The most common critique that you’ll hear in regard to the Occupy Wall Street protests is that the protestors’ message is jumbled and incoherent. They haven’t been able to coalesce around one specific set of policies, grievances or even enemies. The common rebuttal is that it doesn’t matter, the protests are the expression of America’s generalized frustration with terrible economic conditions, and they want something done about it. But perhaps there’s a third, more terrifying force behind the protests. Perhaps there are just so many things going wrong that it is impossible to express the myriad grievances in even an extended rant about how poor people should shut up and be thankful that at least they have a refrigerator.
One of the more salient critiques that has emerged from the protests is the idea that private business, whose chief motivations include sucking out your soul through your skull, is getting a little too close to a government that is supposed to protect and serve us. So in the interest of delineating some of the unaccountably numerous problems Americans should have with the current state of affairs, here are 10 of the worst examples of businesses sidling up to government in bed and savagely beating it while exclaiming “You think I like this?! Why do you make me do this?!”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Global Warming
Despite its name, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is not officially affiliated with the U.S. government. It is, in fact, a coalition of businesses that pool their money for lobbying and campaign donations, it also spends more than any other single entity. Ostensibly, they represent business interests in Washington. And by business interests we mean “almost exclusively Republican” interests.
In 2009, the Obama administration was in the process of trying to pass new emissions standards as part of an effort to curb global warming. In response, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, instead of working closely with lawmakers to craft sensible emissions standards that protected the environment while putting as little onus as possible on private business, decided to just sue the shit out of climate change while quietly reminding pretty much every Republican lawmaker that the Chamber of Commerce was likely their single largest donor last election cycle. The emissions bill ended up dead on arrival, despite Democrats having a commanding majority in both houses, and despite action on climate change enjoying near-unequivocal support from the scientific community.
The final result of this unfortunate meeting of obscenely rich bedfellows led to the complete death of a political will to address climate change, and the additional failure to secure any sort of binding climate change agreement at the Copenhagen conference of 2009 basically guaranteed that nothing will be done to address global warming. Scientists now warn that catastrophic global warming is all but inevitable, and since no remediation actions will be taken in the next few years, we should instead focus on ameliorating the effects that, oh yeah, will fall disproportionately on the poor and impoverished of the world.
One of the most infamous lobbyists of the past decade, Abramoff is a perfect example of the sleazy back room deals and greased palms that make Washington run like a Hellfire missile aimed at anyone with fewer than three houses. The list of infractions for which Abramoff was eventually indicted is so long, perverse and full of two-faced schemes that congressional investigators prevented it from going within 200 feet of a playground or elementary school.
He started his lobbying career working for Indian casinos, which he promptly stabbed in the back by lobbying for gambling opponents simultaneously–forcing his original clients to pay his firm even more. He was the equivalent of an arms dealer who sells to both sides in a war–and also started the war. During this time, he was giving senators and congressmen and women free meals at his expensive restaurant, “fact finding” trips on private jets, and box seats for all the local teams–just to name a few of many. Abramoff had his hand in just about every pot in Washington, but his main contribution to society after millions of dirty dollars spent was serving the interests of Indian casinos. While this may seem relatively harmless, Abramoff was one of the biggest lobbyists in Washington during his time, and when the authorities eventually caught up with him, President Bush’s head of the Office of Management and Budget deliberately obstructed the investigation. Now imagine there was someone that powerful lobbying for, say, fewer invasive and ineffective security measures at airports. Or food stamps. Or affordable healthcare. Or Pell Grants. Or pretty much anything at all that has anything to do with improving the life of the average American.
Halliburton and Iraq
Odds are if you watched the news any time between 2003 and 2007, the name Halliburton rings a bell. Depending on which network you watch, Halliburton was either an unscrupulous war profiteer, or a FOXy, savvy business that provided troops with everything they needed plus an adorable new puppy. Long story short, an ungodly amount of the Iraq war was outsourced to private contractors. And an ungodly portion of the contracts awarded went to Halliburton.
Oh and Vice President Dick Cheney, who is widely viewed as the architect behind the Bush administration’s drive to war, was the CEO and chairman of Halliburton for five years. And he received compensation from them as late as 2004. And he left with a severance package of $36 million, plus stock options. And all of those contracts, which totaled $7 billion, were awarded to Halliburton without any bid process to allow for competition. And Halliburton was later investigated for overcharging the Pentagon for expenses. And years later they were found to be responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf. And they’re still in business, having paid only $1.2 billion in fines over the past decade, about 6% of the $18 billion dollars they made in 2008. Dick Cheney’s net worth is estimated between $30 and $100 million. Oh and…well shit if you’re not writhing in disgust by this point there’s really nothing else to say.
Despite the fact that they represent less than 1% of the population, the Farmer’s Lobby wields tremendous power. And every year, they ensure that U.S. Agriculture receives copious amounts of subsidies. Almost every year the farm bill comes up for renewal, a small cadre of representatives try to defeat it, and since the beginning of time they’ve lost.
This wouldn’t be so bad if the reasons given for continuing the subsidies held any water. The thrust of the argument is that subsidies reduce prices for the average citizen and ensure U.S. food security. In reality, all the farm lobby has really succeeded in doing is actually increasing prices, forcing farmers in developing countries out of work, and artificially deflate the price of corn, making Twinkies cheaper than carrots.
Kelo v. City of New London
On the surface, the Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London makes a lot of sense. One singular private landowner was preventing the development plans of a large company by refusing to sell their property. The development would bring millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs to New London, and the landowner was relocated for free at tremendous expense to the city. An open and shut case of the needs of the many overriding the needs of the few, right?
Well aside from the fact that ownership of private property is only the foundation of our entire society, there’s that little fact that when you have an individual going up against a large company and trying to influence the government, you’re fighting a very lopsided battle. It’s easy to get a bit alarmist with Kelo, (and believe me, libertarians do), since eminent domain has been a power spelled out in the constitution, this decision loosened the age old definition to essentially allow the taking of land for any vague economic benefit.
As Justice Clarence Thomas put it in his dissent, “This deferential shift in phraseology enables the Court to hold, against all common sense, that a costly urban-renewal project whose stated purpose is a vague promise of new jobs and increased tax revenue, but which is also suspiciously agreeable to the Pfizer Corporation, is for a ‘public use.’” As icing on the “why not just let the rich take from the poor what they want but couldn’t have before this” cake, studies have shown little evidence that the policy leads to any economic benefit.
When was the last time you thought to yourself: “My cellphone and/or Internet provider really provides great service for an affordable price?”. Odds are, unless you are a lobbyist for AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, etc… the answer is “never, what are you kidding?”. The reason behind this is that most telecoms, because of the infrastructure investment necessary to support a network, often operate as semi-monopolies with a tremendous barrier to entry relative to competitors. Oh and they give gobs and gobs of money to politicians, and studies show that this has a tremendous positive effect on policy for them.
This helpful policy, as well as an apparent complete lack of political will to break up and/or regulate these industries, is the reason you still have to pay to send text messages–even though these single-digit kilobyte messages cost telecoms barely any money at all. It is also the reason the US falls behind virtually every other first world nation in terms of average broadband speed, and also why even that limited service is so expensive, and telecoms are able to flat-out lie about the speeds they offer. While this may seem like a middling critique about the speed at which we send cute cat pictures and watch porn, keep in mind that the 90s, also known as the only period of really substantial growth in the past 40 years, was fueled by higher speed and expanded access to the Internet.
While there’s certainly no lack of hatred for the bailouts, what was on display in 2008 was a far more insidious form of political influence, specifically what has been known as the “revolving door”. The idea is that a government employee will show favor toward an industry while in office, and then have a cushy job waiting for them when they leave public service. Or they start in the private industry, then enter public service, either intentionally or unintentionally steering policy in favor of their former industry.
When you trace the history of Goldman Sachs employees through the history of the past two to three administrations, a very clear picture of influence emerges. The worst part is this influence not only guaranteed a bailout after years of being criminally irresponsible with the financial system, it also guaranteed that Depression-era regulation was slowly gutted, possibly contributing greatly to the financial crisis in the first place.
Much like Agricultural subsidies, government money given to oil and natural gas companies is an old institution and enjoys a large and influential lobby in DC. The argument is, essentially, that these energy subsidies lower costs for the end consumer, greasing the wheels of transportation–which is vital for an economy. Believe it or not, this argument actually holds up…when it’s in the form of aid given directly to low-income consumers. When it’s given to large companies, a recent World Bank study showed there was little economic sense to supporting continued subsidies.
Another downside of energy subsidies it that they distort the market and make new energy innovations uncompetitive. A constant critique of renewable sources of power is that they are simply not market-competitive right now and need massive government subsidies to be affordable. Funny thing is, so do fossil fuels. In fact, if there were some way to kill off the Oil Lobby overnight, and that money went to subsidies for renewable sources, it would (theoretically, at least) be as affordable as fossil fuels. But that’s going to be difficult when the renewables industry is barely on its feet, and oil and gas companies are throwing around millions like it ain’t no thing.
“The Wives of Wall Street”
Between campaign contributions, free trips and box seats, and powerful lobbies, there are a lot of really direct connections between money going into Washington, and favorable policies for large businesses and the rich coming out. But this has been a refrain since the beginning of politics: money buys influence. So it’s not that shocking to the general public that companies and politicians always find some creative way to get money into their campaign coffers. But every once in a while, some strange, bald cronyism takes place that makes the public wonder if they’re even trying to pretend that they understand the small man’s struggle while they’re swimming in giant money vaults like Scrooge McDuck.
Such was the case with the Federal Reserve’s Budget during the worst of the crash. As this article by Matt “I Will Beat You to Death With Your Own Hubris and Teabag Your Bourgeois Corpse” Taibbi shows, low-interest loans ended up going out to basically everyone with an influential friend. This included wives of Wall Street bankers with little to no financial involvement, and apparently anyone who could pretend they were distressed enough. Since the Fed was basically guaranteeing any investment at a well below-market rate, this amounted to free money. On the one hand, it is difficult to blame the Fed for desperately trying to stamp out every economic fire in sight during the most dire days of 2008. On the other hand, you know who didn’t see a single cent? People without money or powerful friends.
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission
In 2010 the Supreme Court took a good hard look at the influence of private money on government when Citizens United fought for their right to air political ads critical of Hilary Clinton. After a careful analysis in which they apparently didn’t pay attention to the past 150 years of American history, they ruled that, as far as campaign contributions go, private companies have the same right to freedom of speech as private individuals. Which makes intuitive sense when you think about the thousands of employees, millions of dollars, and extensive business and political influence your average American citizen wields. In case you haven’t guessed, it’s widely supported by Republicans and condemned by Democrats.
The Citizens United ruling is barely fresh on the books of law, but early predictions by experts range from “It’s bad” to “It’s the end of democracy as we know it.” In a time when it’s nearly impossible to not trace a representative’s vote back to some campaign contribution, the idea that there should be virtually no limit to the monetary influence companies can contribute to elections is as uncomfortably close as you can possibly get business and politics.