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Eyes on the power

During a taping of Michael Moore’s Bravo cable TV series, "The Awful Truth" that I attended in Chicago, the show’s affable host posed a question.

"Who controls the world, governments or corporations?" he shouted to a crowd of almost a thousand.

"Corporations!," thundered the almost unanimous reply.

Of the world’s largest 100 economies, 51 are corporations, not countries. As the most powerful institution of our time, multinational corporations dominate not just global economics, but politics and culture as well.

Co-authors Robert Weissman and Russell Mokhiber, in their book, Corporate Predators: The Hunt for Mega-Profits and the Attack on Democracy (Common Courage Press, 1999), make the case that the power of these companies benefits mostly the wealthy and distorts the political process.

Mokhiber edits Corporate Crime Reporter, a Washington, D.C.-based legal weekly, while Weissman produces the Multinational Monitor from the same city. They jointly write the syndicated column, "Focus on the Corporation."

The Metro Times spoke with Weissman at his Washington office.

Metro Times: How do you think the American people view corporations?

Robert Weissman: People have conflicted feelings about corporations. On one hand, there is no question corporations deliver products and certain benefits to society. Also, they are effective in promoting themselves and their products through their propaganda so it affects people’s impressions of them.

On the other hand, there is a reasonable and justified suspicion among the general public of corporate power’s distortion of the political process, their selling of shoddy and dangerous products, and their efforts to bust unions and slash wages.

MT: Is the effect of corporate predators worse here or in other countries?

Weissman: The worst abuses, of course, are inflicted on the most vulnerable people, and the most vulnerable are the most powerless, and the most powerless people live in the Third World. So, examples of egregious behavior are much worse in developing countries and in vulnerable communities especially indigenous ones. Oil companies dump oil, poison rivers and destroy livelihoods in the process for tens of thousands of indigenous people as Texaco has done in Ecuador or Chevron and Exxon has in Indonesia. They do things in those countries they could never get away with in the United States because we have more institutionalized types of accountability built in and stronger citizens’ movements that have the ability to respond to abuses like that.

MT: Is the sole motivation cold, hard cash? Is there no concern for the environment or people threatened by their policies?

Weissman: I think it is that cold, but I think it’s a mistake to psychologize it. The problem lies with the structure of corporations which is inherent in their nature and huge size. Corporations exist for the purpose of making profit; that is their only reason for existing and they will do almost anything to make a profit unless society says we’re going to put restraints on them. One of the arguments in our book is that we need to have many more checks. The reason we don’t have more is that corporations are so good at influencing the political process to stop those things from being imposed on them.

MT: It was an article of faith during the Reagan and Bush administrations that restrictions on the free market would harm the economy.

Weissman: Corporations don’t believe in free markets. We have an example in the book from Archer Daniels Midland, which recently paid a $100 million dollar fine for illegal pricefixing, where a longtime executive said that no corporate manager believes there are free markets especially in the agriculture industry. (Note: Following this interview, two ADM executives were sentenced to two years in prison for fixing prices in the worldwide lysine market.)

There are massive interferences in the free market, but only on behalf of corporate powers. General Motors doesn’t believe in a free market such that it should pay the same tax rate as the citizens in Michigan. They demand all kinds of preferential treatment, all kinds of tax abatements. There’s a corporate welfare budget in the United States that vastly exceeds the budget for poor people probably on the order of $200 billion a year.

MT: How do American corporations relate to labor in the Third World?

Weissman: The reason corporations are moving abroad is to a considerable extent to take advantage of cheap labor. They’re always looking to cut wage costs, but it varies by industry how vicious they are in doing that. The auto industry is happy to go to Mexico, for example, and pay workers there a tenth of what they’re getting paid in the United States, but that’s still maybe two dollars an hour. Whereas a company like Nike is operating in Indonesia or Vietnam or China and paying workers two dollars a day.

MT: What are the nature of the crimes your co-author ascribes to corporations that can fill a weekly publication?

Weissman: People think about street crime when they hear the word crime, but corporate crime vastly outdistances street crime by any measure. For example, the FBI estimates that there are 19,000 homicides on an annual basis. But there are 60,000 workplace deaths due to injuries and illness every year, so, by that one measure, corporate crime is much greater. There are 450,000 tobacco-related deaths. There are tens of thousands of lives lost in auto accidents, many of them preventable, and on down the line. It’s the same thing when you look at the costs in dollar terms. There’s about $200 billion-$300 billion in medical care fraud a year and that is much greater than the cost of street burglaries and robbery.

MT: But isn’t street crime done intentionally, while the others you mention are simply the costs of living in a modern, industrial world?

Weissman: Corporate fraud and crime is also done intentionally with malice aforethought and conscious planning. Just to go back to the Archer Daniels Midland example. They were engaging in a price-fixing conspiracy that cost consumers a billion dollars. That was entirely premeditated, at least as premeditated as a drug addict holding up somebody on the street.

If corporations are engaged in activities that are going to have a foreseeable harm, where they know what the outcome is going to be and they don’t do anything to prevent the harm, that’s really just as bad as affirmatively trying to cause a harm in the first place. That’s particularly true in the case of workplace harms which are to a considerable extent preventable by more investment in health and safety measures, but are not undertaken because they would cost companies on the bottom line.