October 05, 2008

Metastasis Corporations, Globalization

Walmart's growth, visualized.

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February 08, 2008

With A Fountain Pen Corporations, Globalization  Energy  Peak Oil

Richard Heinberg (via EnergyBulletin) calls attention to an extraordinary clause in the NAFTA agreement:

There is a strange clause in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that applies to only one country — Canada. The clause states that Canada must continue to supply the same proportion of its oil and gas resources to the US in future years as it does now. That's rather a good deal for the US: it formalizes Canada's status as a resource satellite of its imperial hub to the south.

From a Canadian perspective there are some problems with the arrangement, though. First is the fact that Canada's production of natural gas and conventional oil is declining. Second is that Canada uses lots of oil and gas domestically: 70 percent of Canadians heat their homes with gas, and Canadians drive cars more and further than just about anyone else. The problem is likely to come first with natural gas; as production declines, there will come a point when there isn't enough to fill domestic needs and continue to export (roughly 60 percent of Canada's gas now goes to the US).

That point is not decades in the future, it is fairly imminent.

What happens when Canadians can no longer drive their cars or heat their homes because NAFTA forces them to export the oil and gas they need for their own use? Will they say, hey, no problem, we'll just sit here in the dark and cold? Would you?

It's not often discussed, but a key subtext of the push for international trade agreements has been the "developed" nations' desire to lock in access to the rest of the world's natural resources. But sooner or later, push'll come to shove. People in countries that have their own energy resources are going to wonder how their leaders managed to sign away control.

One thinks of the Woody Guthrie song:

Yes, as through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

In this case, the guys with fountain pens have most of the world's guns, too.

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October 08, 2007

The Secret History Of The War On Cancer Corporations, Globalization  Ethics  Science/Technology

Over the weekend, I picked up a new book called The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Devra Davis, an epidemiologist who heads the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh. It looked like something I'd want to write about on the blog, but who knows how soon I'll get to it. So many books, so little time. But today, Salon comes to the rescue with a review and interview. This is a long excerpt, but it's important:

Davis, who is a professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and formerly served in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, argues that the United States' $40 billion "war on cancer" has focused far too much on treatment, and not nearly enough on prevention....For instance, in the late '60s, three years after the surgeon general declared that smoking causes cancer, the United States spent $30 million of taxpayer money to create a safer cigarette, essentially doing the tobacco companies' research and development for them. Needless to say, this effort failed, but it succeeded in giving the tobacco companies cover, assuring smokers that a safer cigarette was just around the corner.

Davis argues that again and again, from tobacco to benzene to asbestos, the profit motive has trumped concerns about public health, delaying, sometimes for decades, the containment of avoidable hazards. And, as in the current scientific "debate" about global warming, the legitimate need for ongoing scientific research about many possible carcinogens has been exploited by industry to promote the idea that there's really no need to worry.

In "The Secret History of the War on Cancer," we meet one of the foremost epidemiologists of the 20th century, who is revealed after his death to have been on the take from Monsanto to the tune of $1,500 a day, and we visit the site of former towns that have literally disappeared, like Times Beach, Mo., which since being declared a toxic waste site, has been incinerated, reduced to some grass, geraniums and tulips -- the only signs that anyone ever once lived there. [...]

Salon: In the U.S., one out of every two men and one out of every three women will develop cancer in their lifetimes....Testicular cancer in men under age 40 has risen 50 percent in a decade. What are the theories about why there might be such a radical increase?

Davis: In the United States and Japan, there has been a significant decline in the birth of baby boys. What does this have to do with testicular cancer? Well, there's a theory of testicular dysgenesis, which means that there is something on the Y chromosome that is transmitted to boys that is affecting their overall health, and it may affect whether or not a boy sperm works to fertilize an egg...And these things are likely to be related to early life exposures to hormone-mimicking chemicals....There's recently been a report from the Arctic Assessment of many more girls than boys being born. If something is affecting such an exquisitely sensitive part of human biology, then what else is it doing to us?

Salon: When we read about a study that says XYZ substance causes cancer in rats, how should we interpret it?

Davis: We differ from rodents by about 300 genes. That's it. The differences aren't nearly as big as some people would like you to think.

We use animal research to develop drugs. But when it comes to evidence that something causes cancer in an animal, something that might be used in our schools and homes, we say: "Well, wait. We better get proof of human harm." How can we say that we'll rely on animal studies when we're trying to invent drugs, and then deny their relevance to us when we're trying to predict, and prevent, human harms?

Salon: What's the alternative?

Davis: The alternative is to do experiments on people, or worse, which is what we are doing -- a vast uncontrolled experiment. We will never be able to answer many of these questions, because there is no control group. Who isn't exposed to cellphones? Who isn't exposed to aspartame? Who's not exposed to solar radiation? And that makes it very difficult to do studies of human health consequences. It really does. [...]

Salon: Why do you have concerns about aspartame, the artificial sweetener in many soft drinks and other low-calorie foods? [...]

Davis: In 1977, Richard Merrill, who later became dean of the University of Virginia Law School, was the chief counsel of the Food and Drug Administration, and he formally asked the U.S. attorney to convene a grand jury to decide whether or not to indict the producer of aspartame, G.D. Searle, for misrepresenting "findings, concealing material facts and making false statements" in aspartame safety tests.

This is not some left-wing group. This is the actual chief counsel of the FDA asking the U.S. attorney's office to convene a grand jury. It never happened, because by the time the grand jury was ready to be convened we had a new president. That president was Reagan, and within a month of Reagan taking office, he had a proposal from a guy you might have heard of named Donald Rumsfeld [who was then chief operating officer of Searle].

And Jan. 22, 1981, one day after Reagan's inauguration -- one day -- Searle reapplied for FDA approval. Prior to that, every single request for approval was turned down by all the scientists ever looking at the data. That's a fact. There's no dispute about that fact. And then, it gets approved May 19, 1981.

Remember what happened with the Reagan revolution? It was: "We need to get the government off our backs." One of the backs it got off of was suppressing the aspartame industry. Later, many of the people who worked at the FDA to evaluate aspartame ended up going to work for the company producing it. [...]

The thing that I'm most concerned about is the latest study from Italy. A typical rat study runs two years; that would be getting your rat to about my age: 60. People live now to their 90s. This study started their exposure when they were babies, like what we do now in the United States with aspartame, and let the rats live out their natural lifetimes until they were 3 years old.

And when they did that they found a significant increase in tumors that occurred only in that third year of life. Of course, the European Food Safety Authority, which sounds very independent, says the study is worthless. But I looked up the background on the people involved with the European Food Safety Authority, and many of them work directly for the food industry.

The Ramazzini Foundation, a toxicology institute, which did the study, is not known to be radical. Unlike most other sources of information in toxicology, it's truly independent. It is not funded by Monsanto. And what they found is that there is significant increase in lymphomas and leukemia, and that the increase comes not from consuming 800 cans of soda a day, but from consuming fairly moderate amounts of aspartame in these animals' lifetimes. They had 1,800 animals, and some of them were just consuming the equivalent of two cans of soda a day, two yogurts, 10 pieces of chewing gum. And at that level of consumption, there was a significant increase in cancer, and it only showed up in older rats.

Salon: How have recent court rulings made it harder to try to prevent cancer?

Davis: We have gone backward since the '70s. In the '70s, in the decision on lead in gasoline, the court said we could use experimental evidence that something was a threat to human health in order to prevent harm. The court repeatedly ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency could use theories, models and estimates to prevent harm.

Now, we have to prove that harm has already happened before taking action to prevent additional harm. In the area of cancer this is a travesty, since most cancer in adults takes five, 10, 20 or 30 years [to develop]. It means that we have no opportunity to prevent cancer, because we must prove through human evidence that it's already happened....Ninety percent of all claims now for toxic torts are denied. [...]

I'm very, very concerned about the overuse of diagnostic radiation, especially in children. For example, CT scans [CAT scans] of the head and the abdomen. Now, obviously if you have a child with a potentially fatal head injury or a stomach bleed, you can use a CT scan.

Most people don't realize that a CT scan to the head of a baby can give you between 200 and 4,000 chest X-rays at once. And therefore they should be used in a much more limited way. And guess who agrees with me? The American College of Radiology has called for reducing the use of diagnostic radiation in children. [...]

[P]olar bears in the Arctic are showing up as hermaphrodites with toxic waste in their bodies that would qualify them for burial in a hazardous waste site. How do you think that they're getting exposed to these pollutants? They don't work at factories. But they are at the top of the polar food chain, and pollutants go up through the food chain stored in fat from the little fish to the big fish to the walrus to the polar bear. Ultimately, they're making it very clear that pollutants don't need passports, and that you can't ban toxic materials in one nation. It has to be a global policy. [...]

I've developed a theory of Xeno estrogen, named for the Greek word for "foreign." Basically, all of the risk factors that have been identified for breast cancer, except radiation, are related to the total lifetime exposure to hormones. So, the earlier in life you get your period and the later in life you go through menopause, the more hormones you're exposed to in your lifetime, and the greater your risk of breast cancer. The more alcohol you drink in your lifetime -- alcohol is highly estrogenic -- the greater your risk of breast cancer. The less exercise you get -- exercise lowers the amount of circulating estrogen -- the more estrogen in your life. The more fat in your body, the more estrogen, because fat is estrogenic. [...]

Why are more young girls going into puberty at an earlier age? Why are more young girls developing breasts? There are several reasons to think that hormones in personal care products may be playing a role, particularly for breast cancer in young black women.

Some black baby girls were found to have breasts between ages 1 and 3, and when Dr. Chandra Tiwary, who was a pediatric endocrinologist with the Air Force at Brooks Air Force Base, interviewed the mothers he found out the mothers were all putting a cream on the girls' scalps. And we don't know what the hell for sure was in all those creams then, but Dr. Tiwary found when the mother stopped using the cream, the breasts went away.

If something is making the breasts grow in a baby, what is it doing to others in terms of promoting growth at the wrong time, or promoting an improper or excessive amount of breast growth that could lead to cancer?

Salon: Why are you concerned about cellphones?

Davis: I can't tell you that cellphones are safe, and I can't tell you that they are harmful. That's the problem. The reason I can't is that there isn't really independent information, and the cellphone industry has been so quick to spin information.

Studies that you hear about that don't find a risk are often extremely limited, like the Danish Cancer Study. That's a ridiculous study. Anybody who used a cellphone for work was kicked out of the study, which is crazy, because those are the highest users. And they put all of these people together who were not using it for business -- the high users, the low users -- and they didn't find anything.

A study just released from France showed that people who used a cellphone for 10 or more years have double the risk of brain cancer. And people who owned two or more cellphones had more than double the risk of brain cancer. The level of this increase wasn't what we call statistically significant, but that doesn't mean that it wasn't important. [Emphasis added]

Something I've been thinking about a lot lately is the way we all hear things that ought to fundamentally adjust our way of thinking about the world, but with all the other input that's flooding our attention, most of it utterly trivial, the important thing soon fades from awareness. It's not forgotten exactly, but it's no longer in the foreground, and it's certainly not acted on.

For example. We all know that cigarette companies worked for decades to suppress information linking smoking and cancer. But we don't fully take on board the implications. These actions were taken by ordinary human beings in a corporate setting. The group-think and peer pressure of the workplace, the desire to get ahead or even just to put food on the table, the boundless human capacity for denial and rationalization, these things were enough to cause ordinary people to conspire in activities that killed many thousands of their company's customers. But here's the thing: there was nothing special about tobacco companies. Any number of modern corporations have similar internal dynamics, with similar results. So we shouldn't be surprised to learn that any number of other corporations have knowingly downplayed or falsified information about the harmful effects of their products. This is what happens when you have powerful institutions whose sole guiding principle is to maximize profit. The tobacco company story is repeated over and over again. Connect the dots.

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September 28, 2007

The Mother Of All Shocks Black Ops  Corporations, Globalization  War and Peace

I'm reading Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, and I think it's an enormously important book. One of those books that can fundamentally restructure your mental model of how the world works. A real paradigm shift. I'll have more to say about it later. Still reading.

In the meantime, John Cusack does a good video interview with Klein, here. Go watch it.

The thesis, in a nutshell, is that recent history has seen a series of conscious, highly-organized efforts to exploit shocks — economic catastrophes, natural disasters, wars, 9/11, Katrina — to jam through "reforms" that people would never tolerate otherwise. Economic shock therapy, suspension of civil liberties, the Patriot Act and Gitmo, etc., etc. But above all, disaster capitalism — privatization of all kinds of formerly public functions, extending now even to privatized war-fighting. Enormous fortunes are being made by companies that now have a vested interested in more and bigger catastrophes. And it's not only about dollars. Each shock drives us further to the right politically. In the event of another shock of national scope — another 9/11, or worse — the groundwork has been laid to fundamentally alter just about everything about how the US government functions and the rights of US citizens.

Which brings us to Iran. I've been generally skeptical that Bush/Cheney will, when all is said and done, attack Iran. I've reported the warning signs, because I think that's the responsible thing to do, but I've been skeptical. Because the results of such an attack would be cataclysmic. Surely, they're not that reckless, that self-destructive, that crazy.

One of Past Peak's readers, however, raises a terrifying question: what if that very cataclysm is the desired result. The mother of all shocks, the one that will let our world be remade in undreamed of ways, practically overnight. The mother of all shocks — but in the eyes of some, the mother of all opportunities. I'm not saying it will happen, but here's the point. Should it happen, don't let yourself be swept away in the tide of shock and horror. Don't let yourself be paralyzed by fear. Realize what you are witnessing: the deliberate instigation of a catastrophe for the purpose of creating a window where anything goes. Keep your wits about you. Recognize the shock doctrine and disaster capitalism when you see them.

That's the ultimate importance of Naomi Klein's work: a psychological innoculation before-the-fact, so that next time we won't sit by dumb-founded as the jackals move in to pick our bones clean.

Even better, let's not sit by passively beforehand and just let the shock come. War with Iran is madness. We must prevent it.

[Thanks, Miles]

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September 26, 2007

Privatizing War Corporations, Globalization  Iraq  War and Peace

A startling piece of information from John Robb. Private military contractors probably provide almost as many "trigger pullers" in Iraq as the entire US military does:

There are currently 20,000 PMC [Private Military Company] trigger pullers in Iraq. These men are guarding facilities and key people across the country. This is likely nearly the same number of trigger pullers (as opposed to support personnel) as the entire US military currently has in the country. Without these men, the US military would barely be able to field a force large enough to patrol Baghdad. [Emphasis added]

Privatization of war-fighting is bad news for a variety of reasons. It undermines democracy, because it is infinitely easier to sell a war that's fought by mercenaries than one fought by uniformed soldiers that people still think of as their sons and daughters. It removes accountability for the conduct of the fighting, since the contractors are not bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It supports the creation of standing private armies and fosters the further militarization of domestic law enforcement. And it creates a built-in constituency for more war. When war is a profit center, the obvious way to grow profits is to promote war. When PMCs have soldiers on the ground (not just in Iraq, but in many hotspots around the world), they have all sorts of opportunities to drum up business.

Where is this all headed? LA Times:

[Erik] Prince, the former Navy SEAL who founded Blackwater, is straightforward about his company's goal: "We're trying to do for the national security apparatus what FedEx did for the Postal Service."

Since FedEx rendered the post office irrelevant for all but the most trivial forms of mail, this means you can kiss our national security apparatus goodbye. [Emphasis added]

The Founders considered any form of standing army a grave threat to liberty. And now we're going to convert much of the standing army into a profit-making enterprise under private control.

Whatever else corporations are, they are undemocratic: what the boss says, goes. And corporations are committed to maximizing growth. So when corporations have armies — when corporations are armies — how can it end well?

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September 24, 2007

A Shameful Racket Corporations, Globalization

Some things simply don't work as unregulated, for-profit activities. NYT:

Habana Health Care Center, a 150-bed nursing home in Tampa, Fla., was struggling when a group of large private investment firms purchased it and 48 other nursing homes in 2002.

The facility's managers quickly cut costs. Within months, the number of clinical registered nurses at the home was half what it had been a year earlier...Budgets for nursing supplies, resident activities and other services also fell. [...]

The investors and operators were soon earning millions of dollars a year from their 49 homes.

Residents fared less well. Over three years, 15 at Habana died from what their families contend was negligent care in lawsuits filed in state court. Regulators repeatedly warned the home that staff levels were below mandatory minimums. When regulators visited, they found malfunctioning fire doors, unhygienic kitchens and a resident using a leg brace that was broken.

"They've created a hellhole," said Vivian Hewitt, who sued Habana in 2004 when her mother died after a large bedsore became infected by feces.

Habana is one of thousands of nursing homes across the nation that large Wall Street investment companies have bought or agreed to acquire in recent years.

Those investors include prominent private equity firms like Warburg Pincus and the Carlyle Group, better known for buying companies like Dunkin' Donuts.

As such investors have acquired nursing homes, they have often reduced costs, increased profits and quickly resold facilities for significant gains.

But by many regulatory benchmarks, residents at those nursing homes are worse off, on average, than they were under previous owners,. [...]

The Times analysis shows that, as at Habana, managers at many other nursing homes acquired by large private investors have cut expenses and staff, sometimes below minimum legal requirements.

Regulators say residents at these homes have suffered. At facilities owned by private investment firms, residents on average have fared more poorly than occupants of other homes in common problems like depression, loss of mobility and loss of ability to dress and bathe themselves, according to data collected by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. [...]

In the past, residents' families often responded to such declines in care by suing, and regulators levied heavy fines against nursing home chains where understaffing led to lapses in care.

But private investment companies have made it very difficult for plaintiffs to succeed in court and for regulators to levy chainwide fines by creating complex corporate structures that obscure who controls their nursing homes.

By contrast, publicly owned nursing home chains are essentially required to disclose who controls their facilities in securities filings and other regulatory documents. [...]

When Mrs. Hewitt sued Habana over her mother's death, for example, she found that its owners and managers had spread control of Habana among 15 companies and five layers of firms.

As a result, Mrs. Hewitt's lawyer, like many others confronting privately owned homes, has been unable to establish definitively who was responsible for her mother's care. [...]

The typical large chain owned by an investment company in 2005 earned $1,700 a resident, according to reports filed by the facilities. Those homes, on average, were 41 percent more profitable than the average facility. [...]

"The first thing owners do is lay off nurses and other staff that are essential to keeping patients safe," said Charlene Harrington, a professor at the University of California in San Francisco who studies nursing homes. In her opinion, she added, "chains have made a lot of money by cutting nurses, but it's at the cost of human lives." [...]

[W]hen Mrs. Hewitt's lawyer, Sumeet Kaul, began investigating Habana's corporate structure, he discovered that its complexity meant that even if she prevailed in court, the investors' wallets would likely be out of reach.

Others had tried and failed. In response to dozens of lawsuits, Formation and affiliates of Warburg Pincus had successfully argued in court that they were not nursing home operators, and thus not liable for deficiencies in care.

Formation said in a statement that it was not reasonable to hold the company responsible for residents, "any more, say, than it would be reasonable for a landlord who owns a building, one of whose tenants is Starbucks, to be held liable if a Starbucks customer is scalded by a cup of hot coffee." [...]

Advocates for nursing home reforms say anyone who profits from a facility should be held accountable for its care. [...]

[E]ven when regulators do issue fines to investor-owned homes, they have found penalties difficult to collect.

"These companies leave the nursing home licensee with no assets, and so there is nothing to take," said Scott Johnson, special assistant attorney general of Mississippi. [...]

Last year, Formation sold Habana and 185 other facilities to General Electric for $1.4 billion. A prominent nursing home industry analyst, Steve Monroe, estimates that Formation's and its co-investors' gains from that sale were more than $500 million in just four years. Formation declined to comment on that figure. [Emphasis added]

These guys should be brought up on racketeering charges. They say they need to set up the layers of shell corporations that make them virtually lawsuit-proof because the industry had been the target of overzealous lawyers. But if that's all it is, why cut staff and services to dangerously low levels? Obviously, they've made themselves lawsuit-proof because they know they are going to do things that make them lawsuit-worthy.

It's practically a truism in America today that if you want something done right, you put it in the hands of a deregulated private sector. But over and over again, the facts prove otherwise.

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August 27, 2007

"Cage Bush, Not Sydney" Corporations, Globalization  Politics

When Bush and the other bigwigs arrive in Sydney next week for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, they will be ensconced behind a five-kilometer long security fence. Sydney's Deputy Lord Mayor's not happy. ABC (via Crptogon):

This Saturday, construction will start on a three-metre high, five-kilometre long fence in Sydney's CBD to protect leaders attending next week's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference.

The fence will cause major traffic disruptions throughout the city and local workers and residents will have to go through special ID checks at access points.

But Sydney's Deputy Lord Mayor is appalled by the security measures being taken to protect officials attending the conference and wants to hang a huge banner from the city's Town Hall saying, "Cage Bush, not Sydney". The council will vote on the proposal.

The city's chamber of commerce has attacked the idea as "madness", saying such a decision would be rude and could affect businesses all over Australia.

Just last week, New South Wales police unveiled a new $600,000 water canon, warning that if APEC demonstrators got wild, they would get very wet.

Another visible part of security will be a five-kilometre long, three-metre high steel fence separating the Opera House, Botanic Gardens and a large part of the CBD from public access.

Workers will start building the fence this weekend.

Greens Councillor Chris Harris, who is also Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney City Council, says he wants the council to take a stand against APEC - and particularly against US President George W Bush.

"I'm sitting in Town Hall today and there's Army personnel wandering through Town Hall with all these fancy devices," he said.

"This is the kind of stuff you see in despotic regimes. This is fearmongering, right-wing, red neck stuff that's being [exported] out of America [and] I think we should distance ourselves from it as far as we can.

"We're forcing the citizens of Sydney, the businesses that operate in the city, to forego hundreds of millions of dollars in business to protect one bloke. I just think this is extraordinary.

"So first of all we're asking that council acknowledge that and then the second thing I'm asking council to do is to demonstrate to our citizens how we feel by putting a banner up on Town Hall that says very simply, 'Cage Bush, not Sydney'."

Please do it, please do it, please do it, please!

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August 22, 2007

Poisoning Our Own Well Corporations, Globalization  Media

This story's a couple of weeks old, but it's too important to let slide. AP:

Anything made by McDonald's tastes better, preschoolers said in a study that powerfully demonstrates how advertising can trick the taste buds of young children.

Even carrots, milk and apple juice tasted better to the kids when they were wrapped in the familiar packaging of the Golden Arches.

The study had youngsters sample identical McDonald's foods in name-brand and unmarked wrappers. The unmarked foods always lost the taste test.

"You see a McDonald's label and kids start salivating," said Diane Levin, a childhood development specialist who campaigns against advertising to kids. She had no role in the research.

Levin said it was "the first study I know of that has shown so simply and clearly what's going on with (marketing to) young children."

Study author Dr. Tom Robinson said the kids' perception of taste was "physically altered by the branding." The Stanford University researcher said it was remarkable how children so young were already so influenced by advertising. [...]

The study included three McDonald's menu items -- hamburgers, chicken nuggets and french fries -- and store-bought milk or juice and carrots. Children got two identical samples of each food on a tray, one in McDonald's wrappers or cups and the other in plain, unmarked packaging. The kids were asked whether they tasted the same or whether one was better. (Some children didn't taste all the foods.)

McDonald's-labeled samples were the clear favorites. French fries were the biggest winner; almost 77 percent said the labeled fries tasted best while only 13 percent preferred the others.

Fifty-four percent preferred McDonald's-wrapped carrots versus 23 percent who liked the plain-wrapped sample. [...]

Fewer than one-fourth of the children said both samples of all foods tasted the same.

Imagine you're a visitor from Mars, suddenly plunked down in the middle of American society. How crazy would this look: everywhere you turn, you see corporations directing powerful mind-control tools at our own population — every one of us, cradle to grave — with all the skill, sophistication, and guile they can muster. Programming us with insatiable desire for that which will leave us sick and empty and drowning in garbage. Treating our psyches like things to be plundered. Consequences be damned.

And we wonder why we're collectively going crazy. A system that brainwashes its own children to make a buck is one that has clearly lost its way. But we're so immersed in it we scarcely even notice.

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August 01, 2007

Visual Aids Corporations, Globalization  Economy

Evolution has made us especially good at processing visual input. Here are some pictures worth a thousand words:

Animation: Obesity in the US

According to Wikipedia, high-fructose corn syryp (HFCS) "was rapidly introduced in many processed foods and soft drinks in the US over the period of about 1975–1985." Corn subsidies made corn artificially cheap, and since 1982 sugar tariffs have made cane sugar prohibitively expensive. Coke and Pepsi switched to HFCS in 1984, and now it's found in just about every processed food. Agribusiness giants made a pile of money, and a lot of the rest of us got fat — and increasingly unhealthy. Picture a time-lapse picture of the average American over that period, swelling up like a balloon.

Animation: CEO Pay

Speaking of balloons, slide your cursor along the timescale to see how compensation for American CEOs has changed since 1970. Enough said.

Graphs: US Foreclosures

No wonder the financial markets are rattled.

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July 24, 2007

Underwriting Terror In Colombia Corporations, Globalization

US corporation have been violating US law by underwriting Colombian death squads and drug traffickers, while the US government looks the other way. LAT:

For more than a decade, leftist guerrilla and right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia have kidnapped or killed civilians, trade union leaders, police and soldiers by the hundreds and profited by shipping cocaine and heroin to the United States.

In that time, several American multinational corporations have been accused of essentially underwriting those criminal activities — in violation of U.S. law — by providing cash, vehicles and other financial assistance as insurance against attacks on their employees and facilities in the South American nation.

But only one such company — Chiquita Brands International Inc. — has been charged criminally in the United States. Now, a showdown is looming that pits some members of Congress against the Justice Department and the multinationals — including an American coal-mining company and Coca-Cola bottlers.

The lawmakers say that, in the cases of U.S. corporations in Colombia, the Justice Department has failed to adequately enforce U.S. laws that make it a crime to knowingly provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization — and they have opened their own investigation.

Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), who is leading the effort, has questioned whether the Bush administration is putting the interests of U.S. conglomerates ahead of its counter-terrorism agenda.

Even the plea agreement reached with Chiquita in March — in which it acknowledged making the illegal payments — has been criticized as far too lenient by many outside legal experts and some high-ranking Justice Department prosecutors.

"I think they've escaped any kind of appropriate sanctions," Delahunt said in an interview last week. [...]

"Do our economic interests trump the war on terror? Are we making trade-offs?" Delahunt asked. "If we are, at the very least the public should know about it."

Lance Compa, an international trade specialist at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, acknowledged that there were many competing priorities in Colombia.

"But the general proposition that gross human rights violations should be weighed against trade policy and foreign policy is a mistake," Compa said. "The paramilitaries have infiltrated the highest levels of the [Colombian] government, and the Bush administration is looking the other way.

"It makes it all the more incumbent on U.S. policymakers to put a stop to any corporate dealings with paramilitary death squads." [Emphasis added]

A particularly glaring example of a general and fundamental problem: it is the essential nature of corporations to pursue their own selfish interests, but what's good for an individual corporation is very often bad for the rest of us. Which is another way of saying that the market cannot, all by itself, lead corporations to do what's good — or at least not harmful — for the country and for humanity. Like it or not, extra-market constraints are required — which is to say, government regulation. That assumes, of course, that the government is willing to enforce its own regulations, something that it no longer seems willing to do given the pervasive influence of corporate money in US politics.

It's not an inconsequential matter. We're talking about death squads here.

Posted by Jonathan at 08:48 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

May 01, 2007

Narrowcasting Ads Via Focussed Audio Corporations, Globalization  Media  Science/Technology

Hearing voices? Maybe this is why. Boston Globe (via Cryptogon):

Advertisers have a new way to get into your head.

Marketers around the world are using innovative audio technology that sends sound in a narrow beam, just like light, making it possible to direct messages right into consumers' ears while they shop or sit in waiting rooms.

The audio spotlight device, created by Watertown firm Holosonic Research Labs Inc., has been used to hawk everything from cereals in supermarket aisles to glasses at doctor's offices. The messages are often quick and targeted -- and a little creepy to the uninitiated.

Court TV recently installed the audio spotlight in ceilings of bookstores to promote the network's new murder-mystery show. A voice, whispering, "Hey, you, can you hear me? Do you ever think about murder?" was beamed toward customers as they browsed the mystery section in several independent bookstores in New York.

For advertisers, the audio spotlight is a way of marketing to consumers, sending tailored messages without disturbing an entire store with loudspeaker announcements such as Kmart's iconic "Blue Light Special." The flat disk speakers with precision targeting have made sound possible in unlikely places -- from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts to the New York Public Library -- and are increasingly attractive to merchants trying to improve the shopping experience with a peaceful environment. [...]

Unlike traditional speakers, which broadcast sound in every direction, sound from an audio spotlight speaker can be focused directly at one spot, so no one else can hear it, or projected against a surface so that sound appears to come from the surface itself.

For example, a box of Fruity Pebbles can advertise its nutritional content, heard by shoppers only as they walk by boxes in the cereal aisle. The audio spotlight uses ultrasound to stimulate the air into making sound, which is emitted in focused, laser-like beams. [Emphasis added]

What an awful idea. First time I encounter one of these things in a store, I'm going to boycott that store for life.

Posted by Jonathan at 10:25 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

January 18, 2007

What If Cancer Could Be Cured For Pennies? Corporations, Globalization  Science/Technology

Pharmaceutical companies' worst nightmare: a cheap, unpatentable drug that cures cancer. New Scientist reports on just such a drug. It kills cancer cells by restoring the normal process by which cells self-destruct:

It sounds almost too good to be true: a cheap and simple drug that kills almost all cancers by switching off their "immortality". The drug, dichloroacetate (DCA), has already been used for years to treat rare metabolic disorders and so is known to be relatively safe.

It also has no patent, meaning it could be manufactured for a fraction of the cost of newly developed drugs.

Evangelos Michelakis of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, and his colleagues tested DCA on human cells cultured outside the body and found that it killed lung, breast and brain cancer cells, but not healthy cells. Tumours in rats deliberately infected with human cancer also shrank drastically when they were fed DCA-laced water for several weeks.

DCA attacks a unique feature of cancer cells: the fact that they make their energy throughout the main body of the cell, rather than in distinct organelles called mitochondria. This process, called glycolysis, is inefficient and uses up vast amounts of sugar.

Until now it had been assumed that cancer cells used glycolysis because their mitochondria were irreparably damaged. However, Michelakis’s experiments prove this is not the case, because DCA reawakened the mitochondria in cancer cells. The cells then withered and died (Cancer Cell, DOI: 10.1016/j.ccr.2006.10.020).

Michelakis suggests that the switch to glycolysis as an energy source occurs when cells in the middle of an abnormal but benign lump don't get enough oxygen for their mitochondria to work properly. In order to survive, they switch off their mitochondria and start producing energy through glycolysis.

Crucially, though, mitochondria do another job in cells: they activate apoptosis, the process by which abnormal cells self-destruct. When cells switch mitochondria off, they become "immortal", outliving other cells in the tumour and so becoming dominant. Once reawakened by DCA, mitochondria reactivate apoptosis and order the abnormal cells to die.

It's a treatment that has the potential to be effective against many forms of cancer. And it will be cheap. That is the problem. AHN [via Digby]:

It is expected there would be no problems securing funding to explore a drug that could shrink cancerous tumors and has no side-effects in humans, but University of Alberta researcher Evangelos Michelakis has hit a stalemate with the private sector who would normally fund such a venture.

Michelakis' drug is none other than dichloroacetate (DCA), a drug which cannot be patented and costs pennies to make.

It's no wonder he can't secure the $400-600 million needed to conduct human trials with the medicine — the drug doesn't have the potential to make enough money.

Michelakis told reporters they will be applying to public agencies for funding, as pharmaceuticals are reluctant to pick up the drug.

At roughly $2 a dose, there isn't much chance to make a billion on the cancer treatment over the long term.

According to research on DCA, formerly used to fight metabolic disease in children, the drug apparently revitalizes damaged mitochondria in cancer cells, effectively triggering cell death and shrinking the cells.

"One of the really exciting things about this compound is that it might be able to treat many different forms of cancer," explained Michelakis. [Emphasis added]

It's not that drug companies are run by evil people, exactly. It's that drug companies, like all corporations, are machines programmed to follow a single prime directive: maximize (short-term) profits.

But here we see a stark illustration of the fatal flaw at the heart of the "free market" — it may be more profitable to destroy the world than to save it, and it may be more profitable to kill people than to make them well. When that's the case, we shouldn't be surprised when the market responds accordingly. Corporations see the world through a very narrow peephole. They have their sights set on one thing only — but profit is an exceedingly inadequate guide to what is good for people and for the world over the long term.

Posted by Jonathan at 09:37 PM | Comments (6) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

December 27, 2006

Impedance Mismatch Corporations, Globalization  Environment  Musings

The really big problems facing humanity are, for the most part, problems resulting from the dominant culture's abuse of the natural world. Global warming, deforestation, the collapse of the world's fisheries — these are problems requiring determined action over the long haul. But nothing much gets done. Why?

There are many factors, but one, in particular, strikes me as cause for real pessimism. A sustainable relationship with the natural world requires us to think and act in time frames of many decades, centuries, millenia and more. But our decision-making institutions operate at drastically shorter time scales. That mismatch in time scales is a killer. In the political sphere, decision-makers seldom look past the next election cycle or two. In the corporate realm, where most of the important decisions now get made, perspectives are even shorter, with emphasis on the next quarter or fiscal year. A five-year plan is considered really long-range, blue sky stuff.

Everybody optimizes for the short run. People who don't find themselves out of office or out of a job. And so, by a series of "rational" decisions — rational from a perspective that ignores the long term — we march steadily towards the abyss.

The trend toward increasing corporate power and decreasing political power (with the political process increasingly a wholly-owned subsidiary of the corporate sphere) may, in the end, seal our fate. Just when we desperately need a decision-making institution that can forego short-run profit and convenience for long-term sustainability, we are vesting societal decision-making in the institution least capable of taking that perspective.

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December 06, 2006

Study: Exxon Mobil Source Of 5% Of All CO2 Emissions Corporations, Globalization  Energy  Environment

A short coda to yesterday's Exxon Mobil post (PlanetArk):

Exxon Mobil Corp. has historically been responsible for about 5 percent of the world's carbon emissions, a finding that could prod more shareholder resolutions on climate change, environmental groups said on Wednesday.

From 1882 to 2002, emissions of carbon dioxide from Exxon and its predecessor companies, through its operations and the burning of its products, totaled an estimated 20.3 billion metric tons, according to Washington, D.C.-based Friends of the Earth.
That represents 4.7 percent to 5.3 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions during that time, the group said in a report.

The 120-year period in question starts in 1882, the year Exxon Mobil's ultimate predecessor, the Standard Oil Trust, was formed.

Single-handedly responsible for 5% of the world's CO2 emissions over the past 120 years. Think maybe they have a vested interest in confusing the global warming issue?

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November 28, 2006

Corporatism Corporations, Globalization  Environment

Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth", should be seen by as many Americans as possible. That includes kids. Especially kids. The film's producers thought so, too, so they offered 50,000 free DVDs to the National Science Teachers Association. The NSTA declined. Why? They don't want to piss off Exxon Mobil. WaPo:

At hundreds of screenings this year of "An Inconvenient Truth," the first thing many viewers said after the lights came up was that every student in every school in the United States needed to see this movie.

The producers of former vice president Al Gore's film about global warming, myself included, certainly agreed. So the company that made the documentary decided to offer 50,000 free DVDs to the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) for educators to use in their classrooms. It seemed like a no-brainer.

The teachers had a different idea: Thanks but no thanks, they said.

In their e-mail rejection, they expressed concern that other "special interests" might ask to distribute materials, too; they said they didn't want to offer "political" endorsement of the film; and they saw "little, if any, benefit to NSTA or its members" in accepting the free DVDs.

Gore, however, is not running for office, and the film's theatrical run is long since over. As for classroom benefits, the movie has been enthusiastically endorsed by leading climate scientists worldwide, and is required viewing for all students in Norway and Sweden.

Still, maybe the NSTA just being extra cautious. But there was one more curious argument in the e-mail: Accepting the DVDs, they wrote, would place "unnecessary risk upon the [NSTA] capital campaign, especially certain targeted supporters." One of those supporters, it turns out, is the Exxon Mobil Corp.

That's the same Exxon Mobil that for more than a decade has done everything possible to muddle public understanding of global warming and stifle any serious effort to solve it. It has run ads in leading newspapers (including this one) questioning the role of manmade emissions in global warming, and financed the work of a small band of scientific skeptics who have tried to challenge the consensus that heat-trapping pollution is drastically altering our atmosphere. The company spends millions to support groups such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute that aggressively pressure lawmakers to oppose emission limits.

It's bad enough when a company tries to sell junk science to a bunch of grown-ups. But, like a tobacco company using cartoons to peddle cigarettes, Exxon Mobil is going after our kids, too.

And it has been doing so for longer than you may think. NSTA says it has received $6 million from the company since 1996, mostly for the association's "Building a Presence for Science" program, an electronic networking initiative intended to "bring standards-based teaching and learning" into schools, according to the NSTA Web site. Exxon Mobil has a representative on the group's corporate advisory board. And in 2003, NSTA gave the company an award for its commitment to science education.

So much for special interests and implicit endorsements.

In the past year alone, according to its Web site, Exxon Mobil's foundation gave $42 million to key organizations that influence the way children learn about science, from kindergarten until they graduate from high school.

And Exxon Mobil isn't the only one getting in on the action. Through textbooks, classroom posters and teacher seminars, the oil industry, the coal industry and other corporate interests are exploiting shortfalls in education funding by using a small slice of their record profits to buy themselves a classroom soapbox.

NSTA's list of corporate donors also includes Shell Oil and the American Petroleum Institute (API), which funds NSTA's Web site on the science of energy. There, students can find a section called "Running on Oil" and read a page that touts the industry's environmental track record — citing improvements mostly attributable to laws that the companies fought tooth and nail, by the way — but makes only vague references to spills or pollution. NSTA has distributed a video produced by API called "You Can't Be Cool Without Fuel," a shameless pitch for oil dependence.

The education organization also hosts an annual convention — which is described on Exxon Mobil's Web site as featuring "more than 450 companies and organizations displaying the most current textbooks, lab equipment, computer hardware and software, and teaching enhancements." The company "regularly displays" its "many...education materials" at the exhibition. John Borowski, a science teacher at North Salem High School in Salem, Ore., was dismayed by NSTA's partnerships with industrial polluters when he attended the association's annual convention this year and witnessed hundreds of teachers and school administrators walk away with armloads of free corporate lesson plans.

Along with propaganda challenging global warming from Exxon Mobil, the curricular offerings included lessons on forestry provided by Weyerhaeuser and International Paper, Borowski says, and the benefits of genetic engineering courtesy of biotech giant Monsanto.

"The materials from the American Petroleum Institute and the other corporate interests are the worst form of a lie: omission," Borowski says. "The oil and coal guys won't address global warming, and the timber industry papers over clear-cuts."

An API memo leaked to the media as long ago as 1998 succinctly explains why the association is angling to infiltrate the classroom: "Informing teachers/students about uncertainties in climate science will begin to erect barriers against further efforts to impose Kyoto-like measures in the future."

So, how is any of this different from showing Gore's movie in the classroom? The answer is that neither Gore nor Participant Productions, which made the movie, stands to profit a nickel from giving away DVDs, and we aren't facing millions of dollars in lost business from limits on global-warming pollution and a shift to cleaner, renewable energy. [...]

While NSTA and Exxon Mobil ponder the moral lesson they're teaching with all this, there are 50,000 DVDs sitting in a Los Angeles warehouse, waiting to be distributed. In the meantime, Mom and Dad may want to keep a sharp eye on their kids' science homework. [Emphasis added]

Corporations like Weyerhauser and Exxon Mobil have no ties to any landbase. They don't eat food, they don't drink water, they don't breathe air. They are machines programmed to follow one prime directive with single-minded ferocity: maximize profits. Maybe the people who work for Weyerhauser and Exxon Mobil are just like you and me, maybe they're not, but it probably doesn't matter much. Global corporations will continue to chew us up and spit us out, right up until the day the world ends (unless we stop them). It's hard-wired in the machinery.

Posted by Jonathan at 05:52 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

October 31, 2006

Peak Grains Corporations, Globalization  Development  Environment

The world is running dangerously low on grains, writes Wayne Roberts at Energy Bulletin:

Now's the time to brace yourself for major price hikes in food, as peak grains join the lineup of lifestyle-changing events along with peak oil and peak water.

Unless this year's harvest is unexpectedly different from six out of the last seven years, the world's ever-decreasing number of farmers do not produce enough staple grains to feed the world's ever-increasing number of people. [...]

Whenever there's a shortfall in the amount of food produced in any given year, it's possible to dip into an international cupboard or "reserve" of grains (wheat, rice and corn, for example) left over from previous years of good harvests. [...]

The world's grain reserve has been dipped into for six of the last seven years, and is now at its lowest point since the early 1970s. There's enough in the cupboard to keep people alive on basic grains for 57 days. Two months of survival foods is all that separates mass starvation from drought, plagues of locusts and other pests, or wars and violence that disrupt farming, all of which are more plentiful than food.

To put the 57 days into geopolitical perspective, China's shortfall in wheat is greater than the entire wheat production of Canada, one of the world's breadbaskets. Since the World Trade Organization prohibits government intervention that keeps any items off the free trade ledger, there's no law that says that Canadians, or any other people, get first dibs on their own food production.

To put the 57 days in historical perspective, the world price for wheat went up six-fold in 1973, the last time reserves were this low. Wheat prices ricocheted through the food supply chain in many ways, from higher prices for cereal and breads eaten directly by humans, to the cost for milk and meat produced from livestock fed a grain-based diet. If such a chain reaction happens this year, wheat could fetch $21 a bushel, again about six times its current price. It might fetch even more, given that there are two other pressing demands for grains that were not as forceful during the 1970s. Those happy days pre-dated modern fads such as using grains as a feedstock for ethanol, now touted as an alternative to petroleum fuels for cars, and pre-dated factory barns that bring grains to an animal's stall, thereby eliminating farm workers who tended livestock while they grazed in fields on pasture grasses. [Emphasis added]

There's a perfect storm brewing: peak oil, peak water, peak grains, peak fish — the latter three exacerbated by global warming.

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August 11, 2006

Jets And Nets  Corporations, Globalization  Global Guerrillas  War and Peace

Globalization is everywhere eroding the power of nation-states. Capital flows where the terms are most favorable. Corporations pick up stakes and move where labor is cheapest and environmental regulation most lax. Nations play ball or they find jobs and money flying out the door.

Globalization undermines nation-states in another way as well: by abetting insurgencies by "global guerrillas" (John Robb's term). The nation-state's monopoly on military violence is rapidly coming to an end. As the US is learning in Iraq, and Israel in Lebanon, all the high-tech weaponry in the world doesn't count for much when your adversary is not a nation-state but a loose affiliation of guerrillas fighting a fourth-generation war. The US/Israeli style of war is actually counter-productive, since it produces a failed state where 4GW adversaries thrive.

Just as capital and corporate operations flow where the terms are most favorable, global guerrillas — and, more importantly, their know-how — flow where their enemies are most vulnerable. An essential point here is that global communications mean that global guerrillas themselves don't have to physically move from place to place to be effective. Their example moves freely, and local guerrilla "entrepreneurs" watch and learn. Know-how moves around the world at the speed of light. It's akin to "open-source" software development, as John Robb emphasizes.

It is paradoxical, and more than a little ironic, that the technology trends that have abetted Western hegemony may finally prove its undoing.

Science-fiction writer and futurist Bruce Sterling, ever the master of the pithy phrase, has an excellent article along these lines at Wired, where he talks about the power of "jets and nets":

If there are two technologies that have shaped the life I lead today, they're jets and nets. Affordable airfare lets me go where the action is — wherever adventure beckons, necessity compels, or duty calls — without having to establish residency anywhere. And the Internet lets me do business and stay in touch no matter where I find myself.

Cheap flights and ubiquitous worldwide communications are the stuff of globalization. Ready travel lets people oppressed at home taste the joys of free society, while the Net exposes them to the ideas and customs underpinning that social order. The effect is viral, spreading liberal values and economic growth to benighted dictatorships and hopeless pits of poverty. So it's difficult to grasp that these two innovations might also be an imminent menace to Western civilization. Yet that's the counterintuitive thesis of UK rear admiral Chris Parry, a Falklands vet, former commander of HMS Fearless, and the British military's go-to guy for identifying emerging threats.

During a recent briefing at the time-honored Royal United Service Institute — the oldest military think tank in the world, founded in 1831 by the Duke of Wellington — Parry imagined a future, circa 2030, in which the war on terror is still rolling along and the terrorists are winning. He describes a world so ripped up by nets and jets that sovereign nation-states like the UK are collapsing economically, politically, even physically. Then there are the people of that future, who hop from country to country and bear allegiance to none. "Globalization makes assimilation seem redundant and old-fashioned," he noted, pointing out that, rather than dissolving into the melting pot of their host nations, immigrants are increasingly maintaining their own cultural identity. Jets and nets make this possible. "Groups of people are self-contained, going back and forth between their countries, exploiting sophisticated networks and using instant communication on phones and the Internet." The result, Parry says, is "reverse colonization," in which the developing world's teeming masses conquer Western nations, as surely as the Goths sacked Rome.

It's easy to pigeonhole Parry as an isolationist — and, indeed, much of the public response to his speech came from anti-immigration wackos who said, "We knew it all along." But he has plenty of forward-thinking company in these ideas. According to a loose school of "fourth-generation warfare" theorists, connected, globe-trotting terrorists are a bigger threat to the world order than hostile nations are. The technological drivers of globalization have enabled stateless barbarians to seize the initiative. You can't keep them out by blocking the border, and the harder you smash the failed states that nurture them, the more they thrive. At the first sign of weakness, these new-wave Vandals will log on to urge their diasporic compatriots to attack you on your own soil. Failing that, they'll hop on the next flight, pick up their baggage, and sidle into Starbucks to download the latest instructions from Abu Ayyub al Masri.

Parry paints a grim picture. Still, his vision gives me an affirmative feeling about the future. If civilization is to overcome barbarism, its leaders must outthink the marauders. And the sturdy admiral's foresight is a bold step in that direction. "An analysis of trends and drivers can only go so far," he writes. "We also need to expect the unexpected — shocks will occur." He's not saying, "Kick the Arabs out of Europe"; he's saying we need to anticipate the emergence of stateless aliens and rethink how host societies can integrate them. That's a rare display of intellectual flexibility in a government official. Compare it with the Pentagon's reflexive tendency to lash out when challenged (if we can't kill bin Laden, we’ll crush Saddam) and with the Bush administration's plaint that nobody could have expected airliner attacks, Iraqi intifadas, or crumbling levees. We'll stop being blindsided when we grasp tomorrow's shocks better than the bad guys do — and that's a positive, not a negative, scenario. [...]

We live in a deeply paradoxical age, and it will take serious mental agility to navigate the years to come. Capable and imaginative people, both inside and outside of barbarity, are beginning to realize this. And for every person who does, civilization gains a better chance of survival. [Emphasis added]

There's a much bigger potential positive that may come out of all this, though not without our being subjected to considerable turbulence and suffering in the meantime. Namely, as nation-states begin to realize that they cannot defend themselves militarily from 4GW resistance, they may come to understand that their best defense is to finally deal positively, in good faith, with the underlying causes of resistance. In fact, that may turn out to be their only defense. It's like the bumper sticker says: no justice, no peace. So, for example, the way to defend against Palestinian resistance is to give the Palestinians what they should have been given long ago: a state of their own.

There's a reason why the US and Israel are attacked, but Sweden, say, is not: people have real grievances against the US and Israel. That is the source of the violence. It's likely, of course, that the US and Israel will continue to try to solve the problem militarily, but it's a losing battle, one that may, in the end, reduce US and Israeli power to tatters. Nation-states that insist on beating their heads against the wall will fall away, like General Motors, which insists on continuing to build yesterday's cars in today's (or tomorrow's) world.

Turbulent times lie ahead as things become increasingly fluid and the pace of change continues to accelerate. Stay alert out there. Adapt, or go extinct.

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June 16, 2006

Filthy, Greedy Bastards Corporations, Globalization

You know all those stories where a guy invents an engine that runs on water and the oil companies bury the invention? Or somebody comes up with a dirt cheap cure for cancer and the drug companies buy her out? That kind of stuff doesn't happen in real life, though. Right? Prepare to be outraged. Guardian:

A major drug company is blocking access to a medicine that is cheaply and effectively saving thousands of people from going blind because it wants to launch a more expensive product on the market.

Ophthalmologists around the world, on their own initiative, are injecting tiny quantities of a colon cancer drug called Avastin into the eyes of patients with wet macular degeneration, a common condition of older age that can lead to severely impaired eyesight and blindness. They report remarkable success at very low cost because one phial can be split and used for dozens of patients.

But Genentech, the company that invented Avastin, does not want it used in this way. Instead it is applying to license a fragment of Avastin, called Lucentis, which is packaged in the tiny quantities suitable for eyes at a higher cost. Speculation in the US suggests it could cost £1,000 per dose instead of less than £10. The company says Lucentis is specifically designed for eyes, with modifications over Avastin, and has been through 10 years of testing to prove it is safe.

Unless Avastin is approved in the UK by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) it will not be universally available within the NHS. But because Genentech declines to apply for a licence for this use of Avastin, Nice cannot consider it. In spite of the growing drugs bill of the NHS, it will appraise, and probably approve, Lucentis next year. [...]

New drugs for the condition are badly needed: those we have now only slow the progression to blindness. With Avastin, many patients get their sight back with just one or two injections. [...]

Avastin was first used on human eyes by Philip Rosenfeld, an ophthalmologist in the US, who was aware of animal studies carried out by Genentech that showed potential in eye conditions. This unlicensed use of Avastin has spread across continents entirely by word of mouth from one doctor to another. It has now been injected into 7,000 eyes, with considerable success.

Professor Rosenfeld has published his results and a website has been launched in the US to collate the experiences of doctors from around the world. But although the evidence is good, regulators require randomised controlled trials before they grant licences, which generally only the drug companies can afford to carry out.

Prof Rosenfeld said the real issue was drug company profits. "This truly is a wonder drug," he said. "This shows both how good they [the drug companies] are and on the flip side, how greedy they are." He would like to see governments fund clinical trials of drugs such as Avastin in the public interest. [...]

About 20,000 people are diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration in the UK each year. "From the patient's point of view, if they have an eye condition that deteriorates very quickly, there is no question of waiting," said Professor Wong. "We're talking about days and weeks, rather than months. The question is should we do nothing and say there is no randomised controlled trial to prove Avastin is of value?" He called for primary care trusts to agree to pay for the planned phasing-in of new drugs for the condition.

Pharmaceutical firms say they need to launch drugs at high prices because of the hundreds of millions of pounds spent on developing them. Critics point out that the company's calculations also include the marketing budget. [Emphasis added]

How do these people sleep at night? Really. How? This isn't just numbers on a spreadsheet. This is real people going blind unnecessarily.

If the drug company won't pay for clinical trials, somebody else should. Bill Gates, you listening?

[Thanks, Maurice]

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May 02, 2006

NYT On Net Neutrality Corporations, Globalization  Media  Politics

From today's NYT editorial on Net neutrality:

"Net neutrality" is a concept that is still unfamiliar to most Americans, but it keeps the Internet democratic. Cable and telephone companies that provide Internet service are talking about creating a two-tiered Internet, in which Web sites that pay them large fees would get priority over everything else. Opponents of these plans are supporting Net-neutrality legislation, which would require all Web sites to be treated equally. Net neutrality recently suffered a setback in the House, but there is growing hope that the Senate will take up the cause.

One of the Internet's great strengths is that a single blogger or a small political group can inexpensively create a Web page that is just as accessible to the world as Microsoft's home page. But this democratic Internet would be in danger if the companies that deliver Internet service changed the rules so that Web sites that pay them money would be easily accessible, while little-guy sites would be harder to access, and slower to navigate. Providers could also block access to sites they do not like. [Emphasis added]

Make sure your Senators understand what's at stake. The Internet is the great intellectual commons of today's world. Ceding control to a few giant corporations, by government fiat, would be an enormous step backward.

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April 24, 2006

Highway Robbery Corporations, Globalization  Media  Politics

Congress is getting ready to hand control of the information superhighway over to the giant telecom carriers like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast. Carriers heretofore have adhered to the principle of net neutrality, which says that all data on the Internet is to be treated equally; carriers don't discriminate based on content. My lowly blog has as much right to a fair share of Internet bandwidth as any giant commercial site.

The big carriers want to do away with net neutrality, however, so they can create a two-tiered Internet. Commercial sites that can pay the freight will get to use the "fast lane." Everybody else will be relegated to the "slow lane." Congress is getting ready to grant their wish via a bill with the Orwellian name of COPE: Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act of 2006. Read more about it here, here, and here.

Funny how these huge giveaways to corporate America always go unmentioned in the mainstream media until it's already too late.

Voting is scheduled for Wednesday. Contact your House members and tell them to vote NO. The Internet is not the private property of a handful of corporations, no matter how big their campaign contributions.

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April 15, 2006

Nice Work If You Can Get It Corporations, Globalization

ThinkProgress:

Last year, [Exxon CEO Lee] Raymond made do with "a total compensation package" of just $69.7 million or $190,915 a day, including weekends.

After his haul in 2005, Raymond has decided to retire. It's seems that, for Raymond, not working is even more lucrative than working:

Exxon is giving Lee Raymond one of the most generous retirement packages in history, nearly $400 million, including pension, stock options and other perks, such as a $1 million consulting deal, two years of home security, personal security, a car and driver, and use of a corporate jet for professional purposes.

Absurd.

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April 11, 2006

US-Mexico Income Gradient Corporations, Globalization

Here's why an enforcement approach will never stop illegal immigration from Mexico, the source of 70% of all illegal immigration into the US (WaPo):

"The income gap between the United States and Mexico is the largest between any two contiguous countries in the world," writes Stanford historian David Kennedy. That huge disparity is producing massive demand in the United States and massive supply from Mexico and Central America. Whenever governments try to come between these two forces — think of drugs — simply increasing enforcement does not work. [Emphasis added]

Nature abhors a gradient. (See also this).

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March 23, 2006

USDA Stops Firm From Doing Extra Inspections On Its Own Beef Corporations, Globalization

This isn't a new story, but it was new to me, and it deserves a wider audience. Prepare to be outraged. LA Times (via ReclaimDemocracy.org):

Creekstone Farms is a little slaughterhouse in Kansas with an idea that would have had Adam Smith's mouth watering. Faced with consumers who remain skittish over mad cow disease — especially in Japan — Creekstone decided that all its beef would be tested for mad cow, a radical departure from the random testing done by other companies. It was a case study in free-market meatpacking entrepreneurship. That is, until the Bush administration's Department of Agriculture blocked the enterprise, apparently at the behest of Creekstone's competitors.

According to the Washington Post, Creekstone invested $500,000 to build the first mad cow testing lab in a U.S. slaughterhouse and hired chemists and biologists to staff the operation. The only thing it needed was testing kits. That's where the company ran into trouble. By law, the Department of Agriculture controls the sale of the kits, and it refused to sell Creekstone enough to test all of its cows. The USDA said that allowing even a small meatpacking company like Creekstone to test every cow it slaughtered would undermine the agency's official position that random testing was scientifically adequate to assure safety.

What it didn't say was that the rest of the meatpacking industry was adamantly opposed to such testing, which is expensive, and had no desire to compete with Creekstone's fully certified beef. "If testing is allowed at Creekstone," the president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. told the Post, "we think it would become the international standard and the domestic standard, too."

The Agriculture Department's Creekstone decision reveals the best thinking of Soviet central planning: The government shoots the innovator to preserve market stability. Though President Bush invokes free-market principles when it comes to industry downsizing, "outsourcing" jobs, media mergers and energy deregulation, those principles apparently have their limits when a company seeks to become an industry leader in consumer protection.

Located in the small town of Arkansas City, Creekstone is a model operation in an industry that often seems medieval. It traces the origins of its high-quality Black Angus beef to reduce the use of animals that have been given antibiotics. It pays high wages, employs humane slaughtering techniques (they make for better-tasting beef) and maintains a slow enough production line to guarantee worker safety and to ensure that animals are dead before they are butchered. Although the largest U.S. meatpacking companies have fought regulations that would force such practices, Creekstone — which has been in business since 1995 — has proved that some consumers will pay more for such corporate policies and the premium product that results.

The appearance of mad cow disease in the U.S. herd hit Creekstone's small operation hard. Much of its market was in Japan, where all cows are tested for the disease and where U.S. beef is banned because American meatpackers don't follow the same policy. So Creekstone's chief operating officer, Bill Fielding, announced that he would voluntarily test the 300,000 cows his company slaughters annually, to satisfy customers willing to pay the cost. Absent the test, Fielding says Creekstone may face bankruptcy and have to lay off its 790 workers.

The Department of Agriculture seems to have only one purpose in preventing Creekstone from testing — appeasing the big slaughterhouses. The USDA has a long history of doing the bidding of the meatpacking industry at the expense of the public. Indeed, in many academic studies, the department is presented as a textbook example of the problem of "agency capture," wherein an agency becomes so identified with the companies it regulates that it becomes an extension of those companies.

The allegations of agency capture have been magnified in the Bush administration, in which former industry executives hold key regulatory positions — Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman has a chief of staff who was the head lobbyist for the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. and a senior advisor who was the association's associate director for food policy.

When mad cow disease appeared in the United States, the department again took the industry line and resisted calls for added testing. Only after worldwide criticism did it reluctantly make such modest rule changes as requiring slaughterhouses to discard "downed" animals — cows so sick that they had to be dragged into slaughterhouses to be butchered. Most Americans were surprised to learn that the department had ever allowed such animals into the food supply in the first place.

The administration may be correct that testing every animal in the U.S. is unnecessary and not cost-effective. But why not let Creekstone find out what the market will bear? The position of the administration is an affront to anyone who believes in the free market. It's as if the Department of Transportation refused to allow Volvo to add air bags just to keep the pressure off other carmakers.

Congress should step in and end the department's monopoly over testing kits. It should also call for the removal of the officials involved in the decision. [Emphasis added]

Creekstone did end up laying off workers.

This is one of those stories that's so outrageous it just leaves you sputtering. Just to be clear, Creekstone wanted to do extra testing, not replace the USDA's testing. And it wanted to do the extra testing on its own dime. It wanted to respond to a market need. It wanted to produce a safer product.

Four companies — Tyson, Smithfield, Swift & Co., and Excel Corp. — control 80 percent of US meatpacking. Government "regulators," the White House, and much of the Congress dance to their tune. Who's looking out for consumers? Nobody.

Whenever big business and their hired guns in government start mouthing platitudes about competition and the free market, remember this story. And put your hand on your wallet.

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February 28, 2006

Subsidizing What's Bad For You Corporations, Globalization  Environment  Politics

Why do Americans — especially, poor Americans — eat such unhealthy diets? Why are American obesity and diabetes rates skyrocketing? Partly it's because government policy, policy shaped by the lobbying muscle of agribusiness giants like ADM, makes an unhealthy diet a lot cheaper than a healthy diet. The USDA tells people to eat fruits and vegetables, but it pays farmers to grow corn. Grist:

If you're going to talk about poverty, food, and the environment in the United States, you might as well start in the Corn Belt.

This fertile area produces most of the country's annual corn harvest of more than 10 billion bushels, far and away the world's largest such haul. Where does it all go? The majority — after accounting for exports (nearly 20 percent), ethanol (about 10 percent, and climbing), and excess (another 10 percent) — anchors the world's cheapest food supply in purchasing-power terms.

Our food system is shot through with corn. It feeds the animals that feed us: more than 50 percent of the harvest goes into domestic animal operations. About 5 percent flows into high-fructose corn syrup, adding a sweet jolt to soft drinks, confections, and breakfast cereal. All told, it's a cheap source of calories and taste. Yet all this convenience comes with a price — and not just an environmental one.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the amount Americans spend on food as a percentage of disposable income has fallen from 15.4 percent in 1980 to 10.8 percent in 2004. But while we've spent less money on food, our waistlines have expanded. The obesity rate, after hovering around 15 percent from 1960 to 1980, surged to 31 percent in the last 25 years, USDA figures show. The percentage of overweight children tripled in the same time period. Meanwhile, incidence of type II diabetes, a diet-related condition with a host of health-related complications, leapt 41 percent from 1997 to 2004.

This trend has hit low-income groups particularly hard. The obesity rates for "poor" and "near-poor" people stand at 36 percent and 35.4 percent, respectively, against an overall average of 29.2 percent for "non-poor," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. While the CDC doesn't break down diabetes rates by income, a look at the disease through the lens of ethnicity shows that those rates tend to align with economics: African Americans and Mexican Americans, for instance, have higher diabetes rates than whites, and lower median incomes.

Why do low-income people tend to exhibit more diet-related health problems? Adam Drewnowski, professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, posits a simple answer: people are gaining weight and getting sick because unhealthy food is cheaper than healthy food — thanks in large part to federal policies.

If the USDA's food pyramid recommends two to five cups of fruits and vegetables per day, its budget — mandated by Congress through the Farm Bill — encourages different behavior altogether.

Under the Farm Bill, the great bulk of USDA largesse flows to five crops: corn, soy, cotton, wheat, and rice. Of the $113.6 billion in commodity subsidy payments doled out by the USDA between 1995 and 2004, corn drew $41.8 billion — more than cotton, soy, and rice combined. By contrast, apples and sugar beets, the only other fruit or vegetable crops that draw federal subsidies, received $611 million over the same period. (The latter are generally processed into sweeteners.)

The huge corn payouts encourage overproduction, and have helped sustain a long-term trend in falling prices. According to figures from the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, the inflation-adjusted global commodity price for corn plunged 61 percent between 1983 and 2002. Today a bushel, roughly 56 pounds, fetches about $2.

Cheap corn, underwritten by the subsidy program, has changed the diet of every American. It has allowed a few corporations — including Archer Daniels Midland, the world's largest grain processor — to create a booming market for high-fructose corn syrup. HFCS now accounts for nearly half of the caloric sweeteners added to processed food, and is the sole caloric sweetener for mass-market soft drinks. Between 1975 and 1997, per-capita consumption jumped from virtually nothing to 60.4 pounds per year — equal to about 200 calories per person, per day. Consumption has generally hovered around that level since. [...]

From a short-term economic viewpoint, ...Ding Dongs present a better deal [than wild salmon]: 360 calories per dollar, and no need for the time or skill to cook. "If you're on a limited income trying to feed a family, in a sense you're behaving rationally by choosing heavily sweetened and fat-laden foods," Drewnowski says.

The price gap between these two categories is growing. Drewnowski and Monsivais show that the overall cost of food consumed at home, when adjusted for inflation, has been essentially unchanged since 1980. But over the same time, the price of soft drinks plunged 30 percent, and the price of candy and other sweets fell 20 percent. Meanwhile, the price of fresh fruits and vegetables rose 50 percent.

"Energy-dense foods ... are the cheapest option for the consumer," Drewnowski says. "As long as the healthier lean meats, fish, and fresh produce are more expensive, obesity will continue to be a problem for the working poor."

Thus far, government efforts to address diet-related health problems among low-income Americans have done little to reduce incidence of obesity and diabetes. One reason may be that even when they do account for the economics of different types of foods, such programs often neglect other pressures faced by low-income families.

In 1999, for example, the USDA began promoting a revised "Thrifty Food Plan," designed to help people choose low-cost, healthy foods. But as Diego Rose of Tulane University's Department of Community Health Sciences showed in a 2004 study, the plan failed to account for time stresses on working-class families. Rose calculated that it would take an average of 16 hours per week to prepare the meals outlined in the Thrifty plan, and that working women tended to have only about six hours per week to devote to the kitchen at the time the plan was unveiled. [Emphasis added]

It's crazy. We subsidize a diet that makes people sick, then wonder why health care costs are sky-high. Meanwhile, the agribusiness giants and pharmaceutical and health care giants use campaign contributions to keep the juggernaut rolling along. Their profits are built on our disease. Is this any way to run a civilized society?

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July 12, 2005

Selling Out Africa Activism  Corporations, Globalization  Media

The Live8 concerts were to music-based activism what embedded journalism is to war reporting: corporate/government PR disguised as the real thing. When anything is as warmly embraced by big media, big government, and big multinational corporate players as Live8 was, well, you can be sure it's toothless, non-threatening, thoroughly housebroken. Just another reality tv show, with the usual reality tv subtext that says that phony, dumbed-down, product-placement "reality" is better than reality itself.

George Monbiot, writing from the English perspective, says it best:

I began to realise how much trouble we were in when Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for International Development, announced that he would be joining the Make Poverty History march on Saturday. What would he be chanting?, I wondered. "Down with me and all I stand for"?

Benn is the man in charge of using British aid to persuade African countries to privatise their public services: wasn’t the march supposed to be a protest against policies like his? But its aims were either expressed or interpreted so loosely that anyone could join. This was its strength and its weakness. The Daily Mail ran pictures of Gordon Brown and Bob Geldof on its front page, with the headline "Let's Roll", showing that nothing either Live8 or Make Poverty History has done so far represents a threat to power. The G8 leaders and the business interests their summit promotes can absorb our demands for aid, debt, even slightly fairer terms of trade, and lose nothing. They can wear our colours, speak our language, claim to support our aims, and discover in our agitation not new constraints, but new opportunities for manufacturing consent. Justice, this consensus says, can be achieved without confronting power.

They invite our representatives to share their stage, we invite theirs to share ours. [...]

The G8 leaders have seized this opportunity with both hands. Multinational corporations, they argue, are not the cause of Africa's problems, but the solution. From now on, they will be responsible for the relief of poverty.

In the United States, they have already been given control of the primary instrument of US policy towards Africa, the African Growth and Opportunity Act. The act is a fascinating compound of professed philanthropy and raw self-interest. To become eligible for help, African countries must bring about "a market-based economy that protects private property rights”", "the elimination of barriers to United States trade and investment" and a conducive environment for US "foreign policy interests". In return they will be allowed "preferential treatment" for some of their products in US markets.

The important word is "some". Clothing factories in Africa will be allowed to sell their products to the US as long as they use "fabrics wholly formed and cut in the United States" or if they avoid direct competition with US products...Even so, African countries' preferential treatment will be terminated if it results in "a surge in imports".

It goes without saying that all this is classified as foreign aid. The act instructs the US Agency for International Development to develop "a receptive environment for trade and investment". What is more interesting is that its implementation has been outsourced to another agency, the Corporate Council on Africa.

The CCA is the lobby group representing the big US corporations with interests in Africa: Halliburton, Exxon Mobil, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Starbucks, Raytheon, Microsoft, Boeing, Cargill, Citigroup and others. For the CCA, what is good for General Motors is good for Africa: "until African countries are able to earn greater income," it says, "their ability to buy U.S. products will be limited." The US State Department has put it in charge of training African governments and businesses. [...]

Now something very similar is being rolled out in the United Kingdom. Today the Business Action for Africa summit will open in London with a message from Tony Blair. It is chaired by Sir Mark Moody Stuart, the head of Anglo American, and its speakers include executives from Shell, British American Tobacco, Standard Chartered Bank, De Beers and the Corporate Council on Africa. [...]

Few would deny that one of the things Africa needs is investment. But investment by many of our multinationals has not enriched its people but impoverished them. The history of corporate involvement in Africa is a history of forced labour, evictions, murder, wars, the under-costing of resources, tax evasion and collusion with dictators. Nothing in either the Investment Climate Facility or the Growth and Opportunity Act imposes mandatory constraints on corporations. While their power and profits in Africa will be enhanced with the help of our foreign aid budgets, they will be bound only by voluntary commitments: of the kind that have been in place since 1976 and have proved useless.

Just as Gordon Brown's "moral crusade" encourages us to forget the armed crusade he financed, so the state-sponsored rebranding of the companies working in Africa prompts us to forget what Shell has been doing in Nigeria, what Barclays and Anglo American and De Beers have done in South Africa, and what British American Tobacco has done just about everywhere. From now on, the G8 would like us to believe, these companies will be Africa's best friends. In the name of making poverty history, the G8 has given a new, multi-headed East India Company a mandate to govern the continent.

Without a critique of power, our campaign, so marvellously and so disastrously inclusive, will merely enhance this effort. Debt, unfair terms of trade and poverty are not causes of Africa's problems but symptoms. The cause is power: the ability of the G8 nations and their corporations to run other people's lives. Where, on the Live8 stages and at the rally in Edinburgh, was the campaign against the G8's control of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations? Where was the demand for binding global laws for multinational companies?

At the Make Poverty History march, the speakers insisted that we are dragging the G8 leaders kicking and screaming towards our demands. It seems to me that the G8 leaders are dragging us dancing and cheering towards theirs. [My emphasis]

Superstars embedded with the multinational corporate music business, performing on a world-wide media hookup, are not to be confused with the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane playing free concerts from a flatbed truck in Golden Gate Park. It's natural that people make that kind of connection (or its more contemporary equivalent). After all, the music once stood for something.

But we only have to stop and think. Western governments and multinational corporations hold all the cards; Africa holds none. There is zero chance that any deal with Africa will fail to reflect that power imbalance. Anyone who thinks otherwise knows no history. The notion that one day's worth of Live8 concerts exerted any sort of meaningful pressure on Western power centers, thereby altering the power equation, is a cruel joke. Sir Bob Geldorf, Sir Paul McCartney, Bono, Madonna, and the rest may even have believed they were doing some good. Who knows. There were probably embedded journalists in Iraq who thought they were doing real reporting.

But as Gil Scott-Heron sang all those years ago, the revolution will not be televised. And it certainly won't be a worldwide media spectacle bankrolled by multinational corporate sponsors, featuring a parade of multi-millionaire pop stars.

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April 16, 2005

What's In A Name? Corporations, Globalization

What do you do if you're a multinational corporation and you get a bad name? You change it. Philip Morris recently spent $250 million to change its name to Altria.

Philip Morris isn't alone. BadCorp.com lists other examples, including:

This is a tough era for satirists. Nuclear Engineering becomes US Ecology. Who could top that?

[Thanks, Maurice]

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February 16, 2005

The "Ownership" Scam Corporations, Globalization  Essays

[The following is inspired by the eye-opening article "The Divine Right of Capital" by Marjorie Kelly (available here, starting on p. 7). Quotations are from that article. References to "corporations" should be taken to mean "public corporations" — i.e., corporations that sell stock to the public.]

Shareholders Contribute (Almost) Nothing, Get (Almost) Everything

US corporations exist to maximize returns to owners of their stock (shareholders). They are, in fact, required by law to do so. I.e., corporations are legally bound to operate as if only shareholders matter. Not employees, not customers, not communities, not the earth — only shareholders. If a corporation treats employees well, it is only as part of its strategy to maximize returns to its shareholders.

But what do shareholders actually contribute to earn such treatment? In most cases, absolutely nothing. Zero. Zilch. Zip. Nada.

Strangely, it's axiomatic in American business that shareholders deserve their exalted status because they contribute needed capital to the corporation. But this is almost never the case: a shareholder’s money almost never actually reaches the corporation. In almost all cases, when you buy stock, you do not buy it from the corporation. You buy it from someone else who owned the stock before you. It's like buying a used car. When you buy a used car, your money doesn't go to the car manufacturer; it goes to the previous owner.

The only exceptions are the rare occasions when a new corporation "goes public" and sells stock for the first time or when an existing corporation issues additional stock. Only a tiny percentage of stock transactions are of this type. Among the Dow Jones Industrials, for example, "only a handful have sold any new common stock in thirty years. Many have sold none in fifty years...According to figures from the Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission, about 99 percent of the stock out there is 'used' stock. That is, ninety-nine out of one hundred 'invested' dollars are trading in the purely speculative market, and never reach corporations." (Kelly)

Corporations do need capital, but they get very little of it from the sale of common stock. They generally issue stock only as a last resort; they are far more likely to borrow instead. "In 1993, for example, corporations needed $555 billion in capital. According to the Federal Reserve, sales of common stock contributed 4 percent of that." (Kelly) Four percent. Somehow, that entitles shareholders to be considered "owners."

But what about in the past? Surely, sales of stock played a crucial role in creating what have become the important corporations of the present day. Actually... no. Take the steel industry. An accounting study of capital expenditures in the steel industry in the first half of the twentieth century found that issues of common stock provided only 5 percent of capital. And that was during a period of intense growth in the industry.

Somehow, we have been brainwashed to think of shareholders as the rightful "owners" of corporations, even though they are almost always just speculators who have bought "used" stock from other speculators. Their contribution to the corporation is non-existent. In many cases, they have only the vaguest idea what it is the corporation does or where it's located. And yet, they are treated like feudal lords. It’s their plantation; the rest of us just work on it.

Marjorie Kelly put it this way:

[I]n the life of most major companies today, issuance of common stock represents a distant, long-ago source of funds, and a minor one at that. What's odd is that it entitles stockholders to extract most of the corporation’s wealth — forever. Equity investors essentially install a pipeline, and dictate that the corporation’s sole purpose is to funnel wealth into it.

The truth is, the commotion on Wall Street is not about funding corporations. It's about extracting from them.

The wealth of corporations is created by the human beings employed by them and by the communities and nations that provide them infrastructure and support. Shareholders are just along for the ride. Even banks that lend capital funds to corporations have a more legitimate claim on a share of corporations' profits than do 99% of shareholders. The fact that shareholders are, by custom and by law, placed at the top of the pyramid is simply a function of who wields power in modern capitalist societies.

We've been scammed.

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February 15, 2005

Walmart Calls The Shots Corporations, Globalization

Walmart and the US Dept. of Labor apparently have a deal whereby DOL agrees to notify Walmart in advance before investigating any of Walmart's labor practices. Excerpt from a DOL email:

The agreement includes provisions to the effect that Wage & Hour [Division of DOL] will not open an investigation of Wal-Mart without first notifying Wal-Mart's main office and allowing them an opportunity to look at the alleged violation and, if valid, correct the problem to everyone's satisfaction.

In addition, Walmart apparently has control over how its labor violations are presented to the public. See Labor Blog [via Atrios].

Among the defining characteristics of fascism: Corporate power is protected; Labor power is suppressed.

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February 11, 2005

Reason Number 1001 To Hate Wal-Mart Corporations, Globalization

There have always been a thousand reasons to hate Wal-Mart. Here's one more. Globe and Mail:

Wal-Mart Canada Corp. will close its first unionized store in Jonquière, Que., in the spring, saying it wasn’t able to reach a first contract that would allow the outlet to be profitable.

The closing is a setback for the United Food and Commercial Workers, which has been trying for more than two years to organize a union at a Wal-Mart and, just three weeks ago, was successful in winning certification at a second store in St-Hyacinthe, Que.

The union will file unfair labour practices charges with the Quebec Labour Relations Board because the closing is "clearly a violation of the workers' right to join a union," UFCW national director Michael Fraser said last night.

The world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart has been union-averse. [...]

The decision suggests that Wal-Mart is determined to return to its non-union status, said Richard Chaykowski, a professor at Queen's University's School of Policy Studies in Kingston, Ont. "It's pretty clear, in terms of labour relations, that Wal-Mart has been set back on its heels by the success of the unionization drives."

They'd rather close a store than pay the human beings who work there a decent wage. Meanwhile, the Walton family is worth something like $100 billion (with a "b") dollars.

In time, the unspeakable greed of corporations like Wal-Mart will be their undoing.

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December 28, 2004

Big Pharma Whistle-Blower Corporations, Globalization  Ethics  Politics

Peter Rost, marketing VP at Pfizer, has an op-ed in the LA Times today that should make some waves. Excerpts:

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that average prices for patented drugs in 25 other top industrialized nations were 35% to 55% lower than in the United States. [...]

Americans spend about twice as much per person for healthcare as do Canadians, Japanese or Europeans, according to the World Health Organization. [...]

The U.S. has shorter life expectancies and higher infant and child mortality rates than Canada, Japan and all of Western Europe except Portugal, according to the WHO.

I'm a drug company executive who has spent 20 years marketing pharmaceuticals. And I'm troubled. I'm most troubled by the fact that we stick it to the people who can afford it the least.

For instance, elderly people who use a Medicare discount card and have to pay $1,299 annually for a drug that the Department of Veterans Affairs purchases for $322, according to a comparison by Families USA. Or middle-class families that lose health insurance and have to pay $29,500 for an overnight hospital stay, when Medicaid would have paid only $6,000, according to the Wall Street Journal. [...]

Our dirty little secret is that the drug industry already sells its products, right here in the U.S., at the same low prices charged in Canada and Europe. It's done through rebates. These are given to those with enough power to negotiate drug prices, such as the VA.

A 2001 study by the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen found that drug companies' favorite customers paid just a little over half the retail price. This leaves the 67 million Americans without insurance to pay cash, with no rebates, at double the prices paid by the most-favored customers.

The fight against re-importation of drugs is a fight to continue to charge our uninsureds full price while giving everyone else a rebate. [...]

15% of uninsured children and 28% of uninsured adults [went] without prescription medication in 2000 because of cost, and 87% of uninsured individuals with serious health problems reported trouble obtaining medication. [...]

In the next five years, branded drugs with annual sales of $72.9 billion are expected to lose patent protection. So we in the drug industry are fighting re-importation because we're worried about the bottom line. [...]

I joined this industry to save lives, not to take them. And that's the reason I've chosen to speak out.

Presumably, most people who work for drug companies are like Rost in wanting to save lives and help other people, even if they don't all have the courage to put their careers on the line by speaking out. This is one instance of a general phenomenon: corporations tend to produce outcomes antithetical to the ethical standards of the human beings who work for them.

Corporations are machines designed to follow one rule only — maximize profits — so it is in some ways unsurprising that they trample on other human values, but still it is astonishing that people accept that this is the way things should be, as if it's somehow ordained. Corporations were invented to serve humans, not the other way around. The root problem is the nature and legal status of corporations, which we'll return to in future posts.

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December 03, 2004

Verizon Versus Free Wireless Internet, 2 Corporations, Globalization  Media

As noted earlier, Verizon lobbied hard in Pennsylvania to get a law passed that says communities can implement wireless Internet networks for their citizens only if corporations like Verizon give them permission. Sadly, Gov. Rendell signed the bill and it's now law. WaPo:

From San Francisco to St. Cloud, Fla., an estimated 200 communities are toying with community-owned networks, sparking a battle with cable and telephone companies over how public, or private, access to the Internet should be.

The companies are lobbying furiously to block such plans, fearful that their businesses would be hurt. Their efforts most recently paid off Tuesday night in Pennsylvania, where a new law bans local governments from creating their own networks without first giving the primary local phone company the chance to provide service.

Consumer advocates denounce the new Pennsylvania law. They say it amounts to governments now needing a permission slip from entrenched monopolies to put a vital economic and educational tool within everyone's reach. [...]

Companies such as Verizon Communications Inc., which helped shape the Pennsylvania law, argue that telecommunications firms would have little incentive to build networks if they have to compete with government-subsidized service. [My emphasis]

This has become standard operating procedure: lobbyists for corporations affected by a law participate, alongside politicians to whose campaigns they've contributed, in writing the law. Democracy in action.

One question. If corporations are so much more efficient than governments, as conservatives never tire of claiming, then why can't corporations like Verizon simply beat governments in the marketplace? Why must their "competition" take the form of campaign contributions, lobbying, and legally protected monopolies?

Gov. Rendell, sad to say, is a Democrat.

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November 30, 2004

Verizon Versus Free Wireless Internet Corporations, Globalization  Media

A number of cities, including Milwaukee, Cleveland, St. Louis and Philadelphia, are planning to provide free or low-cost wireless Internet access to all. Verizon wants to stop them:

In Pennsylvania, for example, the legislature passed a bill with a deeply buried provision — inserted after intensive lobbying by Verizon Communications — which would make it illegal for any city or other "political subdivision" in the state to provide low-cost Internet access to its citizens unless a corporation like Verizon gave them permission. [My emphasis]

Governments need corporations' permission now before they can act?

American Progress has an online email petition to urge Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell to veto the legislation. He has until midnight tonight to do so. Sign the petition here.

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November 12, 2004

Corporatization Corporations, Globalization

Someone at a potluck I attended last night had a suggestion that I like. In place of "privatization," he suggested, let's use the term "corporatization."

It's a bit of a tongue-twister, but it communicates what's really going on. "Privatization" suggests that control is being returned to private parties like you and me. "Corporatization" says who's really getting control.

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October 12, 2004

Sinclair's Stake Corporations, Globalization  Media  Politics

This USA Today report probably gets closer to the heart of what Sinclair Broadcasting hopes to gain by ordering its stations to show the anti-Kerry film in prime time:

[M]any believe Sinclair's provocative decision shows how much the company has riding on the election.

With its heavy concentration of Fox and WB affiliates, ranking in the middle of the pack in mostly midsize markets, Sinclair is barely profitable and laden with debt. It had a net profit of $14 million on revenue of $739 million in 2003.

Sinclair hopes to change that by solidifying its hold on local markets by controlling, for example, two stations in more cities and sharing operating and news-gathering costs. But it needs the federal government to relax several media ownership restrictions.

Sinclair wants officials to permit a company to own two or more stations in more communities than allowed now. It also wants the FCC to ease a restriction that bars a company from owning TV stations reaching more than 35% of all homes, and to lift the rule that keeps companies from owning newspapers and TV stations in most markets.

Large corporations exist to maximize profit and market share. In the absence of regulation, it is inevitable that media ownership will be concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer giant corporations, who will bend media content to further their own interests, as Sinclair is doing. It is irrational to expect them to do otherwise. It's like expecting a shark to be a vegan.

That is why it is essential for democracy that the concentration of media ownership be rolled back and some kind of fairness doctrine reinstated.

In the meantime, it is important to fight back against Sinclair. If Sinclair proceeds as planned, a precedent will have been set and the flood gates may well open. Contact Sinclair's sponsors directly and tell them to withdraw their support.

Posted by Jonathan at 09:34 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

September 29, 2004

The News Is What We Say It Is Corporations, Globalization  Media  Politics

The world’s largest corporations are more powerful than most nations, and they know it. International in scope, they are no longer (if they ever were) loyal to any country. Their loyalty is to themselves alone. They protect their own interests, not ours, not the country's.

When such corporations own major US news media, the results are predictably toxic to democracy. The corporate parent can make its influence felt without ever interfering directly in the newsroom, but a couple of recent stories illustrate direct interference of the most blatant sort. I am not talking about Rupert Murdoch and Fox News here, though that is surely the most egregious case. I am talking about "respectable" media: CBS and NBC.

CBS — As the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday:

[T]he chairman of CBS's parent company [Viacom] chose Hong Kong as a place to drop a little bomb. Sumner Redstone, who calls himself a "liberal Democrat," said he's supporting President Bush.

The chairman of the entertainment giant Viacom said the reason was simple: Republican values are what U.S. companies need. ... Mr. Redstone declared: "I look at the election from what's good for Viacom. I vote for what's good for Viacom. I vote, today, Viacom. ...

"[F]rom a Viacom standpoint, we believe the election of a Republican administration is better for our company." [My emphasis]

The only relevant consideration is what's best for Viacom — the country be damned.

The very next day, CBS announced that it would delay until after the election its broadcast of a "60 Minutes" segment that digs into the Bush administration's use of forged documents to make the case that Iraq had tried to obtain uranium from Niger. "We now believe it would be inappropriate to air the report so close to the presidential election," CBS said. It wouldn't be good for Viacom, you see.

NBC — Turning now to a just-published account of the 2000 presidential election. You remember that the networks called the election for Bush in the wee hours on election night. By so doing, they created the impression that Bush had won and that the ensuing controversy was therefore an attempt by sore loser Gore to steal what he had failed to win fair-and-square. It's probably not too much of an exaggeration to say the networks won Bush the election.

If you saw Fahrenheit 9/11, you know that on election night George Bush’s cousin, John Ellis, was the man at Fox News who first made the call for Bush. The other networks quickly followed suit, which is where NBC comes in. NBC is owned by GE, whose CEO at the time was the much-lionized Jack Welch.

From True Lies by the folks at Guerrilla News Network, an account that draws on information developed by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-FL):

According to Waxman's sources, [GE CEO Jack] Welch had posted himself next to NBC's director of elections, Dr. Sheldon R. Gawiser, almost immediately after arriving in the studio early on election night. Gawiser was in charge of interpreting the data coming in from the since-disbanded Voter News Service (VNS), and Welch apparently wanted to be as close to the source as possible. Witnesses described Welch as "hovering" over Gawiser and refusing to leave.

After a crash course on interpreting VNS raw vote counts from Gawiser, Welch started doing his own calculations. With Florida data coming in, he concluded that Bush had taken the state and began demanding that NBC’s staff make the call. ...

At almost this same time, John Ellis over at Fox News called both the Florida and national election for his cousin, George W. Bush. According to the eyewitness sources,

Immediately after this announcement, Mr. Welch was observed standing behind Mr. Gawiser with a hand on his shoulder, asking why NBC was not also calling the election for Mr. Bush.

Shortly after this, Dr. Gawiser informed the control room that NBC would declare George W. Bush the winner. ...

[...]

This was not the first time Welch is alleged to have used his corporate leverage to mold news coverage when it served his [corporation's] interests. During the 1987 stock market crash, Welch called then-NBC News chief Larry Grossman and told him to stop using negative language to describe the crash. As Grossman said, "We were describing it as Black Monday and the 'plunge'....he thought we were making it worse and undercutting the stock value of the company." (Less than one year after Black Monday, Larry Grossman was fired by Jack Welch.) [My emphasis]

The most pervasive effects of corporate ownership on news content are far more subtle than the cases above. Corporate cultures effectively communicate what is considered appropriate and what is out of bounds. Career-minded journalists know which way the wind is blowing and self-censor accordingly.

Still, these cases do illustrate unmistakably the fundamental fact: large corporations exist to maximize profit and market share. They have no conscience, no sense of civic duty. They are voracious machines that are absolutely single-minded in the pursuit of their goals. The people who head them act accordingly, or the corporation finds someone else who will.

Niceties like civic duty and journalistic ethics don't stand a chance if they are left undefended, at the mercy of giant corporations. It is irrational to expect otherwise. It's like expecting a shark to be a vegan.

Posted by Jonathan at 10:51 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

September 09, 2004

Corporate Globalization Corporations, Globalization  Musings

Reading Arundhati Roy's An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire, I had a tiny epiphany occasioned by her use of the phrase "corporate globalization." It struck me, reading that, that it might be well to make a practice of always using that phrase, "corporate globalization", in preference to just the "globalization" we're always hearing about.

"Globalization" sounds like something we are all participating in, like a process of which we are all the beneficiaries. "Corporate globalization" reminds us that the "globalization" project now underway is something being done by corporations, for corporations. It's their thing, not ours.

Someday soon, one hopes, we'll have global movements and global institutions created by people, for people. Then let us speak of "globalization."

Posted by Jonathan at 09:07 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

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