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#452 - The Big Problems -- Part 3: Corporate Danger, 26-Jul-1995

Congress has taken hammer and tongs to the nation's health, safety and
environmental laws. In committee hearings, corporate lawyers are
sitting right up there beside members of Congress, dictating the
changes.[1] The chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power,
Dan Schaefer, a Republican from Colorado, says bluntly, "We go to
industry and we ask industry, 'What is it we can do to make your job
easier and to help you in this competitive world we have,' rather than
writing legislation and having industry comment on what we write.'"
There is nothing subtle going on. The "Contract With America" is a
corporate Bill of Rights.

How can the majority of Americans sit by while corporate polluters
openly run Congress? There are at least four reasons:

1) Most Americans feel a deep insecurity, and are focused on their own
problems. Good jobs are disappearing, especially for people without
college degrees (which in 1993 was 78.1% of Americans over age 25).[2]
For young men without college degrees, wages have declined 20% over the
past 20 years at the same time that worker productivity has increased
25%[3] and corporate profits have soared.[4] Employers simply aren't
sharing the wealth as generously as they used to. The old bargain --you
work hard for me and I'll help you take care of your family, including
health care and pension --has been, for the most part, scrapped by the
nation's employers. Now that the bipartisan wisdom of Congress has
given us "free trade" (NAFTA and GATT), American capital can flow
abroad with few restrictions. American workers are now in direct
competition with workers in Bangladesh, Chile, and Mexico. Back home in
the U.S., employers are sitting in the catbird seat, offering low-wage,
part-time and temporary jobs with no benefits --and finding plenty of
desperate takers.

Jobs with employer-paid pensions are pretty much a thing of the past.
[5] Even the pensions that exist have been badly undercut by a series
of Congressional actions during the past decade. The 41 million workers
with traditional company-financed pension plans are in for a rude
awakening when they try to collect in the next century because Congress
has whittled away at their benefits. "The unintended consequence of all
the changes, the experts contend, is a further unraveling of the safety
net that American workers have long counted on for their later years,"
says the NEW YORK TIMES.[6] Unintended? Perhaps. Social Security and
Medicare are now on the Congressional chopping block. Meanwhile, people
are taking second and third jobs to make ends meet and hoping they
don't get sick. In a recent poll by the NEW YORK TIMES and CNN, three
quarters of working people said they believe they will face a
"financial crisis" when they retire. Asked if they believe the Social
Security system will have money in it for them when they retire, only
35% said "yes."[7]

Leisure time is diminishing steadily as people work harder to keep up.
[8] Parents, working more and earning less, have less time to devote to
their children. A study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in 1992 found
that, by 9 "measures of child well-being," conditions for 82% of the
nation's children worsened during the 1980s. "These trends constitute a
pattern of national child and family neglect," the Foundation said.[9]

As a result of all this, many people don't have what it takes to devote
energy and time to civic issues. They have to work to pay down their
credit card, and to figure out how to pay for a little more education
for their children because they sense that, without it, the future for
the next generation is bleak.

In sum, public and private policies, all of which originate in the
board rooms of leading corporations and in the think tanks they employ
to develop winning strategies, now hold a majority of the population in
a cold grip of insecurity. Insecure people tend not to get involved,
and certainly not to rock the boat.

2) Most people also don't know the details of what's going on because
the media don't tell them. It is rare to find serious analysis of what
Congress is doing to the environment and how corporations are calling
the shots. If you scour the NEW YORK TIMES, you can catch disconnected
bits of what's going on, but if you only get your news from TV or a
local paper, you simply won't be able to inform yourself about what's
going on. Of course it is possible that this is accidental.

On the other hand, to a surprising degree the media are owned and
controlled by a tiny corporate elite. The executives who make policy
for most of the mass media in the U.S. would fit into a modest-sized
room. Ben Bagdikian, the retired dean of the School of Journalism at
University of California at Berkeley, has documented for 20 years the
consolidation of media ownership and control into the hands of fewer
and fewer corporations. "It is quite possible --and corporate leaders
predict--that by the 1990s a half-dozen large corporations will own all
the most powerful media outlets in the United States," Bagdikian said
in 1990.[10] His prediction is coming true.

3) When the public encounters an "environmentalist" it is usually a
quotation in a newspaper or a sound byte on TV by a representative of
the Big 10 (sometimes called the Big 15). The big environmental groups
are increasingly identified with the corporate elite. Executives of
these environmental bureaucracies often emulate the corporate elites in
dress, in office furnishings, in speech, in hierarchical style of
organization, in the way they treat their employees, and in the
"messages" of accommodation and appeasement that they put out. A vast
majority of the public (on the order of 77%) doesn't trust ANY visible
leaders (political, corporate, or civic), so to the extent that big
environmental organizations are visible on the policy scene, they are
not trusted.[11] And for good reason: they have shown little sympathy--
or even awareness--over the last two decades for the concerns of
working people, the disenfranchised, and the poor.

4) The real power of the environmental movement has --for more than a
decade --been the locally-based grass-roots activists who are fighting
for their children's health, their property values, and the future of
their communities. A significant portion of the movement is African
American, Hispanic, Native American, and also poor. Now African-
Americans and Hispanics have been targeted by leaders in Congress, and
by other red-necks in suits who call themselves "conservative" (a
misnomer if there ever was one), as a privileged class needing their
privileges revoked.

shows that in 1992 those living in poverty included 24.5 million
whites, or 11.6 percent of the white population; 10.6 million blacks,
or 33.3 percent of the black population, and 6.7 million Hispanics, or
29.3 percent of the Hispanic population.

Keep in mind, too, that many of the poor are children. For example,
half (51.4%) of the 27.3 million people receiving food stamps are
children.[12] Twenty-one percent of all children in the U.S. live in
families in poverty.[13]

As if poverty isn't difficult enough by itself, African-Americans and
Hispanics are being targeted in numerous other ways. Bob Herbert, a
columnist for the NEW YORK TIMES, summarized it recently: "Voting
rights are under attack with the goal of ousting black representation
from government. The always shaky edifice of affirmative action is
being dismantled by folks who argue with a straight face that not only
has life's playing field been leveled, but that it is now tilted in
favor of blacks. Education and job training are being scuttled. Funding
for summer jobs and other youth programs is being dropped. Support and
funding for public school systems with large black enrollments is
eroding. Plans are being drawn to deny unwed mothers and their babies
even the most minimal government assistance. Food is being taken from
the tables of the poor, shelter is being denied to homeless people, and
efforts are under way to close the doors of hospitals that treat the

Because no overarching national organization has developed to give
expression to the combined vision of the grass-roots environmental
movement, there has been no organized national environmental response
to the Congressional offensive against people of color and the
environment. The strength of the grass-roots lies in its local bases,
but therein also lies its weakness because the movement remains
fragmented, unable to speak with one coherent, angry voice.

Probing even more deeply into our sea of troubles, a recent letter in
the NEW YORK TIMES summarized the contemporary situation: "...The core
issue of our time [is]: How can you have a stable, safe society when
the labor of a large and increasing segment of society is not needed?
The real meaning of the 'deindustrialization' of the formerly
'industrialized' societies is that there are no more jobs for those who
are not highly educated or entrepreneurial.

"Economic productivity has created a large, permanent class of those
whom society cannot use and does not respect. We have marginalized
those who would once have been productive factory workers and
agricultural workers.

"Further economic forces are now marginalizing portions of the middle
class, as corporations have discovered that they no longer need the
labor of this segment of society either. The results will not be

But make no mistake. Those "economic forces" have names and faces. They
have intentions. And they operate through the legal form called the
corporation. They are enriching themselves, harming the health and the
substance of the nation, answerable to no one.

American institutions of self-governance are premised on every member
of society having a stake in the outcome. With that premise canceled
out by corporate policies, how long can our institutions stand? This is
a real danger.

--Peter Montague


[1] George Miller, "Authors of the Law," NEW YORK TIMES May 24, 1995,
pg. A21.

D.C.: U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1995), Table 232.

[3] Paul Krugman, "Long-term Riches, Short-term Pain," NEW YORK TIMES
September 25, 1994, pg. F9.

[4] Roger Lowenstein, "The '20% Club' No Longer Is Exclusive," WALL
STREET JOURNAL May 4, 1994, pg. C1, writes: "In the first quarter, the
average ROE [return on equity] of the Standard & Poor's 500 companies
hit 20.12%. This... represents the highest level of corporate
profitability in the postwar era, and probably since the latter stages
of the Bronze Age."

[5] For example, see Fran Hawthorn, "Thought About Your Pension? You
Will," NEW YORK TIMES August 27, 1994, pg. A23.

[6] David Cay Johnston, "From Washington, The Fading Pension," NEW YORK
TIMES May 4, 1995, pg. D1.

[7] Louis Uchitelle, "Another Day Older and Running Out of Time," NEW
YORK TIMES March 26, 1995, pgs. F1, F4.

LEISURE (New York: Basic Books, 1991).

[9] "Report Says Poor Children Grew Poorer in 1980s," NEW YORK TIMES
March 24, 1992, pg. A22.

[10] Ben H. Bagdikian, MEDIA MONOPOLY 3rd Edition. (Boston: Houghton
Mifflin, 1990), pgs. 3-4.

[11] William Glaberson, "A Poll Finds the Public More Cynical Than
Journalists About Leaders," NEW YORK TIMES May 22, 1995, pg. D7.

[12] Associated Press, "U.S. Study Shows Half of Food-Stamp Recipients
Are Children," NEW YORK TIMES November 25, 1994, pg. A25.

[13] Susan Chira, "Study Confirms Worst Fears on Children," NEW YORK
TIMES April 12, 1994, pgs. A1, A13.

[14] Bob Herbert, "Renewing Black America," NEW YORK TIMES July 14,
1995, pg. A25.

[15] Seth Ullman, "Let's Recognize the Alarming Disappearance of
Unskilled Jobs [Letter to the Editor]," NEW YORK TIMES November 20,
1994, pg. A14.

Descriptor terms: congress; legislation; employment statistics;
leisure; income statistics; children; media; jobs; civil rights;