Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Opinion: Free Market Capitalism

By whatever name you wish to use- free market capitalism, market economy, or neo-liberal economics- our current economic system glories in greed, is without moral or ethical constraint, and feels that there should be no constraints on its ability to externalize its costs. If we don’t radically change the way we operate our economic system, there no hope that a biosphere that can support us and our fellow creatures will long endure. Chris Hedges has written “a consumer culture based on corporate profits, limitless exploitation, and continued extraction of fossil fuels is doomed.”

From Barbara Kingsolver we read that “global commerce is driven by a single conviction: an inalienable right to earn profit no matter the human cost.” Many believe that profit without any limits or constraints is the business of commerce in our society. This is the economic system which now dominates the planet. Unless the environmental community is willing to confront directly this system, there is no hope that we will be able to sustain a planet which is hospitable for humanity and our fellow creatures. We as a species are as much in danger as the polar bear. They may succumb sooner than us, but the direction we are now heading will seal our fate.  

We cannot win the battle to defend, protect, and restore the planet unless there are fundamental changes in the way we conduct business. Multinational corporations operate across all boundaries with little restraint. We now live in what Ralph Nader calls a “soft-fascist state” as the corporations dominate and control much of our government and its agencies. Corporate power and money dominate all levels and branches of government. Recent rulings by the Supreme Court clearly demonstrate corporate dominance.

We are confronted on an unlimited number of fronts. While we like to proclaim those few victories we gain, they are seldom permanent and of a limited nature. As long as we have an economic system which values trashing the planet for profit more than preserving it, there is no hope of any real victory. We will be confronted with an endless number assaults to our land, air, and water. Private profit is now valued more than public health and equality. If we are ever to make real progress in protecting the planet’s biosphere from constant assault, we must make fundamental, structural changes in the way our economic system functions.

The environmental community has by and large fought to protect the environment by supporting government regulations. The regulatory system we have built will always be inadequate to solve the real problems we face. It is a system which gives permits to profit seekers to pollute. Regulations are of little value when they are not enforced. The revolving door between government regulatory agencies and those who are to be regulated is always spinning. Corporations always fight any new regulations from the formulation of the law to the writing of the regulations. There powerful lobbying efforts always ensure that any proposed regulation will be weakened. They always exploit the loopholes which always seem to be present.

We shouldn’t be surprised when we hear of the latest report of corporate misconduct. GM’s ignition switch immorality should not shock us if we remember the firebomb Ford Pinto’s of the past. The current fight to eliminate neonicotinoid pesticides is a clear example of the evil nature of our present system. The honeybees that do the pollinating for many of our crops now have populations which are in collapse. Scientists have determined that the most likely cause of this situation is the use of the pesticides known as neonicotinoids. Yet the industry fights any regulation and the EPA is failing to remove them from use. Rather than the industry proving the safety of their products before subjecting all life to their use, we must prove they are dangerous after much damage has been done. We certainly have it backwards. Profit trumps humanity.

The environmental community to this point hasn’t had the gumption to take on our economic system. The big groups may be too comfortable operating within it. I wonder if environmental groups fear the loss of financial support more than the destruction of the environment.  Are they afraid that they will be labeled socialist or un-American? Patriotism has nothing to do with political ideology, waving flags, supporting President’s world adventurism, or singing patriotic songs. Patriotism means working to make our country the best it can be for all of our fellow citizens and protecting the public health which is dependent upon a healthy environment protected from a destructive economic system.

I understand that taking on our economic system is almost incomprehensible in the scope of its challenge. Taking on specific threats is a challenge that is within our grasp. Even in the huge challenge that climate change presents, we still believe it is the possible within our current economic system. But we have been fighting to significantly lower CO2 emissions for over 30 years and the clock is rapidly running out. It amazed me how jubilant environmental groups have been with the new rules for power plant emissions of CO2. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be happy with this, but let’s face the reality that in the total picture of things this is but a very small step. The same president who supports this rule is pushing the fracking of natural gas almost everywhere.

We need a cultural and economic change that embraces the principal that business can no longer be conducted at the expense of our health and the health of the biosphere. The cost of our goods must reflect their real cost. We need a new type of capitalism which requires more than just a profit motive. The following are some possible cures to the problems created by the cowboy capitalism that now rules the planet:

  • Corporations are not people and therefore are not entitled to the rights of citizens. They only have those specific rights created by legislation.
  • Corporations should be prohibited from making any political contributions either directly or through front groups like trade associations or think tanks.
  • Polluters should pay a tax for all pollution with increasing rates with volume and with time. A carbon tax is but one example. Dumping waste into the environment must no longer be free.
  • All producers of goods must provide for their recycling and up-cycling after the products use has been completed.
  • All lobbying done by profit making entities must be open to observation by neutral observers such as a member of the press. Full transcripts should be available.
  • The corporate charter of all corporations should include the proviso that corporate operations may not in any way detract from the common good.  We must revoke the charters of all corporations which put their profits ahead of the good of society.
  • The exploitation of human labor must as well as the exploitation of the planet must lead to revocation of a corporations charter.
  • When a corporation is guilty of violating the law, those officials responsible must go to prison.
  • When a suit is settled out of court between an individual and a corporation, the corporation may not hide behind non-disclosure agreements.
  • Excessive profits should be taxed at increasing rates.
  • Corporate profits should be taxed at a fair but unavoidable rate.
  • All advertising aimed at children must end.
  • Individuals who gain income from investments should pay income taxes at the same rate as everyone one else. People who must labor for a living should not have to pay taxes at a higher rate than those who gain income without working.
  • The “cautionary principle” must be applied in the development of all new products.
  • The right to clean water and air must be established in the Constitution.
  • Advertising must be held to a strict level of factual accuracy.

Jack Miller, Vice President
Sierra Club PA Chapter

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