Archive for July, 2011

Unsuitable Saviors

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

If you go by the agenda of Koch Industries and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, big business is obsessed with cutting taxes, weakening regulation and denying the existence of global warming.

The truth is more complicated. For more than a decade, most large U.S. corporations—including the likes of Wal-Mart, Chevron and Goldman Sachs—have been ardent proponents of the principles of corporate social responsibility, or CSR. Like many of their European and Japanese counterparts, they profess to be leaders in a global movement to address the climate crisis, raise the living standards of the planet’s poorest and otherwise make the world a better place.

As London-based CSR evangelist Wayne Visser argues in his new book The Age of Responsibility, that movement is in crisis. The hypocrisy of espousing enlightened views while letting trade associations such as the Chamber lobby for Neanderthal ones is the least of it.

Despite the enormous resources and influence of the companies pushing it, CSR has done little to alleviate the larger problems it has taken on. As Visser puts it: ”At the macro level, almost every indicator of our social, environmental and ethical health is in decline.” He continues:

At worst, CSR in its most primitive form may be a smokescreen covering up systematically irresponsible behavior. At best, even the most evolved CSR practices might just be a band-aid applied to a gaping wound that is hemorrhaging the lifeblood of the economy, society and the planet.

As a long-time critic of CSR, my response to this diagnosis is: amen. However, I quickly part ways with Visser when it comes to a prescription for what to do next.

Visser spends much of his 366-page text arguing, essentially, that the antidote to failed CSR is more CSR. He never puts it quite that simply. Visser is a management consultant, after all, and he has to dress up his analysis with endless bullet points and matrices (many parts of the book read like powerpoint presentations).

At the center of all the jargon is the thesis that the world needs a new version of corporate social responsibility (actually, he prefers the phrase corporate sustainability and responsibility) which he dubs CSR 2.0.

This new approach is said to be based on five principles:  Creativity, Scalability, Responsiveness, Glocality and Circularity.

Visser devotes a chapter to each of these, and the result is exasperating. His exegesis is full of platitudes and buzz words: “thinking outside the box,” “setting audacious goals,” “cross-sector partnerships,” “think global, act local,” “cradle to cradle” (rather than just cradle-to-grave) assessments of the environmental impact of products, etc.

What’s also bewildering is that Visser points to numerous companies that, he maintains, have already been putting into practice his principles that are supposedly the wave of the future. Among them are many of the usual CSR suspects: Google, Wal-Mart, The Body Shop, Nike, Patagonia and the mining giants BHP-Billiton and Anglo American.

What, then, is really new about CSR 2.0? The only thing that strikes me as novel is Visser’s call for making CSR “systemic” or “holistic”—yet this is where the entire concept of CSR, it seems to me, breaks down.

It is understandable to want to attack problems in a more comprehensive way, but it is not clear, to me at least, that large corporations are the appropriate primary vehicle for addressing the climate crisis, air and water pollution, global poverty, diseases such as AIDS/HIV, child labor and sweatshops.

For one thing, transnational corporations have played a significant role in creating or at least exacerbating some of these crises—and they may have a vested interest in perpetuating them. Even where this is not the case, why would we want to give a leadership role to institutions that are inherently undemocratic and exist primarily to enrich a small portion of the population? Corporations should certainly clean up their own act, but there is no reason to put them in charge of everything.

Much of CSR can be seen as an attempt to replace rigorous government regulation with limited voluntary initiatives that companies also use for public relations purposes. The answer is not a more ambitious form of CSR, as Visser suggests. We need less emphasis on corporate responsibility and more on corporate accountability—on corporations being held to account by government and organizations representing all of society. That’s a 2.0 that would truly make a difference.

The Forgotten Legacy of the Excess Profits Tax

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

Behind all the ideological posturing going on in Washington over the debt ceiling, there is a surprising amount of consensus on the wrongheaded proposition that corporations need more tax relief.

The bipartisan Gang of Six plan that has recently been at the center of attention provides for the reduction of the statutory corporate tax rate from 35 percent down to as low as 23 percent. It also calls for moving to a “competitive territorial tax system,” which, as Citizens for Tax Justice points out, would make it even easier for companies to exploit offshore tax havens. A reported new plan being discussed by President Obama and Speaker Boehner as this is being written would probably include something similar.

Corporate domination of our political discourse makes it all but impossible for national leaders to suggest that large companies, which have been enjoying abundant profits while much of the country suffers from high unemployment and other forms of economic distress, should be paying more, not less to keep the USA afloat. Behind many of the protestations against special tax breaks for the oil industry and ethanol producers are agendas that call for lowering the statutory corporate rate for all companies.

It wasn’t always this way.  The United States has a history, now largely forgotten, of imposing higher taxes on corporations during times of national emergencies. Excess profits taxes were imposed at various times to put a check on profiteering during wartime.

The first excess profits tax was enacted in 1917, less than a decade after the basic corporate income tax came into being. It remained in place through the World War I, and in 1919 President Wilson recommended that it be made part of the permanent tax system. Congress demurred, but the tax was not eliminated until 1921, well after the end of the war.

Interest in an excess profits tax was revived in the 1930s.The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 used a form of excess profits tax to prevent evasion of the declared-value capital stock tax. Later in the decade, as war seemed imminent, a broader based excess profits tax began to be discussed. In 1940 President Roosevelt, insisting that government should ensure that “a few do not gain from the sacrifices of many,” sent a message to Congress calling for a “steeply graduated excess-profits tax.”

There was little disagreement on the need for such a tax. The debate centered, instead, on how the levy would be calculated—especially the question of what base would be used to determine the excess. The tax remained in effect through 1945. Only five years later, Congress returned to an excess profits tax to help pay for the Korean War.

Writing in the Journal of Political Economy in 1951, economist George Lent wrote that the tax had “been accepted as an essential part of a broad system for the equitable distribution of the cost of defense.” Unfortunately, that acceptance turned out to be short-lived. The excess profits tax enacted in 1950 was terminated in 1953, and despite an ongoing Cold War and then large-scale intervention in Vietnam, corporations were no longer expected to shoulder a significant portion of U.S. military costs.

During the past decade the situation has grown even worse. Despite the existence of two expensive wars and a trend toward privatization of military functions that makes the conflicts extremely profitable to the private sector, no one talks of higher corporate taxes.  On the contrary, the demand for lowering those taxes has been relentless.

The justification for excess profits taxation need not be linked only to military costs and the profits of Pentagon contractors. Today we are seeing excessiveness of another kind in relation to corporate profits. Most large companies are enjoying bloated bottom lines by refusing to return their workforce back to pre-recession levels. They can do this because unemployment is high, unions are weak and those with jobs find it difficult to resist demands for intensified workloads.

Along with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a war at home—a war against workers that amounts to a form of profiteering. If the leaders of this country were not in thrall to corporations, we would be talking about an excess profits tax focused on employers that keep their staffing levels artificially low.

It could very well turn out that higher, not lower taxes are what would induce companies to begin hiring again. Those companies which resist would at least be helping reduce the national deficit rather than further enriching the investor class.

Statehouse Inc.

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

State legislatures, once hailed by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy” because of their progressive innovations, have for the past couple of decades often been hotbeds of plutocracy instead. The blame for this rests in no small part with a shadowy organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Thanks to a WikiLeaks-like initiative by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), we now know a lot more about the way that ALEC operates. CMD obtained and has just made public for the first time the full texts of more than 800 model bills and resolutions secretly approved by ALEC’s corporate and legislative members. These positions are often introduced—in many cases word-for-word—by rightwing state legislators and all too frequently become the law of the land. The trove of documents is available at a website called ALEC Exposed.

ALEC was created in 1973 by the far-sighted conservative strategist Paul Weyrich, who was also involved in the establishment of the Heritage Foundation and other institutions of the Right. Though it never became a household name, ALEC was playing an influential role in the direction of state policymaking as early as the 1980s. A 1984 article in The National Journal, noting that its leaders got “the red carpet treatment from the Reagan White House” when they met in Washington, called ALEC “the New Right group that has done the most to set the conservative agenda at the state level.”

That agenda is the same one being pushed more than a quarter-century later by the greatly expanded cohort of ALEC allies generated by the Republican landslide in last November’s elections: tax limitation, cuts in social spending, restrictions on public employee collective bargaining rights, privatization, reduced regulation of business, school vouchers, and much more.

Corporate critics first began to pay serious attention to ALEC about a decade ago. In 2002 two environmental groups—Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council—issued a report entitled Corporate America’s Trojan Horse in the States that debunked ALEC’s claim of being a non-partisan good government group and showed how it was dominated by and promoted the interests of large companies such as Chevron, Philip Morris and Enron. The legislators who made up the purported membership of ALEC were simply a conduit for policy prescriptions devised by corporate lobbyists and trade associations.

Progressive organizations set up a website called ALEC Watch to monitor the group’s activities and launched a counterpart entity called ALICE (American Legislative Issues Campaign Exchange). The latter was not a great success, but it helped give rise to today’s Progressive States Network.

Additional investigative reporting—including accounts by progressive infiltrators at ALEC events—and analyses such as a May 2010 report by the American Association for Justice called ALEC: Ghostwriting the Law for Corporate America—have revealed more about the group’s modus operandi.

What remained largely secret were the details of the proposed legislative language prepared by ALEC’s corporate members. Now that has changed with the arrival of ALEC Exposed.

The scope of the issues covered by ALEC’s model bills is extraordinary. CMD divides them into seven major categories ranging from worker/consumer rights to tax loopholes/budgets, each of which contains dozens of items on very specific issues.

Within the model bills on worker and consumer rights are, of course, the notorious Paycheck Protection Act (which seeks to weaken union participation in the political process) and the Prevailing Wage Repeal Act. But there’s also a bill that allows gives employers the option to pay workers with prepaid debit cards rather than cash.

There’s a model bill on “class action improvements” (designed to make it harder to certify classes), but also one on “admissibility in civil actions of nonuse of a seat belt.” In the health area, there’s a “model resolution on disease management of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease” as well as one on “taxation of moist smokeless tobacco.”

Browsing through the inventory of bills, one comes away with the unsettling feeling that Corporate America is asserting its interest in every single aspect of public policy. Given that corporations and their executives supply legislators not only with model bills but also campaign cash, those interests too often prevail.

Justice Brandeis is also known for having said: “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” ALEC is helping to ensure we make the “Right” choice.

Perilous Pipelines

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

ExxonMobil's paper towel mobilization

At the height of the controversy last year over the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, top executives from four competing oil giants appeared before Congress and distanced themselves from their British rival.

“We would not have drilled the well the way they did,” smugly stated ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. “It certainly appears that not all the standards that we would recommend or that we would employ were in place,” chimed in Chevron chairman John Watson.

Now that ExxonMobil is at the center of an oil pipeline spill into Montana’s flooded Yellowstone River, Tillerson should be feeling somewhat less self-satisfied. And the rest of us have another reminder that poor safety practices in the petroleum industry are far from an anomaly.

It is also a reminder that companies professing concern about the environment can end up being major offenders. In 2008 the ExxonMobil refinery in Billings served by the Silvertip pipeline that just burst received certification from the Wildlife Habit Council for its efforts to conserve ecosystems and protect wildlife in and around company operations. Some of that wildlife is now covered in crude oil.

When people hear about oil spills, they tend to think of the large offshore incidents such as the BP mess in the gulf and ExxonMobil’s 1989 disaster in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Equally dismal is the history of onshore spills caused by ruptures in the vast network of pipelines that carry crude oil from drilling sites to refineries.

A year ago this time, the news media were transmitting images very similar the ones now coming out of Montana. In July 2010 a burst pipeline released more than 800,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River in southern Michigan.

The company involved in the Michigan accident–Enbridge Inc., operator of the world’s largest crude oil pipeline system–had been warned by federal regulators that it was not properly monitoring corrosion on the pipeline. Over the past decade, Enbridge’s pipelines have been involved in a long list of ruptures and leaks in places such as Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Alberta.

Enbridge, which is based in Canada, has annual revenues of more than $15 billion, has not felt much pain from the fines imposed by the U.S. regulators at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which are often below $100,000. However, in response to a November 2007 explosion in Clearbrook, Minnesota that took two lives, Enbridge was fined $2.4 million.

What’s even more troubling than Enbridge’s past record is that the company is seeking to greatly expand its network, with a special focus on the environmentally disastrous tar sand fields of northern Alberta. Bringing the filthy oil output of the tar sands down to the United States is also the objective of the huge Keystone XL pipeline that would pass through eastern Montana (and the Yellowstone River) on its way to Texas.

Moreover, it would traverse the Ogallala Aquifer, which, NRDC points out, serves as the primary source of drinking water for millions of Americans and provides 30 percent of the nation’s ground water used for irrigation. Keystone XL, an expansion of an existing pipeline that opened last year, is awaiting federal approval. Earlier this year the existing pipeline was shut down for about a week after a series of a dozen leaks at pumping stations.

For companies such as TransCanada, Enbridge and ExxonMobil, the sky’s the limit when it comes to what they are willing to spend on projects such as Keystone XL (its price tag is $7 billion).  Yet when it comes to cleaning up their messes, things suddenly become austere. The main tools that ExxonMobil’s crews in Montana seem to be employing are glorified paper towels. If the fines for violations were more substantial, the pipeline companies might take safety more seriously.