For more than 100 years Americans have expressed deep suspicion about the excessive powers of big business. Farmers pushed for political reforms and anti-monopoly laws early in this century. A few years later factory workers demanded industrial safety laws, an end to child labor and the right to organize.
After World War II there arose the civil rights, consumer and environmental movements—all of which focused in part on curbing the abuse of corporate power and influence.
In all these citizen efforts there was one underlying theme—that large corporations cannot be allowed vast political and economic powers over people if only because these companies measure their performance overwhelmingly by the dollar. And the corporate dollar cannot be the measure of all things—such as justice, peace, health, safety, liberty, expression and other virtues of a democratic society.
A few days ago I came across an article in the Wall Street Journal which illustrates the enduring nature of the dollar-doused myopia of many major corporations. If the executives quoted in this telling report are willing to voice these views publicly to a newspaper, one can only imagine what they think in private.
It is best to quote the relevant paragraphs from the article (Wall Street Journal, Dec. 21, 1981) so that you can receive the full flavor of these corporate oligarchs’ mindset:
“President Reagan may denounce events in Poland, but many U.S. bankers see Soviet-style authoritarianism as their best hope for recovering the $1.3 billion that Poland owes them.
“Most bankers think authoritarian governments are good because they impose discipline,’ said an executive at a bank with millions of dollars in Polish loans.’Every time there’s a coup d’etat in Latin America there’s much rejoicing and knocking at the door offering credit.’
“Though few bankers will concede it publicly, many are hoping that a strong Polish government backed by the Soviet Union, or perhaps the Soviets themselves, will pay off the rest of the $500 million in interest due Western banks. The bankers insist the interest must be paid before they will discuss rescheduling the $2.4 billion of principal and interest due this year.
“What bank executives say is that their business relationship with Poland requires them to abstain from showing political preferences.’Who knows which political system works?’ said Thomas Theobald, senior executive vice president in charge of Citibank’s international division. ‘The only test we care about is: Can they pay their bills?’ “
There you have it, liberals and conservatives—the essence of the corporate philosophy in practice. Imagine the Polish people getting that message over the Voice of America—a highly unlikely event!
Earlier this year, a similar display of cynical corporatism operated on Polish Americans and blacks in Detroit. General Motors saw to it that 3,500 people were displaced, along with the destruction of their homes, small businesses, schools, hospital and 14 churches. The area—known as Poletown in eastern Detroit—was demolished by an indentured city government to make way for a possible Cadillac factory and the huge taxpayer subsidies that GM demanded as a precondition.
For many of the people in Poletown, the question was not just “Can they pay their bills?” but whether they could survive.
In the past generation, large corporations have shown they can violate laws with impunity, corrupt the political system, pollute the workplace and outside environment, defraud consumers, receive huge public subsidies, distort the tax system in their favor and reap massive profits from publicly owned resources like public lands.
But these same companies warded off reform by dint of a growing economy. No more. The Fortune 500 are not delivering the jobs; they are taking many of them overseas and mismanaging many plants in this country. Were it not for small businesses—the principle innovator and new job producer in this country—the economy would be in total depression.
It is time for a national debate on big business. Full-scale congressional hearings—like those held by the Temporary National Economic Commission in the late 1930s—need to be held. For if people are going to be able to pay their bills, big business needs to start paying its dues. Giving up some of its powers to pillage the economy and strip the American spirit of its historic role would be two good places to start.