magazine articles here and here), explains to liberals how the life experience of people on the religious right leads them to their very different notions of family values. Meeting at Infinity bridges the theist/atheist divide. Supporting My Troop is about the decades-long relationship between a peacenik (me) and a career Marine (my best friend from high school). Spirituality and the Humanist interprets religious language for people of a rational/scientific bent. Change in My Lifetime explains to people younger than me why racism means something different to so many whites older than me.

Defending the Center. In Terrorist Strategy 101, I went a step further. That essay didn’t just explain Bin Laden to Americans, it downgraded the Us-against-the-Terrorists framing in favor of Extremists-against-the-Center, and concluded with an exhortation to defend the Center against both Neocons and Islamists.

Most of all, we Americans need to keep a leash on our own radicals. They are not working in our interests any more than Bin Laden is working in the interests of ordinary Muslims. The extremists on both sides serve each other, not the people they claim to represent. The cycle of attack-and-reprisal strengthens radicals on both sides at the expense of those in the middle who just want to live their lives.

In the face of the next attack, be slow to embrace radical, violent, or angry solutions. The center must hold.

People who started reading the Weekly Sift recently are probably surprised that I ever thought of myself as a defender of the Center. Because although I didn’t even call myself a Democrat until the Clinton impeachment, I’ve radicalized over the last 2-3 years. Now, if I’m explaining why somebody isn’t as crazy as you think, I’m more likely to be talking about Karl Marx than Ayn Rand — or even John Boehner. Most of the bridges I’m building these days go further to the Left, not back towards the Center.

Because I’m not going back. For a long time I didn’t admit that to myself, but now I do. On special occasions I may raise a glass to the Center like a Boston Irishman remembering the Auld Sod, but I’m not going back for a long, long time. Maybe ever.

I’m a native-born Centrist in exile on the Left.

What happened? Two years ago, when I reviewed David Michaels’ Doubt is Their Product, I described it as “a radicalizing book”. Based on many examples over a period of decades, it describes the standard operating procedure of corporations — tobacco companies, asbestos companies, and even microwave popcorn companies — who realize they are killing people.

The procedure does not start with “stop killing people”. That is a last resort, an option to be taken if all else fails. More favored tactics are denial, hiding facts, manipulating research, manipulating public opinion, foot-dragging, lobbying regulators to set unreasonably low standards, and ultimately hiding behind those standards in court to avoid paying damages to victims’ heirs.

This isn’t what bad corporations do. It is standard procedure. There’s a whole industry of specialists to guide CEOs through the profit-from-killing-people process.

[The more recent Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway tells a similar story about corporate propaganda campaigns on political issues: the ozone hole, global warming, and so on.]

Since then, I have had another lens through which to view current events. Not Left vs. Right, or even Center vs. Extremists, but Corporations vs. Humans.

And that brings me back to my first self-identification. Of all my lenses, which provides the simplest view that is both accurate and sensible?

Corporations vs. Humans. More and more I believe that’s the central struggle of our time.

Bridges to nowhere. Between the corporate view and the human view, there is no bridge to be built, no elephant to re-assemble. The corporate worldview involves no subtle mystery: They see us as sheep and want to consume us. And there’s no point explaining any human worldview to corporations, because they don’t care. They can’t care. It’s not in their DNA. (I wrote this up last December in Corporations Are Sociopaths.)

The point of bridge-building is that people can change their minds. Humans can be a defensive, xenophobic species, but we also are driven to understand each other. Once you understand someone else’s experiences, it’s hard not to sympathize. And once you sympathize, it’s natural to look for ways we can live together and all get some of what we want.

Humans can be hard-hearted, self-interested, and downright evil. But history tells remarkable stories of people who change their minds. Slave-owners and slave-traders may become abolitionists. Male chauvinists may fight for their daughters’ rights. Warriors become peacemakers. Tyrants become liberators. It’s rare, but it happens. No human is so far gone that you can be 100% sure they’ll never change.

But corporations respond only to carrots and sticks, not to new sympathies, new evidence, or new moral understanding. When the tobacco companies figured out that smoking killed people, they defended their profits by arguing that it didn’t. Ditto today for fossil-fuel companies and global warming. Gathering evidence to convince them is a waste of time.

Arguing with humans. Someone is bound to point out to me that all actual arguments are between humans. The TV talking heads, newspaper columnists, politicians, think-tank intellectuals — they’re all people, not corporations. Their minds could change.

But more and more, those people are just tongues. If they say the wrong words, new tongues will say the right words. A corporate-funded politician repeats a sound-bite written by a corporate-sponsored pundit based on the research of an academic at a corporate-endowed think tank. None of those people have any real influence on the message. If you changed their minds, you might convince them to quit their jobs. But you would not change the message, because the message does not come from people.

And so we hear nonsense like this: Defending a House appropriations bill that guts environmental protection (banning the Bureau of Land Management from adding to protected wilderness areas, the Fish and Wildlife Service from naming new endangered plant and animal species, etc. — all regardless of any new events or research) Idaho Republican Mike Simpson said on Tuesday: “Many of us think that the overregulation from E.P.A. is at the heart of our stalled economy.”

Not the mortgage companies who loaned money to people with no assets or income, not the investment banks who packaged those loans into deceptively marketed collateralized debt obligations, not Moody’s and S&P who AAA-rated the toxic CDOs, not the unregulated credit-default swap market that built towers of speculative side-bets on each toxic CDO, and not George W. Bush or Alan Greenspan who failed to regulate any of it. The E-frigging-PA.

This idea enters the public debate not because it makes sense to Rep. Simpson or anybody else — that’s irrelevant — but because the EPA hurts the profits of polluting corporations who spend money on lobbying, electioneering, and other propaganda. No matter what evidence you assemble in its favor, the EPA will still hurt those profits, so it will still be blamed for whatever problem people are currently worried about.

The Center is occupied territory. Tuesday, Paul Krugman blogged on The Cult that is Destroying America, and followed it up in Thursday’s column The Centrist Cop-Out.

What’s destroying America, he says, is not crazy right-wingers. (We’ve always had them.) What’s comparatively recent and more dangerous is the media’s “cult of balance”. No matter what positions the two parties take, they will be covered as if they were equally extreme and irresponsible.

What all this means is that there is no penalty for extremism; no way for most voters, who get their information on the fly rather than doing careful study of the issues, to understand what’s really going on.

Standing in the middle, seeing reason (or blame) on both sides — that makes sense when you’re arguing with public-spirited fellow citizens who happen to disagree with you. It doesn’t make sense when the driving force behind an argument is a corporation.

Logic will not convince the Ford dealer than you don’t need a new truck; at some point you just have to leave. Similarly, we can’t persuade corporations not to consume us. We have to take their power away. That won’t be a conversation, it will be a fight.

The Left is not totally free of corporate corruption, but it is the only remaining place to fight from. The Right is completely co-opted. Its frames, sound bites, ideologies, and pseudo-facts are corporately generated and would collapse without the media/academic infrastructure that corporate money buys. And to be in the Center is to collaborate, to pretend that the corporate how-to-serve-man cookbook is a viable plan for the future.

The Center is my homeland, the Jerusalem I will always hope to return to. But for the foreseeable future it is occupied territory, and I refuse to collaborate. So I will stay here, in exile on the Left.