In these times of imperial overreach and the erosion of constitutional protections, there is plenty of reason, as Arthur Miller once wrote, to “tear at our collars and get red in the face” [“Arthur Miller,” March 7].
Framed on my wall is a yellowed New York Times article written by Miller just before the 1972 election–words that resonate today. Speaking to the reasons George McGovern’s candidacy “hasn’t caught fire,” he concludes, “What this tells about our inner attitudes, I think, is that we are far more apprehensive than we are confident of ourselves; and that what we want in a political leader is enough larceny, enough insensitivity to permit him to do our dirty work for us, to fight dirty in a dirty world.”
The leading players may have changed, but the plot line hasn’t. I take comfort in the knowledge that Miller’s work will never cease to embolden and inspire, while the exhortations of the false prophets who pass for leaders in today’s arena will be relegated to oblivion.
BARBARA ALLEN KENNEY
PENSION FUND SUPERHEROES
I am a Libertarian and a financial planner. I disagree with your politics on almost every issue. But William Greider’s “The New Colossus” [Feb. 28], on pension funds’ muscle, was brilliant. One thing I agree with is using financial clout to advance your agenda. We as financial planners and mutual fund investors are told to keep out of corporate governance. But by using your voting power, you have as much power as a major stockholder. That brings more voices to the table and will, one hopes, limit corporate malfeasance. I fully agree with your right to influence these companies through the private sector, not through additional government regulations. By doing so, you are part of the party as opposed to a party crasher. The reforms will most likely be more efficient than silly government regulation. And if your reforms are stupid, you will be held accountable.
William Greider accurately portrays the increasingly important role of public employee pension funds like California’s CalPERS (assets of $180 billion) and CalSTRS (assets of $125 billion) in addressing corporate malfeasance, from climate change to slave labor. Greider omits another important role: Public funds are now serving as “lead plaintiffs” in a host of securities fraud cases, many arising from the meltdown of companies like Enron, WorldCom, QWEST, AOL Time Warner and HealthSouth.
Ten years ago, one of the few provisions of the GOP “Contract With America” that actually became law was the Private Securities Law Reform Act (PSLRA). The “reform” legislation was written largely by and for powerful Wall Street interests, to impose obstacles to prosecution of securities fraud cases [see Greider, “William Lerach’s Legal Crusade Against Enron and Infectious Greed,” Aug. 5/12, 2002]. One provision has followed the law of unintended consequences. Under the PSLRA, shareholders who have suffered the greatest losses because of fraud are made “lead plaintiffs” and given broad powers to run class-action litigation. Public and labor pension funds have now stepped forward to serve as lead plaintiffs in hundreds of such cases. They have not only already recovered billions for their retirees and shareholders but also have changed corporate behavior.
As Greider points out, corporate America is responding in force. Backed by special interests and millions of their dollars, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is threatening a ballot measure that would privatize public-employee pension funds. The measure would prevent teachers, firefighters, police and other public servants from having traditional pensions and compel them to invest in the market through 401(k)-like devices. According to CalPERS and CalSTRS, the startup alone of this plan would cost California taxpayers billions. Similar measures have been introduced in eight other states.
And just who would be the real winners of this “reform”? Wall Street would be swimming in new money; brokers would be positioned to receive billions just in commissions.
AL MEYERHOFF, MICHAEL PERRI
William Greider neglects to mention the obstacles the Bush Administration’s SEC has erected to pension funds’ and other investors’ fundamental right to know the risks environmental hazards pose to their portfolios. In 2002 the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment filed a petition urging the SEC to improve its guidelines on corporate disclosure of environmental liabilities. The Rose petition had the endorsement of institutional investors and foundations representing more than $1 trillion in assets. They assert that they need this information for sound investment decisions. Yet the SEC has refused to issue the needed guidance.
In 2004 and ’05, SEC staff began excluding from corporate proxy statements any shareholder proposal that demands disclosure of future risks such as global warming and chemical pollution. On February 23, it told Dow Chemical, which acquired Union Carbide in 2001, that it need not have its shareholders vote on a proposed shareholder resolution asking management to report on financial and reputational risks stemming from Union Carbide’s 1984 Bhopal disaster.
Strategic Counsel on Corporate Accountability
West Bridgewater, Mass.
As a progressive, for-profit social change organization, we were pleased to see Michael H. Shuman and Merrian Fuller’s “Profits for Justice” [Jan. 24]. When we were dreaming up our organization in the mid-1980s we debated many of the pros and cons discussed by the authors, and the choice to be a for-profit, worker cooperative was a close call. We wanted to be organized democratically, so we chose a worker cooperative structure. We wanted the needs of our farmer suppliers to be protected, so we committed ourselves to buying only on fair trade terms. We wanted to protect the social mission, so we crafted our by-laws and capital structure to prevent selling out or hostile takeovers. And we wanted to demonstrate that business could be viable while advancing these goals, so we chose to be a for-profit, competing in the marketplace with conventional for-profit corporations.
The marketplace is a hotbed of imitation. If you can take a progressive cause (fair trade, organics, responsible investing, etc.) and show that there’s a market for it, imitators will pop up all around, multiplying your impact. Yet despite our progress over twenty years, we’ve only scratched the surface, and the marketplace can use every progressive-minded entrepreneur it can get.
RINK DICKINSON, president
From reading “Profits for Justice,” one would presume the American Independent Business Alliance, which I direct, is just one in a long line of entities that have promoted “socially responsible” or “sustainable” business, based on the notion that a world dominated by corporations can be humane and sustainable if we can just get corporations to be nice. But AMIBA is a completely different model, promoting independent ownership of businesses (including co-ops and worker-owned ones) at the local level and providing tools for communities to stop corporate chains from driving out local business. The Independent Business Alliance model has proved successful in numerous communities, but to reach the numbers required to shift national consciousness, dialogue and policy, AMIBA is pursuing foundation support and unfortunately encountering the destructive policies the article so accurately describes.
We’ve developed and successfully replicated a model that has proved its potential to advance not solely economic democracy and entrepreneurship but to shift the balance of power between giant corporations and communities. Yet foundations claiming to fund systemic change or community development tell us we don’t fit their definitions or are not focused narrowly enough on certain demographics.
While the authors’ urgings for nonprofits to explore economic self-sufficiency are important, I’m not ready to let progressive foundations continue their losing ways unchallenged. They have the massive potential to help advance the progressive movement far faster than we can move without them. Progressives campaign against corporations to stop negative practices; why not apply the same pressure to foundations?
American Independent Business Alliance
“Profits for Justice” argues for progressive nonprofits to begin breaking their dependence on foundations and other big funders by setting up their own socially responsible businesses, but there’s something else they can do: Heartof.com is a socially responsible business designed to create a revenue stream for any progressive organization that wants it. It’s an online shopping mall that sells nothing of its own but links to more than 340 well-known retailers. When a shopper visits heartof.com and clicks, for example, on the Office Depot link, he or she cybertrips over to its website and buys, say, paper for the next mass mailing. Office Depot then pays a referral fee to heartof.com, which sends the bulk of that fee to the progressive organization. An organization that encourages its supporters to use heartof.com creates revenue that will grow as increasing numbers of its supporters shop online. And unlike revenue flowing from foundations, funders or in-house business ventures, it can’t threaten that organization’s progressive agenda.
FRANK T. FITZGERALD
Apropos the troubles of Tom DeLay [Robert Grossman, “Glimmer of Hope Department,” March 28]:
Tommy the Hammerer,
How will you spend your
Days in the slammerer?
Like Jonah the Whaler,
Like Vlad the Impaler?
The woman featured on our March 28 cover was Cindy Sheehan, holding a picture of her son Casey, killed in Iraq in April 2004.