The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) has a problem. It is loaded with corporate money, full of rich fellowships for Washington, D.C. influence peddlers, masquerading as conservatives, who wallow in plush offices figuring out how to assure that big corporations rule the U.S. and the rest of the world.
During the past twenty-two years, the AEI, their nearby corporate patrons, their allied trade associations and corporate “think tanks” have, in effect, taken over the executive branch, the Congress and promoted the judgeships of right-wing corporate lawyers demanding another salary increase.
The Clinton administration hardly slowed their stride. In fact one high official of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce told me that they loved the Clinton government. Why not, under Clinton they got corporate-managed trade called NAFTA and WTO, laws furthering media, telecommunications, agribusiness, banking, brokerage and insurance industry concentration, weak to nonexistent regulation, a chronic softness on corporate crimes against pensioners and small investors, and a pathetically indifferent consumer and labor policy – to name a few surrenders.
What’s left to do? How does the AEI keep its corporate supremacists writing those big checks? How to avoid institutional ennui? Why, go after the liberal or progressive non-governmental associations (NGO’s). Describe them as a collage of Goliaths running an all-points wrecking machine over government and business. Open a theater of the absurd.
On Wednesday, June 11, 2003 the AEI held such a forum on what to do about this burgeoning civic menace, as they contrive it. Speaker after speaker weighed in with their strained fulminations. The room was full, of course, with AEI partisans nodding in agreement. These are the affluent ones who cavil against living wages by janitors who clean their offices, farm workers who harvest their food and hospital workers who care for their parents. These are the fully health-insured comforted ones who assail pleas for universal health insurance for over 45 million American children and adults and those who have contempt for the environmental groups that care about stopping toxic polluters in poorer areas of the country, while living in shrubbered suburbs far from the incinerators and waste dumps.
Here was speaker, Jon Entine of Miami University, describing “capitalism’s trojan horse: reasonable people should be concerned about the growing influence of the social investment community, and its emerging partnership with NGOs, most of which share a knee jerk demonization of corporations and free markets. Its leaders are products of the activist community, yet they are different and more dangerous.”
Whoa! Trying to persuade shareholders to press for more corporate responsibility, in the midst of a corporate crime wave by the managers, is somehow subversive in his mind. How dare the social investment community advise its clients about corporate misbehavior and urge the owners (shareholders) to exercise more control over their own companies.
Nothing quite captures AEI’s intent better than the official AEI statement announcing the conference. Some of its words bear quoting:
NGOs have created their own rules and regulations and demanded that governments and corporations abide by those rules. Many nations’ legal systems encourage NGOs to use the courts – or the specter of the courts – to compel compliance.
Politicians and corporate ledgers are often forced to respond to the NGO media machine, and the resources of taxpayers and shareholders are used in support of ends they did not intend to sanction. The extraordinary growth of advocacy NGOs in liberal democracies has the potential to undermine the sovereignty of constitutional democracies, as well as the effectiveness of credible NGOs.
Has AEI lost contact with reality? This is what democracy is all about – advocating, petitioning, suing, lobbying and urging power centers like government and business to do better. AEI has its own positions, together with its corporate allies doing all this and much more with corporate campaign cash and economic power ultimatums. Somehow, citizen groups, that have no governmental power – either in fact or by purchase – have become a threat to “constitutional democracies.” Has the AEI read our nation’s Bill of Rights? What they are condemning, with vague, ironic regulatory nostrums proposed against dissenting citizen groups, is democracy itself. What the AEIstas prefer is plutocracy.
These corporate think tanks have spent too much time talking to themselves in too comfortable sinecures. They are afflicted by what George Will called “pitiless abstractions” (in a column against anti-air bag interests). They need to visit factories, foundries, mines, hospitals, prisons, slums, trailer parks and small farms for some sensitivity training. Maybe alleviating their chronic empirical starvation will tap some residual humanity that places people before corporations. They might remember that two hundred years ago, the early corporations in New England were chartered by state legislatures to be our servants, not our masters.