Monday, December 17, 2007

An Unreasonable Man

Last night I was watching the 2006 documentary on the career of Ralph Nader, "An Unreasonable Man," when I heard something that almost made me fall out of my chair. In order to present a counterpoint to Nader's anti-corporatism, the filmmakers interviewed Daniel Mitchell, a former senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation currently employed by the Cato Institute. In what could have passed as satire straight from the lips of Stephen Colbert, Mitchell echoed Ayn Rand's view that big business is really just a poor, persecuted minority with little influence on government policy:
"Corporations don’t have that much power in Washington. They tend to be ineffective, especially on the big-picture issues. They might be able to get a little special loophole in some bill, or a special handout in another bill. But especially in a globalized economy, where you have foreign companies penetrating the U.S. market, U.S. companies are probably the most helpless entities out there."

Now, one needn't be a Nader's Raider to find that statement a little, shall we say, unbelievable. Whether one thinks the influence is good or bad, it's simply an indisputable fact at this point that major corporations play a huge role in not only what laws get passed, but on who gets elected to office. To say otherwise is either incredibly naive or incredibly dishonest.

The following is a brief, painfully incomplete list of government policies that Mitchell would have you believe were not shaped by corporate interests:

U.S. Energy Policy -- The Democratic Congress is set to pass another Energy Bill that includes tax breaks for oil companies and subsidies for everything from nuclear power to ethanol. As the Washington Post describes, it was no different when Republicans controlled Congress in 2005 when they passed an Energy bill that "exempts oil and gas industries from some clean-water laws, streamlines permits for oil wells and power lines on public lands, and helps the hydropower industry appeal environmental restrictions...
It also includes an estimated $85 billion worth of subsidies and tax breaks for most forms of energy -- including oil and gas, "clean coal," ethanol, electricity, and solar and wind power. The nuclear industry got subsidies for research, waste reprocessing, construction, operation and even decommission. The petroleum industry got new incentives to drill in the Gulf of Mexico -- as if $60-a-barrel oil wasn't enough of an incentive. The already-subsidized ethanol industry got a federal mandate that will nearly double its output by 2012 -- as well as new subsidies to develop ethanol from other sources."

U.S. Agriculture Policy -- As with energy policy, the U.S. Congress regularly approves massive farm bills that include billions in subsidies for mega-agribusinesses, as well as protectionist policies, such as the tariff on imported sugar, that benefit certain producers at the expense of overall consumers and industries in the developing world.

The overthrow of the democratically elected government of Guatemala -- In 1954, the government of Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán was overthrown by a group of Guatemalan military officers in league with the Central Intelligence Agency, which had gained valuable experience overthrowing democratic governments the year before in Iran with Operation Ajax. U.S. involvement had been strongly pushed for by United Fruit, which was unhappy with the Guatemalan government's plan to nationalize part of the company's large land holdings. At the time, the assistant U.S. Secretary of State for InterAmerican Affairs was John Moors Cabot, former president of United Fruit. The Secretary of State was John Foster Dulles, whose law firm had previously represented the company. His brother, Allen Dulles, headed the CIA.

NAFTA, CAFTA, and other "free trade" agreements -- Portrayed by the the United States and other governments as simple "free trade," these agreements are anything but. CAFTA, for instance, requires countries to enforce U.S. copyright laws. That includes banning certain generic prescription drugs, forcing poor Central American countries to pay much more for expensive pharmaceuticals from U.S. drug companies (see this article by Adam Graham-Silverman in Salon).

The Military-Industrial Complex -- Coined by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his 1961 farewell address, the military-industrial complex is thriving in these here United States. The U.S. military budget accounts for more than half of federal spending, and is roughly equal to what the rest of the world's military spending combined. Despite the lack of a traditional military threat, ala the USSR in the Cold War (at least how it was portrayed in the United States), the Bush administration continues to press for a multi-billion dollar missile defense shield that doesn't actually work. Though it seems quite capable of stoking Cold War-era tensions with Russia, it remains unclear how a working missile defense shield would stop 19 hijackers with box-cutters. Meanwhile, nominally "private" defense contractors, who depend entirely on government spending for their existence, seem to be doing quite well.


This is about all I can handle now as far as examples go, but feel free to add your own in the comments section.

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