By Roland Watson
We can now return to regulation, which is the second means by which the government can protect us from unethical corporate behavior. In addition to confronting corporations on the precise way in which their legal structure is enabled, we also want to eliminate their de facto limited liability. We need much more effective regulation of all of their practices, through better government oversight of:
- corporate efforts to monopolize markets.
- corporate advertising, and other behavioral manipulation.
- corporate environmental consequences, through many, many different steps, including such things as the protection of government lands, which are regularly given to corporations for little or no usage fees; the enforcement of proper commercial development, by restricting zoning in rural and residential areas, and by requiring strict and objectively prepared environmental impact statements; and by the swift and meaningful prosecution of polluters.
(In addition, for the first, there should be no more corporate welfare! Corporate welfare is the payback for bribery and the payoff for media manipulation and public brainwashing. Also, the policy of "zero-cut," that no additional public land should be deforested – or otherwise developed - should be made law.)
- technological development: government must perform a much more proactive job of regulating new and potentially dangerous technologies. For instance, regarding genetic engineering, an essential first step is to require the identification (labeling) of all products which use genetically manipulated ingredients, particularly food products.
- labor standards, including fair wages and working conditions, the right of workers to unionize and, to the extent that such issues exist with foreign workforces which produce for the domestic market, the application of political pressure to gain such standards for them as well.
- the corporate tax structure, which must be reformed. At present, through their lobbying efforts corporations, and their highly paid executives, have accumulated many tax shields and loopholes, and as a result their overall tax rates are very low. Also, some corporate actions that are highly detrimental to social welfare are actually encouraged, such as with tax incentives for development. All of this type of corporate welfare must be abolished as well. Furthermore, tax reform should be designed to increase corporate philanthropy. The overall effect should be to limit their privileges, and enhance their incentives to be good corporate citizens.
However, as it stands now the issue of corporate philanthropy is itself a subject of contention.
"Corporations should be prohibited from making any civic, charitable or educational donations. Such donations are used to warp the entire social and economic fabric of society and make people afraid to speak out against corporations."
- Define One Corporation, Define 'Em All, Jane Ann Morris, Earth First! Journal, March-April 1998, page 26
Is it possible to have charity with no strings attached? And, in a world where so much wealth has been incorporated, wouldn't such a prohibition effectively end most philanthropy? (I agree, though, that corporations must be barred from the world of education.)
An additional tax issue has to do with wealthy individuals (and not just corporate executives). Our goal is not only to improve corporate behavior, but also to reduce wealth inequalities. (The time has come to revisit the hereditary principle as it applies to economic power!) One option for reform is to implement a law establishing a maximum allowable inheritance: a total sum that could be distributed to any and all beneficiaries, beyond which all wealth would revert to a special trust fund (or series of trust funds) targeted solely at community and environmental welfare, i.e., to improve degraded habitats; to purchase and preserve from development "open space"; to expand parks and wildlife sanctuaries; to increase community "green spaces"; and to build community centers, particularly for the young and the elderly. (Under such a tax system, though, wealthy individuals should retain the right to set up their own philanthropic foundations, to direct their charity as they see fit.)
Lastly, and in line with the ideas above, the government must reform itself, to increase its immunity to corporate persuasion, by enacting a strict campaign funding law. Corporations should not be allowed to make any political contributions, either directly to candidates or indirectly via "soft dollars" to political parties and political action committees. Furthermore, individual contributions, to candidates, parties and PACs, should be limited to a relatively small amount, such as $1,000 per year. In addition, the government should impose great restrictions on the lobbying undertaken by commercial interests. Also, insofar as corporations breach these requirements, they should be severely punished. Huge fines, which match the costs incurred, and the imprisonment of executives (no more hand slaps for white-collar crime), should be the penalty.
Turning to the international sphere, we want to assist in the reform of other nations. (Our overall goal is to institutionalize ethical behavior.) We want to encourage the established democracies to pressure the governments of the formative democracies and the autocracies, with such efforts concentrating on:
- ensuring the freedom to pursue our basic human rights.
- furthering the development of democracy.
- furthering the development of social infrastructure, including such things as education, health care and public transportation.
- strengthening local legal institutions and the rule of law.
- the creation of international standards, and the common adoption of regulations, and the enforcement thereof, regarding corruption, anti-trust, environmental protection, labor standards, scientific oversight, and advertising practices.
- reform of corporate taxation.
- and coordinated action on regional and global issues, such as the protection of endangered bioregions and species; oceanic and atmospheric pollution; and global warming.
All of these changes will require a substantial redirection of government, and as activists, to accomplish this, we must organize large grassroots movements. However, it is still the case that activist groups, both within nations and across borders, are poorly coordinated. If this coordination and cooperation can be improved, this will vastly increase our leverage to bring about such government redirection. Therefore, to the extent that you can find acceptable groups, you should join student and community and nation-wide activist organizations. For example, every university campus has numerous activist groups, and most of these gladly accept members from the local community. And, for the groups themselves, they should work hard to compromise on their differences with other groups (and internally), to present a unified front to the government and against the corporate threat.
I would also expand my earlier comments about the possibility of extrajudicial prosecution, and the present and future role of supranational institutions as checks and balances. Precedents have been set of individuals, and governments (or individuals with government support), holding companies liable in domestic courts for their international actions, particularly their actions in foreign autocracies where there is no legal recourse. For instance, Unocal has been sued in U.S. courts over its actions in Burma. This trend is closing one of the most important loopholes for transnational corporations. (This is similar to the closing of the loophole for dictators, as evidenced by England's consideration of Spain's extradition request for the Chilean dictator Pinochet. Because of this development, the dictators of the world, and their co-conspirators, are falling into a trap. They cannot leave home, for fear of imprisonment. And when their nations achieve democracy, they will be subject to imprisonment there as well. Indeed, one can foresee the day when the corporate executives who prop up the dictators will themselves be held responsible for the crimes against humanity which such regimes commit.)
As to supranational institutions, in most cases corporate oversight does not form part of their mission. Rather, as with the WTO, IMF and the World Bank, the institutions fully support corporate interests. A significant challenge for activists, then, is to use the current momentum - the public concern that is developing over such things as "free trade" - to reverse this support.
© Roland Watson 2016