Saturday, March 26, 2011

Corporate influence on the government

Talk given at the Transpartisan Alliance Chautauqua - March 26, 2011

The values that we hold in common are our lives. The capacity to live them now, live them in the future, remember our past. To live alone, in intimate relations with others, in communications with others, in associations, in society and in the nation. To pursue initiatives with economic purpose, for the purpose of taking care of each other, for the purpose of exerting influence in the world. The right to express our lives without fear and danger is called right to freedom.

Because the value of life is held by us in common we feel that we are a nation. We have the same fundamental aspirations for our existence. Therefore as a nation we create a government that protects our right to freedom, that protects these human rights, that serves us justice. Government, the law, the police, citizen's organizations like ours, are the civic system. However, in order to secure our rights we have done a dangerous thing - we have equipped the government with a formidable power of coercion executed under the law.

Among the things that we pursue individually is the material security of life - where we want to assure the material environment for leading our life with dignity and in safety. That we do not have to beg for a place to stay at night or a for a scrap of food.

The material environment of the our lives is secured by economic activity. Much of this activity is very efficiently organized by a complex system of economic entities - companies, jobs, business undertakings, transactions, - that we want to initiate and conduct in safety and honesty. It works efficiently because business provides goods and services guided simply by the profit motive. Some of it is a small business or an employment with a small or large company. Some of it is done by large corporations. This is the economic system, the economy.

One seed of the problem is that the commercial entities, especially large corporations, are lifeless entities pretty much composed of anonymous investors, quite often institutional and non-citizen, and indifferent to the value of life. This danger is multiplied by the fact that a large corporation has an immense power expressed by its capital holdings - power which can be awfully misused.

This is the reason that the political side of the balance: nation and government - should check and limit the power of economic entities. Corporate power, the power of money cannot invade the government for these reasons:

- it is basically lifeless. The power of money is great but it is devoid of life on its own. It can be safely used only in position subservient to life.

- commercial interest are only interests of material advancement. To deliver and procure goods and services, or create an ability to do so in the future. They are thus naturally limited.

- business world operates very well on the basis of exact calculation of material risk and potential benefit. It is single-minded about that. Thus it operates best within a system of clear rules that are not entangled with the civic system.

- a business organization has a single goal - to assure profitability for the sake of its investors. This is unlike the civic system where we do not set a goal for the nation but allow ourselves to be enveloped by our collective destiny. Corporations invading the civic system would remake the nation into a corporation, a system of consumers and workers, and stifle the spirit of the nation.

- and of course - because the power of money corrupts our representatives and government officials. The power of money corrupts the formidable power of the government - which is basically the power of coercion.

A lot of bad things have already happened. Corporate interests have invaded our government at many levels. Examples:

1. Pharmaceutical companies lobby the US government because their business is dependent on FDA decisions.

2. Media companies lobby the government to shape the market to match their perceived business interest with the result of making us all mere consumers of their products.

3. Large corporations routinely expect to be bribed by local governments before establishing local operations offering jobs.

4. War on Drugs, Homeland Security has created major injustices and alongside it a boom in prison and law-enforcement business. Government initiatives are served by big business which is lobbying it to maintain their lucrative business models.

The reason such terrific invasion of economic interest into the political sphere have occurred is because the government has made itself attractive to it. Often, we ask the government to provide us benefits - which means the government will deal with big business as a big customer making them solicit their products. The corporations are looking now like the perpetrators of major evil. As lifeless entities they are indeed capable of ruthless actions but they are not intrinsically evil. They actually have a weakness. They are looking for profit. Their goal is limited.

The problem is that the government creates for them safest source of profit, the best return on investment. The government has invited them in, has allowed them to buy power with money, to buy the coercive power that protects our right to life - buy it with money.

This tends to happen when the government makes decisions that are economic in nature. Then it typically tilts the level playing field in a way that favors some type of business and harms another. The blatant examples are efforts to attract private investment to create jobs in a certain area. More elusive cases are those where media companies argue for extension of copyright.

What to do about it:

- Change the way government operates in the economy. The government is just supposed to set simple rules defining the markets and assure that transactions are honest and non-violent. Let us not change the system of corporations, let us keep them focused on the markets and only on the markets. After initially vehemently resisting the withdrawal of the government from the economy they will adapt to a system of even-handed rules of markets.

- In order to change the government we need to sensitize the civic system to the real currency of politics - to the votes that count just as our individual lives count --- independently of how much we have.

- Make politics more competitive. Make votes the real currency of politics. Use Instant Runoff Voting. Voters are to vote their mind. Elections should really express the voters' will using the first- and second-choice vote.

- Politicians are on the hook to disclose any sum of money or gifts received from anybody - commercial or not. Failure to be truthful should be severely punished.

- Free media: anybody can produce and distribute any content at any time - including during election campaigns. Supreme right to free speech. The government should protect a free communication band in the Internet (preferably the whole Internet) where no specific content could be favored. Anybody could put any content there - and it would be served on demand. The Internet actually provides a huge low-barrier entry into the media markets - because the content is not poured into the channels by the producers but flows only when requested by recipients.

We must focus on warding off the greatest danger to liberty. That money, corporate money, will buy the government's power of coercion. We should prevent the material power of corporations from uniting with the coercive authority of the government.