Time to look at the big picture. What is going on while we are being distracted by the outrage of the day? In the broadest sense, the ultra-rich, the corporate oligarchs, are seizing control of the global economy, and, as a corollary, taking over the nation states. The simplest way for them to do that is to install strongmen who can, at their direction, grease the ways for corporations to operate and maximize profit. The usual mechanisms of governance provide a considerable nuisance to corporate decision makers. Countries pass all sorts of rules and regulations, taxing, restricting the flow of money, restricting corporate actions that might damage the environment, and ensuring that employees receive a minimum compensation and safe working conditions.
By way of example, consider The Glass Steagall Act of 1933, passed in response to the economic collapse that cause the Great Depression. That act restricted the ability of banks to engage in the investment business or in other “non-banking” financial transactions. By limiting the scope of bank investments, the Act limited the exposure of the banking industry to economic instabilities, the inevitable boom and bust cycles of an economy. In a fundamental way, that restriction made other investments more stable and less risky, and was in part responsible for the economic successes of the economy after World War II. However, its restrictions were anathema to the lords of the banking industry who yearned only to maximize their profit on the next available deal. Over the decades, corporate interests succeeded in weakening the Act until, by 1999, it was effectively dead. Removal of the Act’s restrictions led directly to the boom – bust cycle of the early 2000s culminating in the investment collapse of 2008. In response, the US Congress passed new restrictions under the Dodd-Frank Act, again trying to rein in Wall Street excesses. And the corporate interests are once again affronted by a regulatory structure that limits their freedom. It should be no surprise that its provisions are targeted by the new administration.
While the banking sector is perhaps the easiest sector to cite, one can do the same thing with virtually any industry. Pharmaceuticals, for example, where the dominance of corporate interests in the United States allow drug companies to charge 50% or more than is charged for the same drug in the more regulated countries like Canada. The American health care industry, unlike that in virtually every other industrial country, is expressly designed to maximize the profits of the pharmaceutical, health care, and insurance industries. Taking care of sick people is, from that perspective, almost incidental. So, to reiterate, the long term goals of the corporate interests, that is to say of the one percent or so of the richest, is to maximize profit, and, where necessary, to remove governmental obstacles to that profit. While they have been remarkably successful in the United States in recent years with the help of Republican dominance in Congress, their successes as a whole have been less than complete.
The governmental model that works best from that oligarchical perspective is to directly control a government and its regulatory apparatus through a compliant strongman. Such a strongman, surrounded by a group of like-minded lackeys, can simply override competing interests. The cited corporate model is Singapore which has created a booming economy under a heavily authoritarian regime. Similarly, the rising economy in China, growing at rates far exceeding that of the West, suggests to these corporate interests the advantages of a state that is controlled directly by and for corporate interests. Thus, corporate support and access to corporate resources to advance democratic processes has waned in recent years. Instead, corporations have pushed strategies to allow the buying of corporate influence. The Citizens United decision, which held that corporations have first amendment rights to contribute to campaigns, resulted from a long and considered project to undermine existing campaign financing laws. And elsewhere, authoritarian regimes, supported by and supporting the very rich, have flourished. In Russian, Putin serves at the behest of a cabal of Russian oligarchs. For that matter, Adolf Hitler was installed as Fuhrer in Germany, in large
part, by the German industrial interests such as those of the Krupp steel industry. Today, in the United States, our democratic institutions have been threatened by an ongoing campaign to make them less democratic; a campaign led by such corporate interests as the Koch brothers, who are particularly heavily invested in Canadian Tar Sands, and Rupert Murdoch, owner and controller of news spin sites like Fox.
To get back to my point, what is going on right now in the United States is the installation of a compliant strongman, Donald Trump, who has cut a deal with the corporate interests to facilitate destruction of the US regulatory apparatus. Which explains, for example, why his pick to head the EPA is a climate change denier and why his new pick for the Supreme Court can be relied on not to overturn Citizens United. From this corporate view, the more that Trump can consolidate power, the better. It follows that we have a serious problem if we want a democratic process that remains responsive to our interests. To put this problem in further perspective, consider the following two articles released yesterday. The first article, by Jake Fuentes, discusses how the furor over the immigration ban may have been intentionally provoked by Trump to further his consolidation of power. The second, by David Frum in The Atlantic, discusses how the preconditions exist for Trump to establish an autocracy.
The effective loss of our democracy to overriding corporate control is unfortunately only part of the picture. It is our further bad luck that the corporate interests are using Donald Trump as their vehicle and that they were willing to destroy our news media to effect their policies. With someone as unstable as Trump, the question will always remain of who is going to control who. I anticipate I will be addressing Mr. Trump’s particular flaws and his danger to humanity in further pieces.
Finally, I have been writing for sometime recommending consideration of Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, an expose of the right-wing conspiracy, as led by the Koch brothers, to undermine our democratic institutions in favor of big money. It is, in fact, a year since I first posted on the issue. I wrote as follows and it remains relevant:
“In 1962 Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, an expose of how toxic pesticides, DDT in particular, were destroying the environment. The shock of the expose led rather directly to an environmental movement and a greater public awareness of the need to protect our planet.
Now, in 2016, Jane Mayer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, has provided us a similar service in Dark Money, The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. The extent to which our political processes have been co-opted and corrupted by the super rich is breathtaking and Mayer lays it out in detail. Awareness of this story is essential for anyone who really cares about a government that represents the people, rather than a government that skews the system for the rich. Citizens United is only the tip of an iceberg that extends from the Tea Party through the Federalist Society, the Heritage Foundation, and the dominant voices in the Republican Party, and increasingly in Congress as a whole. These forces are at work skewing not only federal law, from the tax system to the provision of health care, but also dominate numerous state legislatures, media outlets, and academic centers. Nothing less than a revolution in public awareness is necessary to redress the balance. If we don’t start now, then when?”