From Corporate Watchdogs to Corporate Reformers

Corporate America along with its three pawns, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of our government, are slowly driving our nation to ruination. The signs of the rot and ruin are everywhere, not just from sea to shining sea across our land but on foreign land as well. Corporate America and its pawns for self-serving purposes are directly responsible for murderous imperialism on foreign land, for America among industrialized nations having the worst socio-economic conditions, and for harming Americans sometimes fatally through the services and products they buy, the air they breathe, and the water they drink.

Government reforms would go a long way toward slowing our decline and even reversing it eventually. Government reform could take away the enormous favors it bestows on corporate America, favors sometimes so large that they keep otherwise drowning corporations afloat. But government is intransigent and will continue to be corruptible at the hands of corporate America. More attention therefore needs to be turned toward corporate reform.

Furthermore, while corporate America may be too obtuse or complacent to realize it, their own reform may be good for them in the long run. As an organizational psychologist for nearly half a century I know how inefficient the corporate organizational structure is and how poorly corporations are run. Most of them would probably have a very tough going if they lost government handouts and hands-off corporate wrongdoing. A corporation that was properly organized and well run with the proper standards of performance and self accountability ought to be able to make up for its ill begotten profits.

Corporate America: An Overview

Big government is undeniably too big yet it is dwarfed by the number of corporations and their people and is totally overpowered by corporate America (if corporate reform were a success, there would be no excuse for a bloated and massive government). Corporate America is very heterogeneous spread as it is across many different manufacturing and service industries yet has a common goal of advancing itself regardless of the means. There are about 17,000 corporations in corporate America if we arbitrarily define any of its corporate members as having over 500 employees.

Since size, corruption and abusive power usually go together we ought to divide corporations or their industries into three categories of size, small, medium, and large as modified by the scale of harm done and assign reform priorities accordingly.

As big and powerful as it is overall, Corporate America nevertheless accounts for only about 20% of all businesses in America. The rest is referred to as small business, but it is not small in the size of its total workforce. Small business employs far more people than do corporations. Small business, if it would unite into a coordinated counterforce could be a powerful opponent of the entire corpocracy.

Corporate America’s Allies: An Overview

Not counting its “marriage partner,” that is, government, corporate America has many allies it can depend on to further its interests either by supporting and/or accepting them: the touts and shills; the cultists; NGOs; small business; compromised professions and sciences; the bystanders; and even foreign enemies. With the possible exception of the bystanders, an ally benefits directly or indirectly from its explicit or tacit alliance with corporate America. An ally that is explicit and very active in its support of corporate America ought to be considered accomplices in contrast to tacit and passive allies. Any corporate reform strategy must include corporate America’s accomplices or risk being blindsided by them.

Touts and Shills. They are a motley lot of accomplices and the difference between a tout and a shill isn’t always clear cut. Touts (that’s what Winston Churchill called lobbyists) are hired and paid to swarm inside government and lobby it for their clients. Anyone, any organization, any association can be a shill. Even politicians or judges can be shills. As a matter of fact, if you want to call government the biggest shill, I won’t disagree with you.

A shill’s focus is usually not as laser beamed as a tout’s. Shills generally offer paeans to the corpocracy and its conservative, free-market ideological underpinnings. Think of shrill shills like ideologically blinded, ranting and raving radio talk show hosts as an extreme example. Touts, on the other hand, concentrate on getting specific favors for particular corporate members of the corpocracy, be they a certain corporation or a particular industry.

Consider the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an extremely influential shill and tout. As I wrote in the December 13, 2011 issue of OpEdNews.com the USCC was instrumental in furthering the imminent US Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell’s “battle” plan to revive a dormant corporate America. The USCC has been called by the authors of a Washington Post story the “goliath of the lobbying world,” making Big Pharma look like a piker.

Shills that I’ll lump together include: talking-head pundits and the rabble rousers shouting into a mike; “Erudites” squirreled away in think tanks authoring corporate gospel; and “front” groups, whose purpose is to mask corporate intent and consequences and call them what they are not. Then there are in varying shades of shill the business and law schools that mint the new recruits for the managerial and executive ranks throughout corporate America and supply it with lawyers paid well to argue the legality of any corporate action no matter how harmful.

The cultists. One of the most insidious cults is the “cult of growth,” preferably fast growth, every quarter. The cultists in it generally aren’t shrill shills but their views on, and promotion of, unbridled growth sometimes go to the extreme and the actions sometimes condoned for achieving growth go to the extreme. In this cult are mostly mainstream economists, management gurus, and speculative investors and their brokers. There is even a politically activist organization called the “Club of Growth” that is for bridled taxes and unbridled growth.” This cult helps fuel corporate America’s wrongdoing by reinforcing speculative investing, globalization, environmental exploitation and what author Roger Terry in his book calls a kind of “economic insanity.”

Another cult is the conservatives who mostly occupy the right wing of the once proud Republican Party that called Abraham Lincoln its first U.S. President. This Party has become, says the Nobel laureate in economics, Paul Krugman, a strident group of malcontents “acting out of pure spite like a ‘bratty 13-year-old.” They spew provocative and deceitful exhortations and slogans (e.g., “let’s reload,” “don’t tread on me,” “freedom works”) and are against government solutions, particularly social welfare (so miserly it is dwarfed by corporate welfare).

“Anticorpocracy” NGOs. What you see is not necessarily what you get when it comes to the realm of NGOs that purport to be opposed to one or more facets of the corpocracy. In the February 23, 2012 issue of OpEdNews.com I wrote about my frustrating experience in trying to get what I call “two-fisted democracy power” organized and unleashed, and I included profiles of two financially well-endowed and large NGOs that appear to depend more for their existence on the corpocracy’s continuation than on ending it and reclaiming democracy. I had been forewarned about this and so I expect I will encounter many more compromised NGOs as I continue contacting them. If they refuse to unite or at least coordinate their separate government reform initiatives, then putting more emphasis on corporate reform becomes paramount.

Small business. Small business is no longer the backbone of our economy. Its backbone has been crushed. It has become both a victim of, and to some extent a compromised ally, corporate America.

Compromised professions and sciences. Probably the most shameful of this diverse lot are people of the cloth; that is, the religious profession. It is full of “pulpiteers” who mouth scripture and generalities about sin for fear of alienating those in the pews who put profit and power before honor when not in a house of worship. Next would have to be the legal profession, especially its corporate lawyers who specialize, to take an excerpt from the title of Ralph Nader and Wesley Smith’s book, in the “perversion of justice.” Next might be the mainstream journalism profession that has been compromised by the media magnates. I would also not leave out most of the other professions as well as the sciences because they have been compromised in various ways such as receiving government and corporate funding. Society tends to place far too much unguarded trust in the performance of professions and sciences because of their education, training, and standards of performance.

The bystanders. This passive and amorphous lot usually known as the silent majority is the most populous of all the allies. It includes fatalistic people, cowed and fearful people; bamboozled and distracted people; and exhausted people too busy trying to eke out a living.       

Foreign enemies. This is not a mistaken inclusion here. Sociology professor Charles Derber contends in his book, Regime Change begins at Home that “—today’s regime (aka today’s corpocracy) “can survive only by practicing a foreign policy of bad faith that [he calls] ‘marry-your-enemy.’” Carrying out this policy fattens the defense industry, including beefing up its sale of arms (the U.S. is the world’s top arms seller); opens up, protects, and expands corporations’ foreign markets and exploitation of natural resources (oil and minerals) and cheap labor; keeps politicians in office; and distracts the American public from growing socio-economic deterioration at home

Finding the Scoundrels

There are dozens of non-governmental watchdogs monitoring various industries, their corporations, and to some extent their accomplices (e.g. the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, certain think tanks, etc.)

Vetting over 17,000 corporations and countless accomplices (allies that actively aid and abet scoundrel corporations) would be silly. Relying on a random sampling of them would net a catch of scoundrels, but the overall goal of ending the corpocracy and reclaiming democracy obviously must not be left to chance. The best approach would be a coordinated search among many existing watchdog groups.

Here is a suggested plan these groups could follow for vetting corporate America and its accomplices:

1. Set a threshold of wrongdoing. There are so many ethical values and so many harmful ways to breech them that the severity of the harm done needs to be graded, starting with determining whether there is any reasonable evidence that harm has occurred in the first place. For each of the three dimensions of harm — psychological, physical, and economical — there needs to be a consensus on a threshold of harm that excludes immaterial consequences. Determining the thresholds would be very easy to do but necessary. There is plenty enough reform work to do without getting bogged down in trivia.

2. Name the obvious first. Some industries, their corporations, and their allies do not need to be vetted. They are the most rotten apples in the barrel. Offhand, I can think of six. Merchants of death, such as corporations in the “defense” industry would be first. Second would be the nuclear industry and its corporations. Third would be the agribusiness industry because of its poisoning of our food and drinking water. The fourth would be the financial “disservices” industry and its gangsters. The fifth would be the pharmaceutical industry where health often takes a backseat to wealth. The sixth would be certain allies like the trade lobbies (e.g., for the defense and pharmaceutical industries) and the USCC.

3. Vet the rest. Doing this will take some time so this is a good place to mention Jamie Court’s “corporateer quotient” that he wrote about in his book, Corporateering and who is president of Consumer Watchdog. The quotient is derived from answers to 18 questions (e.g., “what percentage of total expenditures is spent on political contributions and trade lobbying”). His questionnaire or some adaptation of it could be used in the vetting process while keeping in mind the complication, as Court does, that not many of the answers are publicly available even though “none of the questions are trade secrets.”

4. Don’t overlook any saints. There surely must be a few honorable exceptions among corpocracy America and its allies who could conceivably serve as inspiring exemplars. The search might turn out embarrassing though. I remember, for example, the pundits who were featured in a business magazine after having extolled Enron very shortly before that corporation imploded from its own misdeeds. An exemplary corporation therefore ought to be one that has passed rigorous screening.

Onward to Corporate Reform

Watchdogs that only watch are nothing more than lapdogs. We Americans ought to have had enough of an over-fed, lazy-fed lapdog that lets corporate America exploit and harm us. Once the vetting is done, therefore, a strategic approach to reforming the scoundrels needs to be planned and pursued.

How Not to Proceed: Three Stories of Mice at the Table with Hungry Cats

Confrontation, collaboration and/or compromise are stances instigators of corporate reform might take toward corrupt industries and their corporations. I will tell you three short stories of collaboration and compromise. The lesson taken from them is that mice should never sit down at the table with hungry cats.

The “apparel industry partnership.” Several unions, human rights groups, and religious groups sat down at the table with the apparel industry to seek a compromise solution on curbing or controlling sweatshops. Guess who got suckered and walked away with nothing?

The Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate Ethics.  Its mission is to bring “together leaders from business and academia to—renew and enhance the link between ethical behavior and business practice through executive education programs, practitioner-focused research and outreach.” Do you know anything about the Business Roundtable? If you do, you know which “partner” carries the day.

Peace through commerce. This is the partial title of a book I reviewed a year ago. Its editor advocates collaborations between multinational corporations and NGOs aimed at reducing violence. The editor lets various contributors illustrate with true stories their collaborations in several different countries.  The cited corporations mostly have a history of corruption and the illustrations clearly tell me that the editor, the NGOs, and the contributors (except for contributors who were executives in corporate PR departments) were hoodwinked.

A Possible Strategy for Instigating Corporate Reform

1. With the exception of the death merchants, for each of the industries and their corporations with records of the most harmful wrongdoing a large strike force cadre of NGOs and the most relevant movement(s) would be established. Where a bona fide movement did not exist the cadre would be responsible for developing one (possibly relying on the guidance of authoritative sources such as Si Kahn and his book Organizing guide for grassroots leaders). A large cadre would also be established for allies that are common to all of the industries such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and think tanks. This strategy of using specific cadres would represent a modified and scaled-down version of my two-fisted democracy proposal.

2.  For each selected industry the corresponding cadre would target specific corporations and any specific allies unique to them. Priorities in order and timing of the confrontations would depend on the behavioral profiles of the corporations and their allies.

3. The different cadres would coordinate their plans and strategies but tailor them as necessary to the specific nature of each target. All of the cadres should collaborate in planning and carrying out a campaign of blitzing the public about their entire venture and soliciting support for it (such as joining in any planned massive demonstrations or boycotts).

Once a cadre was ready it would begin confronting its target corporations/accomplices, escalating the confrontation to a more aggressive stage if the corporation’s response in the previous step was unsatisfactory.

4. In the initial confrontation, regardless of whether the corporation/accomplice had been a target before, a certified letter would be sent to the corporation’s CEO and chair of the board of directors with a copy to any accomplice.

Letters to corporations that have already been confronted by activists would reflect that fact. The letters would also a) present an assessment of each corporation’s profile of  wrongdoing along with a request for a self-assessment to be made such as completing the questionnaire developed by Jamie Court and introduced in his book, Corporateering;  b) make the case for why the corporation should reject the corpocracy and undertake self-reforms such as those I suggested in my first book, Tall Performance from Short Organizations Through We/Me Power and in my most recent book, The Corporacy and Megaliio’s Turn Up Strategy; c) advise the corporation to repair major harms its actions have caused; and d) advise the corporation to resolve whatever longstanding or current issues have already been raised by activist groups. The notice would close by requesting a response within one month and saying the response would influence the cadre’s next steps.

5. Complying corporations, if there are any, would be closely monitored and issued progress reports until, and if, it was cleared by the cadre. Recalcitrant corporations would be hit by a barrage of escalating confrontations that would include massive boycotts, massive protest demonstrations, lawsuits, blitzing the public with publicity, and telling the obsequious, relevant government agencies to get on board pronto with the reformers, not their targets.

Is Corporate Self-reform Realistically Possible?

My answer is “yes” if corporations are aggressively confronted; if they are shown models of properly organized and run corporations, along with any real exemplary corporations; and if the monitoring and pressure never ease or cease until there is the right kind of self reform.

The Special Case of the Death Merchants

I will close with this sobering thought. If the death merchants and their government pawns aren’t stopped. they will eventually be the death of America. This part of the corpocracy is the one part where it will be absolutely imperative to organize and unleash a (civil) war on war. The only way to do this would be to confront not only the “defense” industry but also those parts of our government that depend the most on militarism and endless wars.

Gary Brumback, PhD is a retired psychologist and Fellow of both the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science. He is the author of The Devil’s Marriage: Break Up the Corpocracy or Leave Democracy in the Lurch. His most recent book is The Corpocracy and the Megaliio Corporation’s Turn Up Strategy. Gary can be reached at: democracypower@bellsouth.net. Read other articles by Gary, or visit Gary's website.