Corporations have far too much power. But We the People have more.
by Robert Weissman and Joan Claybrook
[The following is based on an excerpt of the authors’ new book, The Corporate Sabotage of America’s Future and What We Can Do About It (Public Citizen & Essential Books / 2023).]
It is now conventional wisdom that America is a divided country, with bitter partisan splits over just about everything.
It’s undoubtedly true that Americans have divergent views on many important topics.
But the narrative of a Divided America obscures an equally important and rarely acknowledged truth: Americans agree on a great deal. Americans of all political stripes believe that big corporations have too much power and are weakening the nation.
• Corporations regularly rip us off with illegitimate fees, monopolistic pricing and windfall profiteering. Americans agree: This is wrong and the government should end corporate ripoffs.
• Corporations poison the air we breathe and the water we drink, spreading asthma and other diseases. Americans agree: This is wrong and the government should protect our health and the environment from corporate polluters.
• Corporations crashed the economy in 2008, costing us trillions of dollars and throwing millions out of work, and forcing millions of families out of their homes. Americans agreed: This was wrong and the executives responsible should be held accountable, and the Big Banks most responsible should be broken up.
• Corporations gorge at the public trough, gouging taxpayers by extracting a vast array of ill-advised subsidies, giveaways, guarantees and other corporate welfare programs. Americans agree: This is wrong and the government should manage our public assets in the interests of the public.
• Corporations pay workers too little, oppose raising the minimum wage, undermine union organizing and expose workers to dangers. Americans agree: This is wrong and the government should guarantee workers’ rights.
This new book of ours—titled The Corporate Sabotage of America’s Future and What We Can Do About It—is about this central fact upon which Americans agree—the need to confront corporate power—and how we can do that.
Americans Agree: Corporate Power is Out of Control
It’s not an exaggeration to say Americans are united around the idea of controlling corporate power.
For just a moment, let’s dive into some of the details.
By overwhelming margins, Americans favor steps to crack down on corporate abuses and protect regular people. For example:
• Roughly 90 percent of Americans want Medicare to negotiate drug prices.
• More than 80 percent of Americans want to end Dark Money—secret spending—in elections
• In fact, there’s virtual unanimity among the public about the need to transform the campaign funding system. The only debate is between those who favor “fundamental changes” and those who think it should be “completely rebuilt.”
• Seven in 10 Americans favor transitioning the U.S. economy from fossil fuels to 100 percent clean energy by 2050.
• Three-quarters of Americans want stricter limits on smog. Even given the false choice between environmental protection and economic growth, voters overwhelmingly favor environmental protection.
• More than 4 in 5 favor banning single-use plastics.
• By a greater than 2-1 margin, voters support empowering Americans to sue corporations directly when they violate federal regulations.
• More than 3 in 4 Americans believe CEOs should be held accountable for the crimes their companies commit, including being sent to jail, because there should be real consequences to corporate wrongdoing
• Eight in 10 Americans think the minimum wage is too low, and a strong majority favor raising it to $15 an hour (more than double the current federal minimum).
• Four in 5 Americans support a requirement for paid family and medical leave.
• Three quarters of Americans want the government to do more to protect online privacy.
• Over two-thirds of Americans favor increased taxes on corporations and the wealthy.
• With near unanimity, voters believe there should be increased enforcement of laws and regulations in the U.S. against corporations.
The list goes on and on and on. Americans believe corporations are causing major problems and they want action.
This is not the profile of a divided nation!
(To appreciate just how astounding all these findings are, consider that only three in four people correctly believe the earth revolves around the sun.)
OK, so Americans agree on an agenda to limit corporate abuse across a broad range of policies, from protecting the environment to taxation, campaign finance to drug pricing and more.
Why don’t we get what we want?
The simple answer to that question is: Too much corporate power. As Americans almost uniformly understand, excessive corporate power rigs the political system. Corporations and the super-rich slather politicians with money—or intimidate them with Dark Money attack ads—and they expect, and receive, consideration in return.
But as important as campaign money is, it’s not just funding that rigs the political system. Corporations hire legions of lobbyists to influence Congress and regulatory agencies. A very substantial portion of these lobbyists worked in Congress or the very agencies they are paid to influence. They are able to draw not only on their insider knowledge of how things work, but on their personal connections with members of Congress, congressional staff and key officials in regulatory agencies.
Corporations understand very well that public opinion matters in policy debates. So along with playing the inside political game, they spend hundreds of millions every year to commission studies, support think tanks and academics, hold conferences, and pay for issue advertisements to try to muddle public opinion.
Corporations aim to do more than influence public opinion with all that spending. The reports and papers from academics and think tanks lend a veneer of legitimacy when corporations make their arguments to policymakers. And the advertising is aimed to intimidate lawmakers—this money could easily be spent against you—into conforming with corporate demands.
Corporations also bring a superpower to political fights: The ability to argue that almost any measure that might reduce their profitability will threaten jobs and the overall well-being of the American economy. “Make us pay higher wages and we’ll have to lay people off.” “Require us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and we’ll lose out to overseas competitors.” “Make us pay our fair share in taxes and we’ll lose our incentive to invest.” “Require us to pay a fair return to the government on the public resources we use and prices will go up for consumers.”
We hear these arguments endlessly. They have great force, and not just because people need jobs and don’t want to pay more for things they need. They have such force because corporations have a tight grip on the economy and people and politicians fear their power. This is true even though we’ve seen time and again that when we make corporations behave fairly, they do just fine. In fact, many of the things forced on corporations—from the minimum wage to safety belts and airbags in cars, from safe drug regulation to anti-monopoly rules—have strengthened the economy and provided new profitable opportunities for business.
Dissecting Corporate Power: The Plan of this Book
Corporate Sabotage examines the problems posed by excessive corporate power. It highlights two cross-cutting issues—corporate dominance of our politics and corporate welfare—and it looks at three industry sectors: Big Pharma, Big Oil and Big Tech. These are among the most profitable and impactful industries in the world, each heavily dependent on the federal government and each exerting enormous influence over that same government.
It’s the central thesis of our new book that corporations have far, far too much power. But at the end of the day, We the People have more—if we choose to organize, mobilize and demand the transformative changes that we support by overwhelming majorities.
Robert Weissman is the president of Public Citizen. Weissman was formerly director of Essential Action, editor of Multinational Monitor, a magazine that tracks corporate actions worldwide, and a public interest attorney at the Center for Study of Responsive Law. He was a leader in organizing the 2000 IMF and World Bank protests in D.C. and helped make HIV drugs available to the developing world. Joan Claybrook was president of Public Citizen from 1982 until she retired in 2009. This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Sunday in the park with Neptune.
Group Behind Supreme Court CFPB Case Is Full of “Criminals, Crooks, and Predatory Lenders”
by Jake Johnson
The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday heard oral arguments in a case brought by a payday lending industry trade group that represents companies with long histories of engaging in criminal activity and drawing hundreds of millions of dollars in fines from regulators—including the federal consumer protection agency they are now attempting to destroy.
An analysis released by the watchdog group Accountable.US ahead of Tuesday’s proceedings cites a number of instances in which Community Financial Services Association of America (CFSA) board member companies were found to have taken part in “corruption and ethics scandals, including racketeering convictions, Ponzi scheme payouts, and payments to disgraced politicians.”
The CFSA is before the Supreme Court on Tuesday challenging the constitutionality of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) funding structure. The bureau’s funding comes from the Federal Reserve system, not annual congressional appropriations.
If the Supreme Court sides with the CFSA, the consumer bureau—which is tasked with combating corporate abuses—could be forced to rely on Congress for its annual budget, opening it up to politically motivated cuts pushed by industry-backed Republicans who have sought to abolish the CFPB.
The Supreme Court could also issue a more sweeping ruling that completely invalidates the actions the agency has taken on behalf of consumers over the past dozen years, a decision that would have far-reaching implications for federal agencies, critical programs, and the U.S. economy.
The Accountable.US analysis makes clear that the beneficiaries of any weakening of the CFPB would be companies that have unlawfully preyed on consumers.
Enova International, a financial services firm whose chief strategy officer serves on the board of the CFSA, was fined $3.2 million by the CFPB in 2019 “for debiting consumer bank accounts without their authorization,” Accountable.US noted.
A year later, Progressive Leasing—a subsidiary of PROG Holdings—“paid $175 million to settle a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit alleging the lender ‘frequently’ misled consumers by charging consumers twice the advertised ticket price for payments on rent-to-own items,” the watchdog added.
The group estimated that CFSA companies have paid more than $200 million in fines levied by U.S. regulators.
Liz Zelnick, director of the Economic Security and Corporate Power program at Accountable.US, said Tuesday that “if ever there was a time to consider the source, it’s this lawsuit.”
“A gang of predatory payday lenders that include convicted racketeers and accused tax cheats, embezzlers, and scam artists want the Supreme Court to tie up the CFPB in knots of political obstruction and hamper the agency’s work protecting consumers,” said Zelnick. “These loan sharks notorious for charging as much as 1,200% interest rates are not the honest brokers and constitutional champions the financial industry and their lackeys in Congress make them out to be.”
“If the Supreme Court sides with the criminals, crooks, and predatory lenders behind this case,” Zelnick warned, “it would open the door to the worst rollback of consumer protection in U.S. history and mass uncertainty for the markets and other agencies.”
Accountable.US and other watchdogs have called on Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito to recuse from the case, citing their ties to the Koch network and other corporate groups and wealthy individuals that support—or stand to benefit from—the challenge to the CFPB. Both justices have refused to do so.
“It’s far past time for these justices to stop putting their billionaire pals over everyday Americans,” Accountable.US president Caroline Ciccone said Monday. “Recusing themselves from cases where they have glaring conflicts of interest is the very least they can do to restore some semblance of credibility and integrity to our Supreme Court.”
Jake Johnson is a senior editor and staff writer for Common Dreams. This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Basking in rare sunshine, the McIntyre Building looms over Ceres Street. On Tuesday, the bidding in the GSA’s online auction had risen to $8.5 million, putting the parcel beyond our reach. This is most unfortunate. If we were to redevelop this property, our first priority would have been to put the Post Office back where it belongs. We’ll have to settle for Plan B. Whosoever does acquire and redevelop this property, beware; fail to bring back the Post Office, and you will face our eternal opprobrium.
Why Concerns About The Portland Press Herald’s Funding Are Overblown
By Dan Kennedy
Recently Max Tani of Semafor and Richard J. Tofel, who write the newsletter Second Rough Draft, have raised questions about whether the folks involved in the purchase of the Portland Press Herald and its affiliated Maine papers from the retiring publisher, Reade Brower, have been sufficiently transparent in disclosing who the funders are.
The papers were bought during the summer by the National Trust for Local News, a nonprofit that has been involved in several acquisitions aimed at preventing legacy newspapers from falling into the hands of corporate chain ownership. In Maine, Tani and Tofel argue, the billionaire George Soros may have been more deeply involved than was previously known, while the involvement of another billionaire who was reportedly part of the purchase, Hansjörg Wyss, hasn’t been disclosed at all.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is essentially a non-issue. Tofel himself notes that the previous management of the papers remains in place and that “invocations of Soros as a sort of bogeyman have long since become a principal way to dog whistle anti-Semitism; it ranks right up there with ‘globalist’ in this rhetoric.”
More to the point, the Press Herald itself followed up on Tani’s reporting, and it sounds like the full story behind the purchase will be revealed soon. (I was interviewed for the piece, written by reporter Rachel Ohm.) Longtime Press Herald publisher Lisa DeSisto, now the CEO and publisher of the Maine Trust for Local News, the nonprofit that has been set up to own the papers, is quoted as saying, “We want to make more of a splash and have a more comprehensive introduction to the Maine Trust rather than just [putting things out in] pieces. We’re really waiting to announce a broader vision.”
Added Will Nelligan, who’s the Maine project lead for the National Trust: “We will announce that coalition of Maine funders when we announce the Maine Trust.”
No, the announcement didn’t come in September, as had been originally promised. But is that really a big deal as long as disclosure is on its way? The papers themselves, by the way, remain for-profit entities, so it seems unlikely that either the National Trust or the Maine Trust will be looking for ongoing support to prop them up.
If you take a look at the National Trust’s funders, you’ll see that, in addition to Soros’ Open Society Foundations, they include a number of respected journalism funders, including the Knight Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Democracy Fund and the Lenfest Institute, which owns The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Gates Family Foundation, by the way, is a Colorado-based philanthropy that has nothing to do with Bill or Melinda Gates.
When I asked University of Maine journalism professor Michael Socolow to weigh in, he emailed me comments he had previously posted on X/Twitter, noting that Tani and Tofel had emphasized Soros’ and Wyss’ liberal politics but adding they had been unable to back up whether that was relevant. (To be fair, Tofel seemed less impressed with that angle than Tani.) Socolow said:
“I’m not sure there’s a story here. Neither Tani nor Tofel specify the ways the new ownership has altered editorial content. They’re seemingly insinuating that the new ownership purchased the newspapers to shape news content for partisan political reasons. But how much disclosure and transparency about Reade Brower and his business interests did these publications publish before the sale? It’s not clear to me why there needs to be a new, and apparently higher, standard simply because the ownership is now non-profit versus commercial. If evidence emerges that the sort of meddling Tani and Tofel insinuate begins occurring, then I agree we have an important story. But we’re not there yet.”
The purchase of the Press Herald papers by the National Trust was unalloyed good news, and it sounds like the questions that Tani and Tofel have raised will be answered soon.
[Thanks to Dan Kennedy, at Media Nation. This work published under a Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial- Share Alike 4.0 United States License.]