“All the mega corporations on the planet make their obscene profits off the labor and suffering of others, with complete disregard for the effects on the workers, environment, and future generations. As with the banking sector, they play games with the lives of millions, hysterically reject any kind of government intervention when the profits are rolling in, but are quick to pass the bill for the cleanup and the far-reaching consequences of these avoidable tragedies to the public when things go wrong. We have a straightforward proposal: if they want public money, we want public control. It’s that simple.”
― Michael Hureaux-Perez
The United States has been described by some as creeping toward corporatocracy, a nation where the government colludes with multi-national corporations and the wealthy elite to rule the populace. The connotation is always that corporations are sinister and operate with almost diabolical motivations. What did they do to deserve this reputation? Why do so many people in capitalist nations mistrust entities whose sworn allegiance is to profit above all else? Their stories come out gradually over time, and like the proverbial frog in boiling water, people acclimate to their bad behavior. What happens when you consolidate just a few of their misdeeds into one place?
The Mother of All Mortgage Rip-Offs. When it isn’t just one corporation, but all of them in an industry, that are conspiring to rip off their clientele, white collar criminals should be flooding the criminal justice system. Here is what happened instead: Fourteen mega-banks, including Bank of America, Citibank, JP Morgan Chase, and Wells Fargo, evicted people from their homes in improper foreclosures in 2009 and 2010. When those people began to loudly protest, regulators discovered that bank employees had signed off on thousands of documents, claiming to be quite familiar with each case, when in fact, they knew nothing about them. So, in April of 2011, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS), and the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System ordered each of the banks to review every single foreclosure they had made in the previous two years. In an act of ultimate incompetence, the regulators allowed the banks to hire their own “independent investigators.” Not wanting to displease the banks who contracted with them, these independent investigators dragged their feet in reviewing cases for fraud, money laundering, or misappropriation, all while collecting over $2 billion in fees. In an act of complicity with the banks, regulators ended up deciding that the independent investigators were taking too long and costing the banks too much money, so they shut the whole thing down. In the end, the banks were required to pay what sounded like a hefty fee ($5 billion across five banks), but what amounted to a slap on the wrist. The homeowners who were illegally foreclosed on…they got a check for $1000.
And the abuse of homeowners continues, like the example of Etienne Syldor, whose home is being foreclosed because he made his payments too early and he paid more than he had to. Syldor might be able to take up his case with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, but the Republicans are trying to kill this agency. Elizabeth Warren has been a champion of the consumer for many years prior to becoming a Senator. She was the leading force in the formation of the CFPB. Her ongoing frustration that the agency director, Richard Cordray has not been re-confirmed, because of Republican filibustering, is palpable. As Warren said, “The American people deserve a Congress that worries less about helping big banks and more about helping regular people who have been cheated on mortgages, on credit cards, on student loans, on credit records.”
Environmental degradation: Wal-Mart has admitted to dumping hazardous materials, particularly 2 million pounds of pesticides, so that they ended up in the water table, which in turn becomes the water households use for everything from drinking to bathing to cleaning. For this behavior, they received a fine of $110 million, which sounds like a lot, but unfortunately for a company with its profits, will be mere peanuts, as they earn about 130 billion annually. Of course, not to be outdone, Williams Energy is responsible for a benzene spill, and may only have to pay $10,000 in fines, because of the way state laws are written. Courts are no recourse, because even the Supreme Court has ruled that companies like Dow Chemical are free to release toxins into the environment with impunity. Of course, Dow is also refusing to take responsibility for care of the victims of the massive Bhopal toxic gas leak that resulted from Union Carbide’s negligence, a company they have since taken over. The list of corporations polluting the environment without consequence goes on and on.
BP in the Caspian Sea cover-up. The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion was a horrendous environmental tragedy that also took the lives of 11 workers. The economy of the Gulf Coast states was sent reeling. The harm to wildlife and their subsequent generations of offspring has not yet been fully appreciated. The most innocuous interpretation of the events of that day is that BP suffered an unfortunate accident. However, Greg Palast investigated allegations that BP had had a previous drilling rig blowout with exactly the same failure in the Caspian Sea two years prior to the Deepwater Horizon incident. He discovered that BP had covered up this original catastrophe. The ultimate malfeasance came when the company used the same procedure that failed near Azerbaijan again in the Gulf of Mexico. They knew that their practice of introducing nitrogen into concrete as they plugged a drill site was dangerous, even if it did save money. Other companies haven’t even tried it due to its risk, yet they did…twice. There is currently at least one person on trial facing criminal charges. If there were any justice, there would be many more.
Poisoning people: Lead and tobacco. Everyone knows that lead is a toxin, poisonous to the body, and incredibly dangerous to children. Medical experts have known this to be true since the early 1900s. There is even a substantial, and growing, body of evidence that widespread exposure to the lead in gasoline and auto emissions was responsible for the crime wave that swept the country in the 1980s and 90s. Yet, despite knowing well before the general public that their product was hazardous, the Lead Industry Association launched a decades-long campaign in the 1920s to convince the public that lead was safe, even healthy. They repeatedly assured government and public health agencies that they were not using lead in the paint they used on toys; this was false. National Lead Company introduced the character of the Little Dutch Boy to help them sell paint with the specific intent to market to children. It even included coloring books and poetry about painting children’s rooms with lead paint to keep them feeling safe and happy at night.
Who doesn’t know about the tobacco industry? For years the producers of tobacco products knew that smoking or chewing was likely to be deadly. Their own scientists had confirmed it. Yet, they repeatedly denied as much, and insisted publicly, even in Congressional testimony, that their tobacco products were safe.
Tax evasion. While our Congressional representatives fall all over themselves to apologize to Apple for their decision to evade taxes on a scale so startling people didn’t know whether to be outraged or awed, company co-founder, Steve Wozniak, was aghast at their behavior. Apple’s scheme of creating dummy companies in Ireland allowed them to pay 1/20th of 1% in taxes on $22 billion in earnings at one “subsidiary” in 2011, and another “subsidiary” paid close to nothing on $30 billion in profits from 2009 to the present. Corporate social responsibility also reached new lows as Shell gambled on moving its oil rig out to sea through treacherous weather to avoid a mere $6 million in taxes (given their annual profit is over $16 billion), only to have the rig crash into an environmentally fragile island off the coast of Alaska.
Websites like RedState.com and Foreign Affairs boast that “Corporations Are Good.” The first reaction to this statement is, “Not unless they are forced to be.” Whether they are knowingly using underpaid laborers overseas, refusing to chip in any funds to see these workers’ factory worksites made safer following a catastrophe in Bangladesh, lying about oil spills, or they are installing a new government when they don’t like the way the current government is taxing them and making demands about treatment of laborers, corporations have earned their nasty reputations. They have used the resources of each country they occupy, whether it is raw materials, infrastructure, education systems, research, legal systems, or defense, yet they feel no obligation to contribute to any of the nations where they reside. It would seem the only answer is to resist corporatocracy, particularly by not allowing them to write laws through their legislative arm, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). If corporations are people, my friend, they have psychopathic tendencies. People with behavior disorders need supervision, and empowering government and our courts to regulate corporations is the only way they are going to improve their conduct.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.