Zach Marks

Thursday, June 14, 2007

“The corporate institution is able to metastasize its power through mergers, acquisitions, partnerships, unilateral contracts, and to evade law enforcement, taxes, and other restraints through fleeing jurisdictions, lobbied loopholes, legal wars of attrition or ‘disappearing’ its own existence,” Ralph Nader said Friday at “Taming the Giant Corporation,” a conference hosted by the Center for Study of Responsive Law that ran from Friday through Sunday. The result, said Nader, has been “the supremacy of corporate commercial values and controls over community civic values and voices.”

The Washington, D.C., conference drew about 200 activists, scholars, and advocates to the Carnegie Institution‘s lovely Beaux Arts Administration Building, where about 30 experts gave presentations examining the evolving forms of corporate power and discussing how to “subordinate corporate power to the will and interests of the people,” according to the conference program.

The three-day event featured 10 panels whose purposes included: identifying how corporations have expanded their power and abused it; how policymakers, advocates, and communities can reduce the influence of corporations; and what institutions can do to offset corporate power.

Members of the first panel, “The Great Constitutional Deficiency: Corporate ‘Rights,'” pointed out that “corporations are not people” and have no rights under the Constitution.

“Corporations have no authority to make our laws and define our culture,” argued Richard Grossman, co-founder of the Program on Corporations, Law, and Democracy. “So when they govern, democracy flies out the door.”

A Friday afternoon panel on “Subordinating Corporate Power” featured a rousing call from James Brock, a professor of economics at Miami University in Ohio, for citizens to “reclaim the language corporations have stolen to gain power.” Brock claimed corporations “are winning the fight against antitrust because they’ve taken the terms ‘efficiency’ and ‘consumer welfare.’ Efficiency isn’t an excuse for economic power to go unchecked if it means you’re going to charge $5,000 a pill.”

Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, added that executives “stole the words ‘free trade’ and used them to excuse corporate scandal.”

While many students in attendance found the presentations informative, some felt the conference did not adequately prepare them to take action against corporate power in their daily lives.

“The panelists talked about big-picture strategy, but never presented concrete examples of what we can do to get involved as young people,” said Daniel Schechner, a sophomore at Yale University. “That’s a shame because this is such a relevant issue for students.”

Indeed, Charlie Cray, director of the Center for Corporate Policy, noted the overwhelming influence of corporations over education. “You see it in the corporate advertising on school grounds, the corporate warping of the curriculum, the corporate endowment of professorships, and the corporate pushing of credit cards which leave students graduating in debt,” Cray said. “The latest wave is that academic research has become a wholesale subsidiary industry of corporations and there are now over 700 corporate [for-profit] universities. It didn’t used to be this way.”

Serena Thomson, a senior at the University of British Columbia who was in attendance, said she had noticed the growth of corporate power in the “alarming corporatization of the college campus.” UBC recently demolished a library and constructed in its place a “learning center, which was really just the same as what we had before,” Thomson said, “but it gave the school an excuse to put up plaques of corporate donors.” She added that “Coke has a monopoly on everything at UBC. You think you’re getting water, but you’re getting Dasani. When you want juice, you’re buying Minute Maid.”

Wenonah Hauter, director of Food and Water Watch, commented on the environmental impact of corporations at a Saturday panel, “Displacing Corporations: Expanding the Commons.” She pointed out that bottling water from springs can have a devastating effect on ecosystems and the containers release dangerous toxic chemicals into the air and water when they are manufactured. “Think of how we could improve our tap-water infrastructure if we took the money spent on bottled water and spent it on our public water systems,” Hauter said.

Throughout the conference, speakers emphasized the need to eliminate corporate influence from politics. Warren Gunnels, a policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), pointed to the role of corporations in the recent immigration debate.

“What the immigration bill was really about was corporate America’s ability to import low-skilled and high-skilled workers to keep wages down,” said Gunnels, who noted that American workers are paid significantly more than foreign workers in the country on H-1B visas. Gunnels said an amendment sponsored by Sanders to reduce the number of H-1B visas given to companies that are simultaneously laying off workers never reached the floor because of the sway corporations held over other senators.

Mark Green, president of Air America Radio and former public advocate of New York City, said politicians who are influenced by corporations “are not bad people. They’re the product of a bad system. Only when officials fear voters more than donors will we have real change.”