Archive for June, 2012

The Unlikley Regulator

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

Since the Citizens United ruling in January 2010, it has appeared that the U.S. Supreme Court was doing everything possible to increase the dominion of corporations. Yet in its astonishing ruling on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Court, among other things, affirms the right of the government to put far-reaching restrictions on one of the country’s most powerful industries.

Even more remarkable is that the majority decision was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, a former corporate lawyer thought to be firmly in the anti-regulatory camp.

What made the healthcare case so unusual is that, strictly speaking, none of the parties were overtly opposing the provisions of the ACA regulating the heinous practices of the private insurance industry, such as discriminatory pricing, denial of coverage to those with “pre-existing conditions” and cancellation of coverage after a subscriber gets seriously ill. Both the oral arguments and the written opinions were filled with pro-regulation comments by normally laissez-faire-minded Justices.

Opponents of the law chose instead to focus their attack on the constitutionality of the individual mandate, which was at the heart of the deal the Obama Administration and Congressional Democrats made with the insurance industry under which the companies agreed not to fight the regulations in exchange for which they were guaranteed millions of new compulsory customers paying subsidized premiums.

Thanks to the defection of the Chief Justice based on a narrow interpretation of the mandate, the stratagem of the anti-healthcare reform camp turned out to be a colossal miscalculation. It also looks like the insurance companies have been snookered about the extent to which they will benefit from the law.

It will be of some consolation to conservatives that the Roberts opinion contains a strident rejection of the idea that Congress was justified in imposing the individual mandate through its constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce. The Chief Justice devotes many pages of his decision to a recitation of the argument that the mandate was in this sense an overreach, in the course of which he even reprises the broccoli analogy used by Justice Scalia during the hearings on the case.

Yet he then pivots and embraces, along with the Court’s four liberal justices, the secondary argument that the mandate was justified as an exercise of the taxing power of Congress, the tax being the financial penalties contained in the ACA for those without coverage who refuse to purchase individual policies.

What’s interesting is that in order to depict the penalties as a legitimate tax, Roberts has to argue that they are not overly punitive. In doing so, he writes that “for most Americans the amount due will be far less than the price of insur­ance, and, by statute, it can never be more. It may often be a reasonable financial decision to make the payment rather than purchase insurance.”

Roberts is thus highlighting one of the rarely discussed features of the ACA’s individual mandate: the penalties for disobeying it are far from draconian. Overheated rhetoric by the Right notwithstanding, no one will ever be thrown in jail for not having health coverage, nor will the penalties drive anyone into penury. In fact, it is not clear that the requirement will ever be enforced to any significant extent.

Moreover, any penalties that are collected will go to the Treasury, not to the private insurers missing out on premium payments from scofflaws. If enough of the defiantly uninsured realize the relatively low risks of non-compliance, the individual mandate may not create as many new customers as the insurance industry had hoped.

Of course, the ACA will create new customers from among the ranks of the uninsured who want coverage but have not been able to afford it without the subsidies the law will create. But many of these will be families who will make significant use of the coverage, as opposed to the young invincibles who never go to the doctor. In other words, the industry will end up with more of the less profitable end of the market.

Reading the Roberts opinion, one gets the impression that he was grasping for a way to uphold the ACA and rise above the unalloyed conservative partisanship that has tainted the recent history of the Court. While history may look kindly on his decision, in the shorter term he is bound to become a whipping boy for disappointed opponents of healthcare reform. Back in the 1960s rightwing fringe groups campaigned to have then-Chief Justice Earl Warren impeached for his supposedly pro-Communist rulings. Calls to “Impeach John Roberts” are already emerging from Red State America.

Whatever the Roberts legacy turns out to be, the bigger question is what will become of the U.S. healthcare system. It is encouraging that the most egregious insurance company behavior will be outlawed, but who knows what other tricks the industry will devise to torment its customers. The uproar over the ACA does not change the fact that the only real solution is to take the profit out of health coverage.

Corporate Capture in Rio and at Home

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

The 50,000-person United Nations conference on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro is bound to be followed by recriminations about what the nations of the world failed to accomplish. Perhaps the real story is what the planet’s giant corporations did accomplish in Rio — to advance their own interests.

Rio +20 is following what is now a familiar pattern in which governments drag their feet while major companies try to give the impression that they are the vanguard of environmental reform. The extent to which the United Nations — whose Centre on Transnational Corporations was once somewhat critical of big business — has embraced this dynamic can be seen on the website Business.UN.org, whose tagline is “Partnering for a Better World.” Corporations can post their sustainability goals on the site under the misleading category of Commitments. Whether the various goals are timid or ambitious, they are all, of course, voluntary in nature and thus unenforceable by the UN or any other body.

More is at work here than simple image-burnishing by many of the planet’s biggest polluters. According to a report issued for Rio +20 by Friends of the Earth International, large corporations and business associations have in effect hijacked the UN’s policymaking process: “There is increased business influence over the positions of national governments in multilateral negotiations; business representatives dominate certain UN discussion spaces and some UN bodies; business groups are given a privileged advisory role.”

“An even greater cause of concern,” the FOEI report goes on to say, “is the emergence of an ideology among some UN agencies and staff that what is good for business is good for society. This is reflected in a shift away from policies and measures designed to address the role of business in creating many of the problems that we face, towards policies that aim to define these problems in terms dictated by the corporate sector, meeting their needs without tackling the underlying causes of the multiple crises.”

All of this constitutes what FOEI calls “corporate capture” of the UN, a phrase that echoes the term “regulatory capture” used to describe what happens when the interests of corporations come to dominate the proceedings of government oversight agencies. FOEI has issued a statement with other NGOs decrying the excessive corporate influence over UN deliberations that has been endorsed by more than 400 groups from around the world.

It’s heartening that so many groups are willing to speak out, but it’s discouraging to realize that the same criticisms have been made for more than a decade, to little avail. At the time of the 2002 UN earth summit in Johannesburg, CorpWatch issued a report called Greenwash +10 that was already warning about the risks of the UN’s increasing commitment to corporate partnerships. It noted that one of those partnerships, Global Compact, claimed to be promoting business support for UN sustainability goals yet included among its members companies such as mining giant Rio Tinto with atrocious environmental records.

Rio Tinto is one of the companies singled out in the new FOEI report for continuing to engage in the same kind of hypocrisy. The mining company is also one of the main targets (along with BP and Dow Chemical) of the Greenwash Gold campaign, which  accuses the companies of covering up environmental destruction “while pretending to be a good corporate citizen by sponsoring the Olympic games” being held this summer in London.

Undue corporate influence over climate policy is also the theme of a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.  While acknowledging that some U.S. companies have taken “consistent and laudable” actions in support of science-based climate reforms, it finds that others have worked aggressively to undermine such progress.

Most interesting is its finding that some large corporations have taken contradictory positions depending on the circumstances. For example, some companies are found to make legitimate statements of concern over climate change on their websites and in their filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission while misrepresenting the state of climate science in their comments submitted to Environmental Protection Agency proceedings. Companies that fall into the contradictory category — such as Alcoa, ConocoPhillips and General Electric — are said to be standing in the way of meaningful change.

Whatever positions corporations take, there will always be tension between their interests and the common good. The fact that those two goals may occasionally coincide does not justify the outsized role that corporations now have in policymaking at both the national and international levels. Progress on climate change and many other fronts will be a lot easier when we are free from corporate capture in all its forms.

Patriotism is for the Little People

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

ING’s “Your Number” ad campaign touts the financial services company’s ability to help customers figure out how much they need to save for retirement.  We’ve just learned that ING’s own number is $619 million, the amount it had to pay to settle charges of having violated federal law by systematically concealing its prohibited transactions with Iran and Cuba.

The penalty agreed to by Netherlands-based ING is the largest in a series of cases in which major banks have been accused of doing business with countries targeted by U.S. economic sanctions. One of those banks is JPMorgan Chase, whose CEO Jamie Dimon just appeared before Congress to explain billions of dollars in trading losses and was treated with deference by most members of the Senate Banking Committee. It was just ten months ago that JPMorgan paid $88 million to resolve civil charges related to thousands of prohibited funds transfers for Iranian and Cuban parties.

JPMorgan got off a lot cheaper than some European banks, which were hit with criminal as well as civil charges. Apart from ING, Lloyds Banking Group paid $350 million in 2009, Credit Suisse paid $536 million that same year, and Barclays paid $298 million in 2010. Yet even those amounts did not cause much pain for the large institutions. In fact, they were undoubtedly happy to pay the penalties as part of arrangements that allowed them to avoid more serious legal consequences. They all were granted deferred prosecution deals under which they avoided a formal criminal conviction by vowing to clean up their act. A frustrated federal judge in the Barclays case called the settlement a “sweetheart deal” but approved it nonetheless.

The most comprehensive U.S. economic sanctions currently in force are aimed at Cuba, Iran, Burma/Myanmar, Sudan and Syria. More limited sanctions regimes apply to various other countries such as North Korea and Somalia. The Cuban sanctions, which date back to 1962, were adopted under the rubric of the World War I-era Trading with the Enemy Act. More recent restrictions are based primarily on the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1976.

Starting in the George W. Bush Administration, attention was directed from countries as a whole to designated individuals and organizations from those countries and others deemed to be acting against U.S. interests, including alleged terrorists and terrorist financiers. These parties are included in a list of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons maintained by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Controls (OFAC), which enforces the civil provisions of the sanctions laws.

Violations of these laws did not begin with the recent bank cases. In 2002 the Corporate Crime Reporter obtained documents from OFAC revealing previously unreported enforcement actions against companies such as Boeing, Citigroup, General Electric, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley. The agency had brought 115 cases over a four-year period. Over the past decade, OFAC has been more open about its enforcement actions, but fewer U.S. companies are being targeted.

The reason is not that American firms have gotten more ethical, but rather because many of them have in effect been allowed to sidestep the law. In December 2010 the New York Times revealed that the Treasury Department has been granting licenses to many large companies to sell goods to Iran under an exceedingly broad interpretation of the agricultural and humanitarian exemptions. Among the products that sneaked in under those loopholes were cigarettes and chewing gum.

Whatever one thinks of the wisdom or efficacy of economic sanctions, the way in which large companies have related to them says a lot about corporate power. It’s clear that, whenever possible, they will put their commercial interests ahead of strict compliance with the law and adherence to the foreign policy objectives of their own government and those of its allies. When individuals collaborate with enemy nations they risk indefinite detention. When corporations do so, they receive affordable fines while avoiding serious legal consequences. Even admitted violators such as ING, Credit Suisse, Lloyds and Barclays do not end up on OFAC’s blacklist.

The late real estate tycoon Leona Helmsley once said that paying taxes is only for the little people; apparently, patriotism falls into the same category.

The Collapse of Wal-Mart’s Social Responsibility Charade

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

For the past eight years, Wal-Mart has pursued an image campaign apparently inspired by the Marx Brothers line: “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”

Despite the preponderance of evidence of its unenlightened practices, the company has tried to give the impression that it is really a model corporate citizen. Recent events suggest that the giant retailer’s social responsibility charade is now crumbling.

Through all of its scandals and controversies over the years, Wal-Mart could at least count on the support of its institutional shareholders, which for a long time turned a blind eye to the company’s transgressions and focused on its growth. Now even that is changing. The recently released results of voting at the company’s annual meeting indicate unprecedented discontent with its leadership. Not counting the large bloc of shares controlled by descendants of founder Sam Walton, more than 30 percent of the votes were cast against CEO Mike Duke, board chair Rob Walton and former CEO and board member Lee Scott. In the past, Wal-Mart board members typically had approval rates close to 100 percent.

The high degree of no-confidence this time around is largely attributable to the fallout from an 8,000-word exposé by New York Times alleging that high-level executives at the company quashed an internal investigation of foreign bribery. Before the annual meeting, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System filed a lawsuit against current and former Wal-Mart executives and board members for breach of their fiduciary duties in connection with the bribery scandal.

That scandal also appears to have played a significant role in Wal-Mart’s decision to cave in to calls to suspend its membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is under siege for its role in promoting “stand your ground” laws such as the one in Florida linked to the shooting of Trayvon Martin. In the past, Wal-Mart, long a stalwart member of ALEC, would have ignored pressure of the kind being exerted by the anti-ALEC campaign.

By all rights, the disintegration of Wal-Mart’s responsibility image should have come from its retrograde labor and employment practices, which were the main reason for the public relations effort but which didn’t substantially change during the campaign. The company has never strayed from its uncompromising opposition to unions (except for toothless ones in China). The Organization United for Respect at Walmart is not a conventional union-organizing effort, yet the company recently fired several activists in the group in an apparent act of intimidation.

In its 1.4 million-employee U.S. retail operations, Wal-Mart has maintained a low-road approach of meager wages, inadequate benefits and overuse of part-timers. Workers at its more than 100 distribution centers had enjoyed somewhat better conditions, but it appears that is no longer the case. A new report from the National Employment Law Project finds that the company is increasingly using logistics subcontractors and temp agencies that engage in rampant wage-and-hour abuses and other labor-law violations.

In the latest in a long line of its own fair labor standards cases, Wal-Mart was recently forced by the U.S. Labor Department to pay $5.3 million in back pay, penalties and damages for violating overtime rules. Although the U.S. Supreme Court came to Wal-Mart’s rescue last year by blocking a massive class-action sex discrimination case, several non-class actions have been brought in recent months making the same allegations on behalf of thousands of women.

One area in which Wal-Mart believes it has attained a measure of legitimacy is environmental policy. It has succeeded in winning over some green groups, which cannot resist the temptation of working with such a mammoth company to change industry standards.

Yet the funny thing about Wal-Mart’s green initiatives is that most of them involve changes that the retailer is requiring from its suppliers, who are expected to bear the costs of altering their products and their packaging. This is consistent with Wal-Mart’s longstanding practice of forcing suppliers to cut their wholesale prices to the bone. When Wal-Mart does take steps on its own, such as in reducing energy usage in its facilities, those reforms are ones that reduce its operating costs and thus add to its bottom line.

Even if you believe it is okay for Wal-Mart to boost its profits while pressing suppliers to be more environmentally responsible, it’s important to remember that many of those suppliers are in countries such as China where oversight is difficult. A recent investigative report in Mother Jones found that Wal-Mart’s monitoring of Chinese plants left a lot to be desired and that this is causing frustration among some of the environmentalists who have been working with the company.

A report by Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance finds that Wal-Mart’s domestic green initiatives, such as using more renewable energy sources, are also faltering, while the company ignores the detrimental environmental impacts of its land use practices. All this is compounded, Mitchell notes, by Wal-Mart’s extensive political contributions to candidates who are global warming deniers or otherwise have poor voting records on the environment.

The demise of  Wal-Mart’s phony social responsibility initiative poses a fascinating question: Can the company return to its old critics-be-damned stance, or will it finally have to make some genuine reforms in the way it does business?