Populism Real and Ridiculous

Some analyses of Trumpism and Republican populism have claimed to detect a strain of anti-corporate sentiment. It is true that today’s right-wingers are willing to criticize big tech companies for supposedly treating them unfairly, but most of the times the GOP continues to serve the interests of big business.

That was clear during an important hearing just held by the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on antitrust, commercial and administrative law. Subcommittee chair David Cicilline, vice chair Pramila Jayapal, other Democratic members and the witnesses all raised serious questions about the current regulatory system, focusing on issues such as disclosure and social equity.

The Republicans, on the other hand, did their best to change the subject or spoke in favor of less rather than more oversight. Ranking member Ken Buck used his opening remarks to attack “executive overreach” and praise the Trump Administration’s wholesale attack on regulation.

Jim Jordan spent his time attacking what he claimed was a plan by the Justice Department to treat parents critical of school boards as domestic terrorists. One of the witnesses, NAACP climate justice director Jacqueline Patterson, was asked by Dan Bishop whether she was a revolutionary. She was also chastised for a facetious tweet about vaccines. The comments of GOP members on regulation were mainly limited to attacks on “woke bureaucrats.”

Despite these antics, there was a serious exchange between the Democrats and the witnesses on the failures of the current regulatory system. These issues are also addressed in the Stop Corporate Capture Act introduced by Rep. Jayapal. The legislation would create more transparency in rulemaking, reduce corporate influence over the process and create a framework for considering social equity. It would fine companies that lie about the impact of public interest rules. It would also create a Public Advocate to provide for more robust public participation.

It turns the usual discussion on its head. Rejecting the idea of executive overreach, the bill correctly diagnoses the problem as a situation of what one might called regulatory anemia. Agencies are not aggressive enough in tackling serious problems relating to the environment, the workplace and the marketplace. The parties meant to be targeted instead are playing an outsized role in creating the rules. Hence the reference in the bill’s title to regulatory capture.

Jayapal’s proposal is what one might call a populist approach to reforming the regulatory system—one that is not likely to receive support from corporate lobbyists. When they are not simply kicking up dust, Republicans, by contrast, are doing the bidding of big business by continuing the Trump Administration’s drumbeat against regulation.

This is one of those areas in which the conventional labels of U.S. politics continue to baffle me. Why are those working to benefit giant corporations called populist, while those who are seeking to rein in that power called elitist?

Corporate America Wants Its Own Immunity Passport

It is unclear at the moment whether Mitch McConnell and other Congressional Republicans are backing off their demand that corporations be given protection from covid-19 lawsuits — or if they are maneuvering behind the scenes in favor of the proposal.

What I find amazing is that business lobbyists and their GOP supporters think they can sell the country on the idea, which would be a brazen giveaway to corporate interests.

There are numerous compelling arguments against immunity, but I want to focus on one: the track records of corporations themselves. Proponents of a liability shield imply that large companies normally act in good faith and that any coronavirus-related litigation would be penalizing them for conditions outside their control. These lawsuits, they suggest, would be frivolous or unfair.

This depiction of large companies as innocent victims of unscrupulous trial lawyers is a long-standing fiction that business lobbyists have used in promoting “tort reform,” the polite term for the effort to limit the ability of victims of corporate misconduct to seek redress through the civil justice system. That campaign has not been more successful because most people realize that corporate negligence is a real thing.

In fact, some of the industries that are pushing the hardest for immunity are ones that have terrible records when it comes to regulatory compliance. Take nursing homes, which have already received a form of covid immunity from New York State.

That business includes the likes of Kindred Healthcare, which has had to pay out more than $350 million in fines and settlements.  The bulk of that amount has come from cases in which Kindred and its subsidiaries were accused of violating the False Claims Act by submitting inaccurate or improper bills to Medicare and Medicaid. Another $40 million has come from wage and hour fines and settlements.

Kindred has also been fined more than $4 million for deficiencies in its operations. This includes more than $3 million it paid to settle a case brought by the Kentucky Attorney General over issues such as “untreated or delayed treatment of infections leading to sepsis.”

Or consider the meatpacking industry, which has experienced severe outbreaks yet is keeping many facilities open. This sector includes companies such as WH Group, the Chinese firm that has acquired well-known businesses such as Smithfield. WH Group’s operations have paid a total of $137 million in penalties from large environmental settlements as well as dozens of workplace safety violations.

Similar examples can be found throughout the economy. Every large corporation is, to at least some extent, a scofflaw when it comes to employment, environmental and consumer protection issues. There is no reason to think this will change during the pandemic. In fact, companies may respond to a difficult business climate by cutting even more corners.

The two ways such misconduct can be kept in check are regulatory enforcement and litigation. We have an administration that believes regulation is an evil to be eradicated.

This makes the civil justice system all the more important, yet business lobbyists and their Congressional allies are trying to move the country in exactly the opposite direction. They want to liberate big business from any form of accountability, giving it what amounts to an immunity passport. Heaven help us if they succeed.

The Controversial Corporations Exploiting Citizens United

It has now been exactly ten years since the U.S. Supreme Court opened the floodgates for special-interest political advertising in its Citizens United ruling. To mark the occasion, the Center for Responsive Politics has published an excellent report detailing how political spending has changed over the last decade.

One significant finding is that, although Citizens United overturned the prohibition on independent political expenditures by corporations, most companies have not taken advantage of that new right directly. The biggest surges in spending have come from wealthy individuals and from Super PACs.

This is not to say that corporations have stayed on the sidelines. CRP notes that they are funneling much of their spending through trade associations and dark money groups that do not disclose their donors.

To emphasize its point about the limited role of corporations in independent expenditures, the CRP report notes that only 36 companies in the S&P 500 have contributed $25,000 or more to Super PACs since 2012. The report notes that the biggest of these spenders are oil and gas companies but otherwise does not identify them.

Karl Evers-Hillstrom, the author of the report, agreed to share the full list with me, so I could learn more about which corporations are bucking the trend and getting more directly involved with political spending.

Seven of the 36 are those oil and gas companies, including giant producers such as Chevron and ConocoPhillips as well as the big fracking player Devon Energy. The utility industry accounts for eight of the 36 and includes some of the largest contributors to air pollution and carbon emissions: American Electric Power, Duke Energy, Exelon and Southern Companies.

Only three other industries account for more than one of the corporations on the list: insurance (Anthem, Centene and MetLife), casinos (Wynn Resorts and MGM Resorts International) and telecommunications (AT&T and Charter Communications).

The remainder consists of 14 corporations from different industries such as pharmaceuticals (Merck), tobacco (Altria), retail (Walmart), banking (BB&T, now part of Truist Financial) and miscellaneous manufacturing (3M).

The list thus includes some of the most controversial companies from many of the most controversial industries. Among the 36 are some firms that were involved in contentious mergers (e.g. AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner) and policy issues (Anthem and Centene are big players in healthcare). After fighting for years over federal regulation of tobacco, Altria has moved into the contested business of vaping. Walmart was embroiled in a foreign bribery investigation.

One thing that characterizes nearly all the companies on the list is the fact that they have been implicated in significant compliance breaches. I checked the whole list against the data in Violation Tracker and found that the 36 firms account for more than $29 billion in fines and settlements.

The biggest penalty totals belong to Occidental Petroleum ($5.4 billion), American Electric Power ($4.8 billion), Merck ($3.3 billion) and Walmart ($2 billion). There are six other companies with totals of $1 billion or more. The average penalty for the 36 companies is $844 million.

What all this suggests is that, while most companies are not making full use of Citizens United, corporations that are engaged in controversial activities and have serious compliance problems can take advantage of the ruling and employ their financial resources to try to manipulate public policy in their favor. The threat to democracy thus remains.

Don’t Read Their Lips

There have been times during the past 14 months when some people might have been tempted to regard big business as part of the anti-Trump resistance, based on the public stances that some chief executives have taken in response to the president’s more outrageous statements. A new report from Oxfam America shows that large corporations are not putting most of their money where their mouths are.

The Oxfam analysis compares the public rhetoric of 70 large U.S. corporations on topics such as immigration, diversity and climate change to the issues listed in their federal lobbying spending disclosures. It finds that most companies spent little or no money lobbying to reinforce their high-minded pronouncements.

Instead, they dispatched their armies of lobbyists to press for government action that would promote their own corporate self-interest, primarily through rollbacks in regulation and business taxes. For example, of the 70 companies only 13 (most tech firms) lobbied on diversity and inclusion, spending a total of $11 million. By contrast, 61 of the 70 lobbied on tax issues, spending a total of $44 million.

As Irit Tamir, Oxfam’s Director for the Private Sector, puts it: “Today’s CEOs have more appetite to align their company’s public image with specific sides in some of the country’s most contested and polarized debates. On issues ranging from gay marriage to refugee rights, executives across  industries have been pushed – or willingly walked – into the eye of the political storm. But when we look at what they are lobbying on behind closed doors, they really, really, really want to pay less in taxes while other issues take a back seat. Words matter, but actions – and lobbying dollars – still speak louder.”

Oxfam, which has done considerable work on corporate tax avoidance, finds it particularly troubling that so much of big business influence spending promotes policies that undermine public finance and contribute to the growth of inequality.

That’s certainly a valid point, but the report’s findings also highlight the reality that much of what is presented as corporate social responsibility is actually a smokescreen for more selfish practices. There is a parallel between this deception and that of the president.

Trump pretends to be a populist while actually promoting much of the conventional big business agenda. Corporate social responsibility proponents pretend to be social reformers while quietly lobbying for that same agenda. Moreover, the social responsibility initiatives themselves are often little more than image-burnishing measures and in some cases are designed to convey the dangerous message that voluntary corporate practices make stricter government regulation unnecessary.

The lesson from all this is that we should not pay too much attention to what either Trump or the big business reformers say and instead focus on what they are doing, which is to steadily dismantle the systems of regulation and taxation that are meant to keep predatory capitalism in check.

The Other Trump Collusion Scandal

For months the news has been filled with reports of suspicious meetings between Trump associates and Russian officials. Another category of meetings also deserves closer scrutiny: the encounters between Trump himself and top executives of scores of major corporations since Election Day. What do these companies want from the new administration?

During the presidential campaign, Trump often hinted that he would be tough on corporate misconduct — especially the offshoring of jobs — and this won him a significant number of votes. After taking office, however, much of the economic populism has disappeared in favor of a shamelessly pro-corporate approach, especially when it comes to regulation. Big business has put aside whatever misgivings it had about Trump and now seeks favors from him.

There is always a fine line between deregulation and the encouragement of corporate crime and misconduct. We should be concerned about the latter, given the roster of executives who have made pilgrimages to the White House.

Public Citizen has just published a report looking at the track record of the roughly 120 companies whose executives have met publicly with Trump since November 8 and finds that many of them “are far from upstanding corporate citizens.”

Using data from Violation Tracker (which I and my colleagues produce at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First), Public Citizen finds that more than 100 of the visitors were from companies that appear in the database as having paid a federal fine or settlement since the beginning of 2010.

In its tally of these penalties, which includes those associated with companies such as Goldman Sachs and Exxon Mobil whose executives were brought right into the administration, Public Citizen finds that the total is about $90 billion.

At the top of the list are companies from the two sectors that have been at the forefront of the corporate crime wave of recent years: banks and automakers. JPMorgan Chase, with penalties of almost $29 billion, is in first place. Also in the top dozen are Citigroup ($15 billion), Goldman Sachs ($9 billion), HSBC ($4 billion) and BNY Mellon ($741 million). Volkswagen, still embroiled in the emissions cheating scandal, has the second highest penalty total ($19 billion). Two other automakers make the dirty dozen: Toyota ($1.3 billion) and General Motors ($936 million).

The rest of the dirty dozen are companies from another notorious industry: pharmaceuticals. These include Johnson & Johnson ($2.5 billion),  Merck ($957 million), Novartis ($938 million) and Amgen ($786 million).

All these companies have a lot to gain from a relaxation of federal oversight of their operations. While it remains unclear whether the Trump campaign used its meetings with Russian officials to plan election collusion, there is no doubt that the administration has been using its meetings with corporate executives to plan regulatory rollbacks that will have disastrous financial, safety and health consequences.

The Trump Transition and Wage Theft

If Donald Trump really were a champion of the working class, one place you would expect to see it reflected would be in his plans for the Labor Department. The supposed champion of blue collar Americans should be making sure that the agency most concerned with the world of work is reoriented to their needs.

Given what we have learned about the Trump transition so far, it will come as no surprise to hear that things seem to be moving in a very different direction. The person put in charge of the DOL transition is J. Steven Hart, chairman of the firm of Williams & Jensen, which calls itself “Washington’s Lobbying Powerhouse.” Hart is a lawyer and an accountant who worked in the Reagan Administration but his firm now lobbies mainly on behalf of large corporations such as the health insurer Anthem and Smithfield Foods.

He may provide other services for big business.  In a 2007 article in The Washingtonian about DC’s top lobbyists, Hart was described as “the man corporations call when they are having trouble with labor unions.” There is not much in the public record on Hart’s activity as a union buster, which may mean only that he worked behind the scenes.

One thing that is known, according to the BNA Daily Labor Report, is that Hart has lobbied recently on behalf of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) on the rule formulated by the Labor Department to update overtime eligibility to thwart abusive employer practices. That association has made no secret of its strong opposition to the rule, which is scheduled to take effect on December 1. It put out a press release denouncing the rule as “burdensome” and vowing to work with other business interests to fight it.

The board of directors of the IAAPA includes a representative of the Walt Disney Company, which had has compliance problems with the Fair Labor Standards Act. For example, in 2010 Disney agreed to pay more than $433,000 in back wages to settle DOL allegations regarding off-the-clock work.

The overtime rule is a glaring example of the contradictions in the emerging Trump Administration. The rule would be of enormous benefit to many struggling lower-income workers who are denied overtime compensation under exemptions that were supposed to apply only to high-paid salaried employees. Their plight has amounted to a form of wage theft.

One group of employers that have frequently been implicated in overtime abuses are dollar store chains such as Family Dollar and Dollar Tree. These cases often involve assistant managers who are not really managers and are compelled to perform routine tasks in stores that are chronically understaffed. After losing an overtime lawsuit and hit with $36 million in damages, Family Dollar appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court (and lost).

It’s likely that Trump supporters are a lot more familiar with dollar stores than those who voted for Clinton. Do they really want to make it easier for those corporations to engage in wage theft against relatives and friends?

The 2015 Corporate Rap Sheet

gotojailThe ongoing corporate crime wave showed no signs of abating in 2015. BP paid a record $20 billion to settle the remaining civil charges relating to the Deepwater Horizon disaster (on top of the $4 billion in previous criminal penalties), and Volkswagen is facing perhaps even greater liability in connection with its scheme to evade emission standards.

Other automakers and suppliers were hit with large penalties for safety violations, including a $900 million fine (and deferred criminal prosecution) for General Motors, a record civil penalty of $200 million for Japanese airbag maker Takata, penalties of $105 million and $70 million for Fiat Chrysler, and $70 million for Honda.

Major banks continued to pay large penalties to resolve a variety of legal entanglements. Five banks (Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS) had to pay a total of $2.5 billion to the Justice Department and $1.8 billion to the Federal Reserve in connection with charges that they conspired to manipulate foreign exchange markets. The DOJ case was unusual in that the banks had to enter guilty pleas, but it is unclear that this hampered their ability to conduct business as usual.

Anadarko Petroleum agreed to pay more than $5 billion to resolve charges relating to toxic dumping by Kerr-McGee, which was acquired by Anadarko in 2006. In another major environmental case, fertilizer company Mosaic agreed to resolve hazardous waste allegations at eight facilities by creating a $630 million trust fund and spending $170 million on mitigation projects.

These examples and the additional ones below were assembled with the help of Violation Tracker, the new database of corporate misconduct my colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First introduced this year. The database currently covers environmental, health and safety cases from 13 federal agencies, but we will be adding other violation categories in 2016.

Deceptive financial practices. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fined Citibank $700 million for the deceptive marketing of credit card add-on products.

Cheating depositors. Citizens Bank was fined $18.5 million by the CFPB for pocketing the difference when customers mistakenly filled out deposit slips for amounts lower than the sums actually transferred.

Overcharging customers. An investigation by officials in New York City found that pre-packaged products at Whole Foods had mislabeled weights, resulting in grossly inflated unit prices.

Food contamination. In a rare financial penalty in a food safety case, a subsidiary of ConAgra was fined $11.2 million for distributing salmonella-tainted peanut butter.

Adulterated medication. Johnson & Johnson subsidiary McNeill-PPC entered a guilty plea and paid $25 million in fines and forfeiture in connection with charges that it sold adulterated children’s over-the-counter medications.

Illegal marketing. Sanofi subsidiary Genzyme Corporation entered into a deferred prosecution agreement and paid a penalty of $32.6 million in connection with charges that it promoted its Seprafilm devices for uses not approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

Failure to report safety defects. Among the companies hit this year with civil penalties by the Consumer Product Safety Commission for failing to promptly report safety hazards were: General Electric ($3.5 million fine), Office Depot ($3.4 million) and LG Electronics ($1.8 million).

Workplace hazards. Tuna producer Bumble Bee agreed to pay $6 million to settle state charges that it willfully violated worker safety rules in connection with the death of an employee who was trapped in an industrial oven at the company’s plant in Southern California.

Sanctions violations. Deutsche Bank was fined $258 million for violations in connection with transactions on behalf of countries (such as Iran and Syria) and entities subject to U.S. economic sanctions.

Air pollution. Glass manufacturer Guardian Industries settled Clean Air Act violations brought by the EPA by agreeing to spend $70 million on new emission controls.

Ocean dumping. An Italian company called Carbofin was hit with a $2.75 million criminal fine for falsifying its records to hide the fact that it was using a device known as a “magic hose” to dispose of sludge, waste oil and oil-contaminated bilge water directly into the sea rather than using required pollution prevention equipment.

Climate denial. The New York Attorney General is investigating whether Exxon Mobil deliberately deceived shareholders and the public about the risks of climate change.

False claims. Millennium Health agreed to pay $256 million to resolve allegations that it billed Medicare, Medicaid and other federal health programs for unnecessary tests.

Illegal lobbying. Lockheed Martin paid $4.7 million to settle charges that it illegally used government money to lobby federal officials for an extension of its contract to run the Sandia nuclear weapons lab.

Price-fixing. German auto parts maker Robert Bosch was fined $57.8 million after pleading guilty to Justice Department charges of conspiring to fix prices and rig bids for spark plugs, oxygen sensors and starter motors sold to automakers in the United States and elsewhere.

Foreign bribery. Goodyear Tire & Rubber paid $16 million to resolve Securities and Exchange Commission allegations that company subsidiaries paid bribes to obtain sales in Kenya and Angola.

Wage theft. Oilfield services company Halliburton paid $18 million to resolve Labor Department allegations that it improperly categorized more than 1,000 workers to deny them overtime pay.

Debunking Anti-Regulatory Rhetoric

dimonBelief in the infallibility of papal pronouncements is not as great as it used to be, but conservatives have lost none of their reverence for the statements of corporate executives. Nowhere is this clearer than in the new Congress, where Republicans seem preoccupied with addressing calls for regulatory “reform” from business leaders.

The vote in the House to begin gutting Dodd-Frank is the case in point. Conservatives appear to have taken to heart the dubious complaints by banks that they are being crippled by what are actually far from draconian restrictions.

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon is keeping up the drumbeat, telling reporters the other day that “banks are under assault.” Would that it were so. Dimon cited as “evidence” the fact that his institution needs to deal with multiple regulatory agencies: “You should all ask the question about how American that is, how fair that is.”

First of all, the fragmentation of bank regulation in the United States is an old issue that has nothing to do with the severity of the oversight. Several agencies treating banks with kid gloves do not amount to something more onerous than having one do so.

What makes Dimon’s laments all the more absurd is that they come from the head of a bank with an abominable track record. This is the bank that in 2013 had to pay $13 billion to settle federal and state allegations concerning the sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities. It is also the bank that suffered a $2 billion trading loss generated by a group of London-based traders that top management failed to rein in and that Dimon himself all but excused in a blustering appearance before a Congressional committee.

And it is the bank that a year ago paid $1.7 billion to victims of the Ponzi scheme perpetuated by Bernard Madoff to settle civil and criminal charges of failing to alert authorities about large numbers of suspicious transactions made by Madoff while it was his banker.

Criticisms of financial regulations coming from someone like Dimon should be accorded as much respect as denunciations of the racketeering laws coming from a mobster.

Another key source of overheated anti-regulation rhetoric is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank has published a funny but telling account of how top officials of the powerful trade association reacted when he asked them how their dire warnings about the threats to free enterprise posed by the Obama Administration squared with the recent good news about the economy.

Chamber President Tom Donohue and chief lobbyist Bruce Josten called Milbank “crazy” for saying that the Chamber had ever issued such warnings, with Donohue offering to buy the journalist lunch if he could produce such statements. Of course, Milbank goes on to reproduce several overwrought quotes.

It’s quite possible that the likes of Donohue and Josten are so used to speaking in exaggerated terms that they forget the meaning of their words.

Unfortunately, their acolytes in Congress, who receive those words wrapped in campaign contributions, take the messages all too seriously.

Corporate America’s Government Bonanza

moneybagsontherunWe’re taught to believe that government is a system for protecting the country, ensuring justice and helping people pursue happiness. For large corporations, on the other hand, government amounts to a big investment opportunity.

One of the most detailed assessments of the return on that investment has just been produced by the Sunlight Foundation. Not surprisingly, it turns out that the interaction big business has with the public sector is very profitable. What’s amazing is Sunlight’s estimate of the magnitude of those gains.

In its report called Fixed Fortunes, Sunlight takes great pains in estimating both what 200 of the largest and most politically active firms spend on government – in the form of campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures – and what they receive in benefits. Sunlight puts those benefits in two categories: federal business and federal support.

The first includes federal contracts as well as foreign sales enabled by the Export-Import Bank and certain transactions involving commercial banks in the wake of the financial meltdown. Federal support includes grants, loans and loan guarantees as well as other forms of assistance to banks following the meltdown.

Sunlight finds that the 200 companies spent $5.8 billion on political influence during the period from 2007 to 2012 while receiving $1.3 trillion in federal business and $3.2 trillion in federal support. This shows, Sunlight says, that for every dollar spent on influencing federal policy, these corporations received $760 in benefits. And that’s just the average. Some of the big banks got vastly more. Goldman Sachs received about $229 billion in business and support combined, more than 6,000 times what it spent on influence. For Bank of America it was more than 10,000 times. These are rates of return even the most successful hedge funds couldn’t imagine.

In some ways, Sunlight’s benefit numbers are understated, since they do not include the payoff from lobbying for corporate income tax reductions. The report includes figures from Citizens for Tax Justice showing the low effective tax rates most large companies enjoy, but Sunlight does not attempt the probably impossible task of estimating the dollar value of the tax benefits individual companies have gained from their lobbying efforts. Sunlight points out other examples of unquantifiable benefits corporations receive from Uncle Sam, such as those deriving from the artificially low rates charged to petroleum companies for drilling on federal land.

Moreover, Sunlight acknowledges that its estimates apply only at the federal level, though in its summary list of the results for the 200 companies it includes links to the state and local subsidy totals my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have assembled in our Subsidy Tracker database.

On the other hand, one could take issue with the way in which Sunlight calculates some of the categories of federal support. For loan and loan guarantee programs, for example, it apparently uses the face value of the funding, whereas the actual cost (except in cases of default) is much lower. It would have been helpful if Sunlight had listed the totals derived from each form of assistance; it is not always clear which numbers it used in the underlying spreadsheets it makes available.

Despite these quibbles, Sunlight has performed a great service in documenting the extent to which the federal government functions as a giant ATM for corporate America. We at Good Jobs First will soon be contributing to this effort by extending Subsidy Tracker to the federal level. We’ve been gathering data on many of the same programs examined by Sunlight, plus others, and we will be including entries for all companies, both large and small.

Let’s hope that as more light is shined on the ways government benefits corporations, we can shame elected officials into remembering who it is they are supposed to be serving.

Forward-Looking Corporations and the Backward-Looking Ones

Google_ALECLarge corporations like to think of themselves as engines of progress. Sometimes they are, though the progress they engender may be a mixed blessing. Other times, however, they are retrogressive, working to preserve the worst practices of the past.

Both of these tendencies have been on display in the news in recent days. In the forward-looking category we have Amazon and Google, which have let it be known that they are exploring what sound like science-fiction options for home delivery of goods.

Amazon revealed it is developing a system of drones that would fly packages from a distribution center to a customer’s home in a matter of minutes after an order is placed. Meanwhile, Google is reported to be working on a delivery system consisting of driverless cars and robots.

Of all the ways that technology could improve everyday life, it is hard to believe that the most compelling is the ability to have a 10-pack of tube socks flown directly to one’s doorstep. It is also unfortunate that these companies are apparently paying little attention to the massive job losses that their innovations could bring about. Yet by some uniquely corporate definition, such innovations would amount to progress.

In the thoroughly backward-looking category we have the American Legislative Exchange Council, the big-business-dominated organization that puts corporate-designed model bills into the hands of conservative state legislators. The Guardian has been publicizing a new batch of leaked ALEC documents that shed new light on the Neanderthal thinking of the organization.

Among the revelations is that ALEC has been working to promote legislation discouraging homeowners from installing solar panels. Dubbed the Electricity Freedom Act, the model bill calls on states to repeal or limit their renewable portfolio standards, which provide the basis for pressuring utilities to purchase excess power generated by houses with the panels. Rather than seeing those homeowners as helping to address climate change problems, an ALEC official told the Guardian that they are “freeriders.”

Discouraging renewable energy is far from the only way that ALEC encourages retrograde policies. The organization has received a torrent of criticism for its role in promoting voter suppression and “stand your ground” gun laws, which represent a return to the eras of Jim Crow and the Wild West.

ALEC has also had disturbing influence over state policymaking through its publication of a series of Rich States, Poor States reports that purport to give a road map to prosperity. A report written by Peter Fisher and published by Good Jobs First (in which I played a small role) shows how these prescriptions—which include shrinking the public sector, suppressing wages and rolling back regulation—amount to nothing but snake oil.

Thanks to other internal ALEC documents just disclosed by the Guardian, we now know that the latest edition of Rich States, Poor States project was funded by $175,000 from the Searle Freedom Trust and $150,000 from the Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation. The latter is actually listed in the report as “Koch/Claude Lamb,” which helps make it clear that the foundation is controlled by the Koch Brothers and/or Koch Industries. See more on the foundation here.

It comes as no surprise that the Kochs would be bankrolling such a report, but what’s the story with the Searle Freedom Trust? As Sourcewatch has documented, it is a large funder of rightwing groups such as the American Enterprise Institute at the national level as well as state-level policy groups under the State Policy Network (SPN) umbrella. The trust is featured in the StinkTanks website created by ProgressNow and the Center on Media and Democracy. Another piece just published in the Guardian based on leaked ALEC documents notes that Searle’s connection to the SPN is through its advisor Stephen Moore, an editorial writer at the Wall Street Journal and one of the co-authors of the Rich States, Poor States propaganda.

The money behind the trust comes from the inherited wealth of the late Daniel Searle, who once ran the G.D. Searle pharmaceutical corporation. That corporation, which was acquired by Monsanto in 1985, is largely forgotten. Yet back in the 1980s it was notorious for its Copper-7 birth control device, which was linked to many cases of pelvic infections and infertility. Searle, headed after Daniel Searle’s retirement by Donald Rumsfeld, was found to have been negligent in its testing and marketing of the device.

It is the financial legacy of such corporate irresponsibility which is helping to finance the current rightwing policy agenda. As much as they purport to be forward-looking, today’s corporations supporting that agenda are just as guilty as the Searle Freedom Trust of trying to bring us back to the laissez-faire society of the Gilded Age.

That includes Google, which joined ALEC a couple of months ago (at a time when many corporations are fleeing the group), thus making a mockery of its “do no evil” motto. Equitable public policy, not robotic delivery systems, is what we really need.

Note: The latest addition to my Corporate Rap Sheets collection is about South Korean conglomerate LG and its amazing record of price-fixing scandals.