A Toxic Stew: Corporate Power and Detestation of Government



Nicholas Kristof in today’s New York Times  , “Chemicals in Your Popcorn?” bemoans the American failure to regulate industrial toxins. He points out several things:

1. Corporations spend huge amounts of money lobbying against regulations that would harm their profits.

2. The United States is an extremist country with respect to the paucity of regulations governments impose on private sector organizations.

3. Industrial toxins seep into our bodies with invisible, deadly effects.

But this kind of article, so well-intentioned is superficial.

Of course, the United States will choke on industrial chemicals instead of restricting their use in any meaningful way.

First, when a culture does not recognize that the profit motive is a useful instrument only when countervailing powers restrain it, that culture can hardly be surprised when firms do whatever they can to save money. If those actions kill thousands of people, well they do. If those actions create obstacles to the survival of the species, well they do. “Who knows anyway?  Maybe eventually there will be a technological fix.”

Second, when a culture does not acknowledge the destruction of its democracy by the effect of inequality and the gigantic scope of the modern corporation on its legislative and electoral systems, how can it be surprised when financially successful people and organizations create a political process that advances their interests at the peril of the interests of everyone else? Of course, their lobbying efforts will make a joke out of a “one person-one vote” conception of democracy.

Third, when a culture fails to appreciate the potential benefits of a government forced to behave in a manner that assists the vulnerable by an empowered and energized and literate citizenry, what countervailing power to entrenched wealth and influence does that culture have in mind?  Of course, such a culture will have emasculated regulatory policies.

To better appreciate this last point, ask yourself the last time you heard a successful politician in our country advocate a larger role for government in controlling the effects of the profit motive. Our “left wing” politicians upon election rush to Wall Street to assure them that Wall Street has nothing to fear from their future legislative proposals. Or remind yourself how carefully the Obama Administration self-consciously avoided the word “redistribution” when speaking about Obamacare. For the government to reshuffle financial power after the market has provided the “correct” distribution would be disastrous because in our culture we all know that the government would always get the redistribution wrong. Wouldn’t it?

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