Sunday, November 28, 2010

Are There Any Good Corporations?

Chris Hedges, in his article in TruthDig at and in his new book, “Death of the Liberal Class” describes the increasing corporate control of American society and our spiral into fascism.

His writing is lucid and well reasoned. I agree with him almost completely. He speaks the truth.

But it is pretty dreary. Hedges ends the article with "I do not know if we can win this battle" but he urges us to keep on "resisting".

Hedges details how corporate America keeps us divided between meaningless dichotomies and cites Dr. Margaret Flowers, a pediatrician from Maryland who he says was blacklisted by the corporate media and locked out of the debate on health care reform by the Democratic Party and liberal organizations such as MoveOn:

    “The Democrats and the Republicans give the illusion that there are differences between them,” said Dr. Flowers. “This keeps the public divided. It weakens opposition. We fight over whether a Democrat will get elected or a Republican will get elected. We vote for the lesser evil, but meanwhile the policies the two parties enact are not significantly different.

That got me to wondering if we can't also play divide and conquer. Is Corporate America so monolithic? Are there no good corporations? Seem to me that lots of (mostly small) corporations are ethical, operate within the law and support American democracy. How about Apple and Southwest Airlines and Google? Most of the companies I know in the masonry industry are family-owned. For many the image of John Gault seems to be a goal.

Or is it the corporate hierarchical structure that makes corporate America inherently and necessarily at odds with and in contradiction with American ideas about democracy and freedom? As I quoted the New Yorker, writing about Wikileaks back in June: Considering that many corporations are as big and powerful as whole countries, it's instructive to note that in a corporation there is no right to vote, all power emanates from a central committee, there is no balance of power, no fourth estate, no judicial review and no freedom of speech. The economy is centrally planned, there is pervasive surveillance, no right of association and no opposition.

Google seems like a nice corporation. But as they get larger, richer and more powerful and have all this information about everyone, are they destined to become tyrannical?

I wonder if, like Democrats and Republicans, corporations can be categorized or divided and identified by their internal structure, motives or the good intentions of their owners and officers. Or is it all about and only about money?

Even if it is only about money, democracy and the creation of a forum where dissenting ideas can be discussed was thought by 18th century political theorists and by the American Founding Fathers to be a rational way to make decisions for governments. Why not for corporations? If you wanted to make a lot of money and make good decisions in a more of less sustainable way wouldn't democracy and freedom work within a corporation as well as for a government?

Some corporations have and even encourage unions or are collectively owned by their employees. Some may have board meetings and internal policies that reward innovation or even dissent. On the other hand the corporations that seem to be mostly in the news these days appear to be greedy, arrogant and willing to pollute, screw their employees and the public alike and break laws if can't outright make laws favorable to themselves and nobody else. Can we begin to list these corporate features and distinguish between the "good" corporations with democratic and rationalizing structures and "bad" corporations which operate more like North Korea or the Mafia?

Maybe corporate America isn't as monolithic as Hedges supposes and the way to "resist" is to understand these corporate differences and work the contradictions.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Fourth Amendment

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

The main legal gripe we have against the Border Patrol's highway, bus and ferry check points is, we say they are violating the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures without probable cause. We know the Supreme 
Court has made an exception to this right at our borders but the 100 mile extension of our borders that effectively abridges the Fourth Amendment for two thirds of the American population seems overreaching.

Law abiding Americans seem to have trouble understanding any need for the Fourth Amendment. "I'm an American, I'm not breaking any laws, the search only takes a few minutes and maybe it helps protect us from terrorists. What's wrong with these random searches?" Well it certainly irritates and scares a lot of minority Americans who think they are being racially or ethnically profiled when they are pulled over and searched thoroughly while white Americans are waved through. Actually to some white Americans it is reminiscent of police state tactics in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.

But let's look a little deeper. What is the history and the purpose of the Fourth Amendment? Who is it supposed to protect? What's wrong with police state tactics if we are all law-abiding citizens?

Interestingly the protection against unreasonable search and seizure dates back at least to 1603 in England. ''Every man's house is his castle'' was a maxim much celebrated in England when in the 18th century the courts restrained the King's officers from raiding homes looking for John Wilkes' polemical pamphlets without due process. 
So maybe John Wilkes was exercising his right of free speech but in 17th century England the King thought he was guilty of "seditious libel".

In the American colonies, smuggling rather than seditious libel afforded the leading examples of the necessity for protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

So the Fourth Amendment really protects those who criticize the government, evade taxes, smuggle or maybe are guilty of other illegal or unpopular activity. We are back to "What's wrong with these searches if I am not breaking any laws?"

Are you sure you are not breaking any laws? Do you pay all your taxes - even on stuff purchased on the Internet? You wouldn't mind those nice Boarder Patrol officers - or maybe the police or IRS agents coming into your house to check your records would you? And, if you were suspected of not paying a tax on the book you just bought from Amazon or couldn't prove your innocence you wouldn't mind being incarcerated in that private prison in Tacoma with the concertina wire on the fence, would you?

Of course I'm exaggerating. It could never come to that. But there is that flap over the 1099s that the government wants to require to close an estimated $300 billion gap between taxes paid versus what is owed. There was that court case in which the state of North Carolina wanted Amazon to divulge all their customers so that NC could go after them for state sales taxes not paid.

Maybe it's more about draconian and disproportional enforcement. We don't mind so much getting a speeding ticket. And there is always the right to appeal in court if you really are not guilty. But being locked up in a prison for not paying a few dollars in state tax? It'll never happen. Yet a Mexican teenager in Forks who has been in this country nearly all of his life and doesn't even speak Spanish or a Guatemalan woman who has lost her Green Card or let it lapse can be imprisoned, charged with a felony and deported with no recourse short of paying many thousands of dollars in legal fees.

First they came for the Mexicans but I wasn't a Mexican ...

1099 Forms to Catch Tax Dodgers?

A little-noticed provision of the health care overhaul law will require small businesses to file a 1099 form with the Internal Revenue Service if they buy supplies or services worth more than $600 from any vendor - even corporations. The controversy has been over the administrative burden of keeping records and filing 1099s for things like gasoline, office supplies, lunches, etc.

But the interesting question is why anyone ever thought this was a good idea.

"The intent behind the change" according to one insider ( "is to close an estimated $300 billion gap between taxes paid versus what is owed. Because a copy of each 1099 is filed with the IRS, the change seeks to close this gap ... by making it more difficult for companies to underreport revenue ..."

What?! Corporations don't report all their income and don't pay all their taxes? Gee I thought only unlicensed contractors, itinerant painters, undocumented immigrants, landscapers and handymen who give discounts for cash made up the under ground, under the table, cash only please economy. I wonder how much of that $300 billion gap is the drug and insurance companies as opposed to the little guys not reporting all the cash they take in.

I'm trying to make a point here that a lot of Americans and maybe especially corporations cheat on taxes and aren't that different from the Colonial gun runners and tax evaders the Fourth Amendment was intended to protect.

But as a passing aside maybe doing all the work it would require my company to file a few hundred more 1099s would be worth it if it forced Shell Oil, Apple and Pfizer to pay their taxes.