September 30, 2004
Q&A With Jamie Court
Consumer advocate Jamie Court has seen the enemy, and it is big, powerful and growing. Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica, worries that multinationals are systematically whittling away our privacy, freedoms and safety. Unless society can curb big business, Court thinks we risk living in a world where profits trump all else, including individual liberty and happiness.
A longtime activist, Court, 37, said the Jewish values he learned as a Hebrew school student shaped his outlook and fueled his desire to better society. He spoke with Journal Senior Writer Marc Ballon about his book, "Corporateering: How Corporate Power Steals Your Freedom" (Tarcher/Penguin) and the dangers of big business.
Jewish Journal: What is corporateering?
Jamie Court: It is a phenomenon of the last 25 years, where large corporations have increasingly dominated not merely the economic realm, the markets, but also the culture realm. They have reached beyond merely buying and selling goods into our lives.
For instance, privacy used to be considered an inalienable right. But now big companies buy and sell our private financial and medical information without regard for our privacy. And they aggressively market children with sexually and violently explicit themes.
I think that children are seeing corporations in a different light when they are reading from Froot Loops spelling books and Reese's Pieces counting books. Not only are they going to patronize the product, but they see no gap between the commercial and the social aspects. And, therefore, there are all sorts of unhealthy attitudes, assumptions and values that spring from that.
JJ:What's changed in the past 25 years?
JC: Through the mid- to late '70s, corporations abided generally by what they called a stakeholder view of the world, in which community, labor and nation were considered co-equals. Increasingly, big corporations have adopted a different set of rules which prioritizes the commercial gain above all else.
In the past 25 years, corporations have really begun to exert their powers as the owners and operators of media. Which means getting "60 Minutes" to pull back on a show about tobacco companies or getting ABC, which is owned by Disney, to kill an investigation on Disneyland not being tough enough on pedophiles.
JJ: In your book, you argue that corporations have even co-opted think tanks. What do you mean?
JC: Think tanks consistently put out reports sponsored by big corporations that show that health and safety regulations are not in the interest of the public. They put out studies that say that global warming isn't really a byproduct of pollution.
JJ: Americans are materially better off by almost any measure than at any point in their history, whether it's home ownership or cars or televisions per capita. Couldn't it be argued that the unshackling of corporations has allowed them to become more efficient and produce more wealth?
JC: When corporations compete to provide commercial convenience, that's a very big benefit to society. The problem is that large corporations have reached beyond commercial service to influence culture in unprecedented ways.
For example, cola companies are adopting schools and becoming their official soft drinks. That has two effects: One is over-sugaring and caffeinated kids. Second, you're teaching kids to respect brand identity.
The classic example of how that can be a real societal problem is that a school in Georgia actually suspended a student for wearing a Pepsi T-shirt at a Coke school on class picture day.
JJ: When it comes to corporateering, are the Democrats just as bad as the Republicans? You note in "Corporateering" that during the Clinton era, between 1994 and 1998, new records were set each year for the size of business mergers.
JC: Both parties cower before large special-interest groups, and corporations are the largest. Still, there's a big difference.If John Kerry wins, we'll nourish the age of the countercorporateer. He's going to curb pharmaceutical industry price gouging. He'll make sure the corporate executives are individually accountable if something goes wrong. He will make sure that corporate governance gets cleaned up. I think Kerry is going to be far more interested in building countervailing powers to the corporation, such as labor unions and strengthening regulators.
But if George Bush gets re-elected, he is going to continue the trend to make sure HMOs aren't accountable. He's going to make sure pharmaceutical companies don't have to justify their prices. He's going to tow the party line that the free market and the free society are the same thing.
JJ: Does Bush's cozy relationship with corporate America help explain Kerry's poor showing in recent polls?
JC: I think Kerry wasn't aggressive enough early on going after big corporations, because he needed their money. I think if at the convention he had said seniors would be able to afford their prescription drugs, because he'd curb pharmaceutical industry profiteering, and HMO patients would be able to afford their premiums and have some rights, that he'd be in a better situation.
JJ: Governments and labor unions once served as counterbalances to corporate power. However, their influence has declined in recent decades, partly, you say, because of well-coordinated attacks on them by big business. What's happened?
JC: Corporations have acquired cultural confidence through massive spending against institutions that have held them accountable, and that has frankly disarmed the members of labor unions. The same is true with government oversight. Corporations changed the minds of government regulators over the years and hence cultural attitudes about corporations.
JJ: Do you think there will ever be a movement against corporateering?
JC: Yes, I think we're in it, although widespread stock ownership through 401(k)s did improve the public respect for corporations for awhile.
A good example of the changing attitude is that in the past couple years, a do-not-call list was established so telemarketers can't invade your home. When the industry challenged that list, the courts said the list was legal, because corporations do not have the First Amendment right to solicit you in your home if you don't want to be solicited.
I think the courts are being pressured by a mounting public cynicism toward big corporations. I also think the courts, themselves, are recognizing that there have to be limits to the power of big corporations or otherwise democracy doesn't function. The public's concerns after Enron, Tyco and WorldCom is something that Washington, D.C., can't ignore either.