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Death by Corporation: America’s Corporate Deathstar

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout; Adapted: Sparkly Kate, erix!)

Instead of protecting US citizens, the Obama administration is enabling the ultimate corporate “Deathstar.” The TransPacific Partnership will allow corporations “virtually unchecked control of our food supply, our land, air, water, wallets and our future.”

A few days ago I was contacted by someone in the EPA and told that I had been nominated to be a potential recipient of an award from the White House, a “Champion of Change” on the issue of the public health consequences of global warming. To find out if I had received one of the awards, which sounded like the Heisman Trophy of public health/environmental do-gooderism, I was asked to fly back to Washington – at my own expense, thank you “Sequester” – with other nominees to attend a ceremony/panel discussion on the issue. I bought my plane ticket, attended the conference, but did not receive the “Climate Heisman.” In fact, ironically, because of extreme (global warming) weather disrupting plane flights throughout the Midwest, the whole experience degenerated into a travel nightmare.
The White House staffers who ran the conference seemed like sincere people, trying to work within the system to back us away from the cliff of a climate crisis. But key here is “within the system.” It turns out the clean break that must be made from the dirty energy corporations, including those fracking for natural gas, won’t happen in time, or perhaps ever, because “within the system” refers to a state where the profitability of those powerful corporations has supremacy over a livable climate and the survival of much of the human race.
In Parts I and II of Mankind: Death by Corporation, we looked briefly at what amounts to ruthless, psychopathic behavior of our largest corporations spanning most major industries. But aided and abetted by “sincere” government officials, corporations are working behind the scenes, rapidly assembling the corporate “Death Star” to be unleashed upon citizens throughout the world, allowing them virtually unchecked control of our food supply, our land, air, water, wallets and our future.
An in-house editorial in the New York Times on July 5, began, “For all its rabid partisanship, Congress has shown time and again that it is willing to come together to deregulate corporate America.” This new corporate giveaway is a bill in the Senate sponsored by Democrats and Republicans that would, for all intents and purposes, end the “independence” of independent regulatory agencies, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Labor Relations Board. These independent agencies were established to be accountable to Congress – not the White House – with the goal of insulating them from political arm-twisting.
On paper, the Senate bill’s “benign” goal is to ensure that new rules appropriately balance costs and benefits.But this is simply a euphemism for more deregulation, which itself is a euphemism for unleashing the corporate hounds on a hapless public. The bill would hollow out protection for investors, patients, consumers and workers. For example, it would essentially eliminate the possibility of the meager financial reforms in Dodd-Frank from ever seeing the light of day.
This bill is just a warm-up act. While the public and the media sleep, the real corporate “Death Star,” the TransPacific Partnership (TPP), is being forged in secret. The term “partnership” hardly sounds ominous. But for the last two years TPP negotiations that could have unprecedented consequences to citizens throughout the world have been going on among a dozen Pacific Rim nations. No information has been made available to the press or the public – and only extremely limited access has been allowed to a few members of Congress. But last year a document was leaked to the watchdog group, Public Citizen, revealing the current US position and the reason for the secrecy. The contents are surreal and shocking, and prima facie evidence for how corporations have become the master puppeteers of government.
The leaked document reveals that the trade agreement would subordinate domestic law and policy to a binding international governance system. Specifically, TPP would (1) severely limit regulation of foreign corporations operating within US boundaries, giving them greater rights than domestic firms, (2) extend incentives for US firms to move investments and jobs to lower-wage countries, (3) establish an alternative legal system, creating “investor states” that give foreign corporations and investors new rights to circumvent US courts and laws, allowing them to sue the US government before foreign tribunals and demand compensation for lost revenue due to US laws they claim undermine their TPP privileges or their investment “expectations.”
Despite NAFTA’s failures, corporations are arm-twisting the federal government to pursue trade agreements as inevitable and necessary for economic progress. But 26 of the 28 chapters of this agreement have nothing to do with trade. TPP was drafted with the oversight of 600 representatives of multinational corporations, who essentially are awarding themselves whatever they want: new ground rules for environmental and public health protection, worker safety, and further off-shoring of what was once a domestic workforce.
Wall Street intends to use the provisions of the TPP to resume gorging themselves on risky financial products such as the toxic derivatives that led to the $183 billion bailout of AIG. TPP is part of Big Pharma’s agenda to expand, strengthen and prolong pharmaceutical monopoly protections and constrain the production of generics. Any TPP country could gain access equal to domestic firms’ to US government contracts and the US would agree to waive “Buy America” procurement policies for all of the firms operating in the TPP countries. The loss of domestic jobs inherent in that policy would not be offset by American firms having access to government contracts in other countries, as the American procurement market is seven times larger than the combined market in all the other TPP countries.
Eighty-four percent of the seafood consumed by Americans is imported, mostly from TPP nations. In monitoring the safety of imported seafood, the FDA currently only looks for residue of 16 drugs and tests only 0.1% of all imported products. The TPP would lead to even more imported seafood. Already WTO panels have ruled against the US meat country-of-origin labeling requirements and voluntary dolphin-safe tuna labels in challenges brought by other WTO countries. Past trade agreements have included an “equivalence rule” requiring the United States to permit imports of meat, poultry and now possibly seafood products that do not meet US food safety standards.
A leaked copy of the working agreement in Feb. 2011 included provisions that make it easier for copyright owners to sue for violations, make downloading things like music a crime, and encourage Internet Service Providers to institute a “three strikes” policy that would kick users of the internet out after three infringement accusations.
Residents of the West should be particularly alarmed. TPP would allow plunder of our natural resources by foreign corporations allowed to bypass US law. Disputes over Western land contracts for mining and timber, for example, would be settled by international tribunals. Even if you are oblivious to environmental concerns, you should be outraged at the total circumvention of national sovereignty. Foreign investors could bypass our legal framework, take any dispute to an international tribunal and pursue compensation for being denied access to our resources.
It gets worse. Those tribunals would be staffed by private sector lawyers that rotate between acting as “judges” and as advocates for the corporations suing the governments. American taxpayers could be forced to pay those corporations virtually unlimited compensation for curtailing their profits via domestic laws that currently protect our air, land and water. Furthermore, there would be no appeal of decisions made by these tribunals.
All of this sounds like a Glenn Beck conspiracy hallucination. Oh, that we could bury this frightening tale so easily. Unknown to most Americans, predecessors of these tribunals already exist, having been established by the WTO. These kangaroo courts for corporations have already ordered governments to pay over $3.5 billion in investor-state cases under existing US agreements. This includes payments over bans of toxic chemicals, land-use policies, forestry rules and more. More than $14.7 billion remain in pending claims under US agreements alone. Even when governments win, they often must pay for the tribunal’s costs and legal fees, which average $8 million per case. Using these “investor-state” privileges, Chevron is trying to evade responsibility for an enormous oil spill in Ecuador; Phillip-Morris is circumventing Australia’s cigarette labeling laws; Eli Lilly is attacking Canada’s drug patent laws; European firms are fighting Egypt’s post-revolution minimum wage increase and South Africa’s post-Apartheid affirmative action law. The Canadian Cattlemen for Fair Trade sued the US for a ban on imports of live Canadian cattle after the discovery of a case of mad cow disease in Canada. The TPP would expand the scope of domestic protection policies that could be attacked.
The current cast of TPP characters includes United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and Japan. Any other country that signs on to conform their domestic policies to TPP rules will be invited to join as well. In fact the US has ambitions to extend the TPP to half the world’s population.
TPP is much worse than trade agreements like NAFTA, which itself eviscerated middle class jobs and wealth in the US. The clear winners are those who sit in the control towers of international corporations. The clear losers are everyone else. The US Chamber of Commerce can’t get it signed fast enough. Mitt Romney urged immediate signing by the United States last year. And the best we can hope for with President Obama is that the gremlins that are his trade advisers haven’t yet told him what toxic ingredients they have poured into the TPP stew of which we will be forced to partake.
To the extent that corporations pool resources and expertise toward a common goal, they have been engines to the advancement of civilization. It’s hard to imagine an affordable i-phone being created and sold by your next-door neighbor out of his garage, or skyscrapers or aircraft carriers (in case you think those are necessary) being financed or built by the neighborhood gardening club. But when that corporate goal becomes to make money only, and life’s most basic necessities – clean air, clean water, non-contaminated food, intact ecosystems, and a livable climate – stand in the way of making that money, many of the most powerful corporations have indeed become a gang of Frankenstein monsters, turning on us with a zombie-like indifference, with diabolical schemes of profitability at our expense, even to the point of dragging us into the abyss of an apocalyptic, uninhabitable world.
So where do we find humans who wear the disguise of accomplished, gifted, and honorable people, and yet when there is money to be made are willing to jump into the corporate phone booth and emerge not as Superman but as Vishnu, from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad-Gita, who declares, “‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds?” We need look no further than last year’s presidential race to get a glimpse of a corporate Vishnu.
Mitt Romney was celebrated as an iconic family man – devoted husband and father – a rare politician above moral reproach. His business skills would get us all back to work. But when he operated as a “captain of industry,” he was able to rationalize a much different moral compass. I have previously written about the “other” Mitt Romney, so I will only reprise one element of his business career here.
In the early 1990s, while he was a devout and highly respected leader of the Mormon Church, Romney steered his company, Bain Capital, into a lucrative partnership with Philip Morris, helping create a very successful, groundbreaking strategy to boost Russian youth smoking rates. Mitt’s not stupid: he knew, if he stopped to think about it, that what he was doing would lead to illness and death for of thousands, perhaps millions. But he was thinking about millions – in dollars, not people. But the depth of Romney’s slippery moral transfiguration is only fully understood by appreciating that nothing is more forbidden in the Mormon Church than smoking, something I am personally very familiar with, having been a missionary for the Mormon Church. During the day, Mitt’s wallet was being fattened by addicting kids to cigarettes, and at night, Mitt would literally have to interrogate his fellow church members on their Mormon worthiness, which prohibited smoking. Such is the mind of a corporate Vishnu. Mitt has lots of close company – Rex Tillerson of Exxon, the Koch Brothers, Robert Fraley of Monsanto, Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and hundreds of others.
Some might say that “Death by Corporation” is just another way to tell the age-old story of greed or lust for power. But in today’s world, with the global reach of corporations, and their technological capability for destruction, those unrestrained pathologic urges smoldering within just a few key individuals are hurtling us all toward consequences unimaginable, and a future irredeemable.
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