Those Evil Corporations!

I agree that corporations should not be allowed to make political contributions, and in that regard, they’re not ‘persons.’ That’s a step too far. But I’m here to defend the concept of corporations. Liberals need to get up to speed on corporate structures and why they exist. The long howling rant against corporations as a general concept discredits the progressive movement.

A corporation mostly isn’t a bad thing. There are non-profit corporations we rely on every day, and plenty of for-profit corporations that bring us everything from electricity to internet to vehicles. Corporations have been the construct by which new inventions in digital technology, medicine, and transportation have come to exist in the modern world.

The commercial incorporator has a specific objective—to streamline the business operation. Under the corporate umbrella, the business owner(s) can partner with other entrepreneurs, obtain materials, hire workers, own property, and produce goods and/or services from one checkbook, that is, the corporate checkbook, without having to do those things in his/her own name.

Likewise, the corporation can pay wages to the owner(s) and all employees and provide the corporation’s required contribution to Social Security and Medicare funds as well as unemployment  and disability insurance (required by law) and in many cases, health insurance—all without involving the owners’ private personal income and spending.

Whatever money the corporation holds in its bank accounts (and other investments) that is not spent on production/operations can be paid out in dividends to its stockholders. ‘Dividends’ is a simple concept: whoever put in money to help the company start and/or grow is paid a divided portion of the profits (usually quarterly) according to the amount paid in. If there are significant profits above and beyond operating expenses, the money paid in dividends can be an important income source for stockholders.

My disabled brother in law, for example, received big oil stocks as a gift from his father who had been at the leading edge of early oil exploration in Texas. Dividends from those stocks have made the difference for him and my sister in raising their family and surviving as they age. Even if we abhor the environmental degradation created by the oil industry, is there something evil about him receiving those dividends?

The concept of the ‘evil corporation’ is so ingrained that the term has its own entry in Wikipedia: “An evil corporation is a trope in popular culture that portrays a corporation as ignoring social responsibility in order to make money for its shareholders. …Evil corporations can be seen to represent the danger of combining capitalism with larger hubris.”

What is social responsibility then, that corporations may find easy to ignore? “Social responsibility is an ethical framework and suggests that an entity, be it an organization or individual, has an obligation to act for the benefit of society at large.”[1]

Walmart, for example, has tried to claim social responsibility by its efforts to reduce waste, streamline shipping, and provide better work conditions and wages. Their 2018 Global Responsibility Report highlighted collaboration “with industry experts, NGOs, suppliers and the company’s own research to address risks pertaining to social issues in the supply chain.”[2] In general, Walmart’s approach to “environmental, social and governance issues goes beyond minimizing our own footprint or mitigating risk. We take a more assertive approach: sparking collective action to transform the retail sector for environmental, social and economic stability.”[3]

While naming laudable goals for one of the world’s largest corporations, Walmart continues to reap massive profits for its shareholders and especially the Walton heirs. “Sam Walton’s descendants have a combined wealth of $163.2 billion, according to Bloomberg. This is more than Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett, and nearly $70 billion more than the second-richest family in the United States, the Kochs.”[4]

Bernie Sanders has remarked that the Waltons earn more per minute than its employees earn in a year, and number crunchers have shown this is true (about $25,000 per minute). That imbalance would hardly decrease even if the company paid its 2.1 million employees $20 per hour. That would increase the total payroll by around $20 million, a drop in the bucket to the Walton heirs’ annual dividend payment of about $3.2 billion.  Such a wage increase would also go a long way to reducing employees’ need for social welfare support at taxpayer expense, currently estimated at $6.2 billion in public assistance including food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing.

This kind of inequity in profits versus salaries is one of the reasons corporations are seen as evil. And there’s no question that over the centuries as the corporation has matured as a legal entity, it has also maneuvered ways to embody self-serving benefits into law. It is this unfair advantage of a large, organized, well-financed behemoth versus the unorganized ‘little man’ citizen that drives much of the present-day fury toward corporations.

We can’t rely on corporate conscience to ensure fairness in its wages or environmental conduct, a lesson we’ve learned time and again. Just as environmental laws have reduced egregious corporate pollution, policy makers should pass laws that apportion CEO pay and stockholder dividends according to employee wages to ensure a livable wage. After all, without the employees, corporations would have nothing. Unions used to provide this balance, but right-to-works laws and the move to overseas production has pulled the rug out from under them.

Nevertheless, it’s wrong-headed to blame corporate structure in general for doing what anyone would do, which is to pursue advantages that benefit its goals and rewards. The problem is with those entrusted to make and uphold our laws and their vulnerability to highly paid lobbyists who sell corporate demands on the economic benefits of providing jobs and ignore inequities that place millions of workers in a form of wage slavery.

Local economies have also suffered in cases such as Walmart replacing local businesses supplying groceries, hardware, automobile supplies, clothing, shoes, stationery, and more. Grinding the point home is the fact that most of the profits made by Walmart don’t stay in the local economy but rather aggregate in Walton heirs’ pockets. Just as destructive is the arrival of a Walmart that lasts long enough to drive out  local drug stores, for example, then after a few years moves away, leaving the community without a pharmacy.

Yet enterprises like Walmart, Facebook, Google, Amazon, and massive financial corporations looming over today’s landscape provide jobs, goods, and services that we could not have any other way. Local grocers had no way to provide the assortment and quality of goods available at Walmart. Is it better to have bananas in January or a local grocer stocking a few essentials? These are problems facing a world in transition to a global economy.

Short of catastrophe and the accompanying deprivation it would bring, there’s no clear path to return to a village economy where local farmers are the primary source of food and local craftsmen fashion the only available light fixtures, for example (assuming electricity would be available). Whether we like it or not, we’re accustomed to a world-wide marketplace with advanced delivery systems.

As far as the current political mess in which the Citizens United ruling gave corporations the right of an individual in making political contributions, again we must look to our legislators to remedy the apparent lack of appropriate law. A constitutional amendment may be needed in order to refine the definition of a corporation other than as a ‘person’ with all the same rights as individual citizens.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010), is a landmark United States Supreme Court case concerning campaign finance. … The ruling effectively freed labor unions and corporations to spend money on electioneering communications and to directly advocate for the election or defeat of candidates.”

With the slow death of unions and other consumer/worker advocacy organizations, the political power of corporations has become an obscene force in politics. While the legal structure of corporations in and of itself is not evil, when large corporations spend obscene amounts to influence elections, there is no doubt that their actions are self-serving and not necessarily of benefit to the common man.

The hue and cry, then, must not be about ‘corporations’ but rather against the actions of corporations that undermine our system of government and its stated purpose to protect the rights of its people. The duty to oversee this Constitutional guarantee belongs to all of us as voters but in particular to our elected representatives. It’s past time for us to hold our legislators responsible for their action or inaction on this subject.

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[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_responsibility

[2] https://www.supplychaindive.com/news/walmart-corporate-social-responsibility-efforts/521961/

[3] https://www.energydigital.com/csr/walmarts-2018-csr-report-20mn-tonne-reduction-emissions-sustainable-sourcing-and-more

[4] https://www.businessinsider.com/how-the-waltons-spend-their-fortune-2017-7

Why am I furious?

This is about the institutions and businesses we have to deal with on a daily basis. This is about the failure of corporations to serve the people who depend on them for necessities. This is about the breakdown of human civilization.

Today my daughter left home at 8 a.m. to pick up a rental car which would take her on a 200-mile journey to where she would stand for her oral exams to become licensed. When she arrived at the place where she was to pick up the rental car, she found an empty lot. Apparently the corporate representative she spoke with (on more than one occasion) has no idea what’s going on in the real world. The computer told the corporate representative there was a Fayetteville office. The computer told the corporate representative that my daughter could pick up the car at 8:30 a.m. The corporate representative believed what the computer told him. He lives in India.

This is one tiny example of the customer abuse increasingly rampant across the U.S.

Go into a Walmart store. Look for something you bought three months ago. Not only is it not where you last found it, no one in the store knows if it’s been discontinued or if it’s out of stock or where else in the store it might now be located. And since Walmart has been almost universally successful in under-pricing any local competition out of business, there is no place to find that item you want.

Consider my 95-year-old mother who a few years ago agreed to a switch of her phone from Southwestern Bell to Cox since she already had Cox cable. Touted as a money saving move, the switch has meant that when Cox service is down, she has no phone. For the last two days, this woman who will be 96 in August had to walk to a neighbor’s house to use a telephone, and that worked only because the neighbor had a cell phone. Because Cox is out all over town.

Who is responsible? Who cares that this fragile woman can’t use her phone? Will she or any of the Cox customers without phone or cable service be refunded for the days Cox didn’t provide its contracted services? Ha!

Consider my nine-month old refrigerator. As if anticipating the problem, installers set the refrigerator and freezer at their lowest temperature settings. Despite that, the refrigerator has never cooled below 45° even though the FDA says 40° is the highest safe temperature for storing food. Or my new range, also nine months old. The manufacturer saved money by downgrading the controls. The oven light doesn’t come on automatically. Oven temperature is set by ten degree increments instead of five like my former range. Heat pours up from the bottom of the oven door which gaps enough that I see the flames reflected on the floor.

A couple of months ago, I came into the cross hairs of an organized hate group because I said something they didn’t like in a public policy discussion on the Arkansas Times Facebook page. Not content with rationally arguing their views on that forum, they attacked me personally and professionally. One of the places they could harm me was on Amazon.com where my books are for sale. They proceeded to go to each of my books and post 1-star reviews.

In order to report a ‘problem’ with book reviews, you must use certain links. Then the workers (in the Philippines) check the review guidelines and if the reported review violates the guidelines, they are able to remove it. If it doesn’t violate the guidelines, they can’t remove it.

Of the 39 one-star reviews posted to my books on Amazon, fourteen now remain. It took two months and over thirty online requests and repeated phone calls to Amazon service representatives to achieve even this partial success. Amazon service representatives aren’t allowed to remove reviews. That’s only accomplished through a special department which has no phone access.

One service representative kindly explained that if the review change requests aren’t formatted in a specific way, the requests can’t be processed. He took my information and submitted the change requests in the required format and as a result, eight of the 39 reviews were removed. But I never could reach him again because there are thousands of customer service representatives (in Seattle) and the service requests go to whoever is next available and none of the other seven service representatives I spoke with offered any assistance, instead referring me back to the online review report system.

Now I have fourteen 1-star reviews written between March 24 and March 30, 2019, by people whose sole intent is to harm me and there is nothing I can do about it. You would think that any platform presenting itself to the public as a service to authors would carry some responsibility to protect said authors from attacks like this. So far I haven’t found an attorney who knows enough about online entities like Amazon to advise me on whether I can sue Amazon for failing to protect me from this harm.

But I haven’t stopped trying.

The problem, in part, lies with men like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg who believe they can set up an enterprise and replace thinking human workers with lists of guidelines and/or algorithms. Anyone who’s ever had a problem on Facebook knows only too well that THERE IS NO PHONE NUMBER to call if you have a problem.

Zuckerberg has refused to delete a purposefully distorted Facebook video of Nancy Pelosi. His response? “We don’t have a policy that stipulates that the information you post on Facebook must be true.” So if it’s not their policy, it must be OK. No responsibility. No morals or ethical standards. Since Facebook is “free,” users have no rights.

I want to sit down with Bezos and explain why a list of review guidelines can never anticipate the myriad problems which might occur. I want him to invest in employees who have the authority to think on their feet. I want to punch him in the face if he doesn’t accept responsibility for the protection of authors whose books are sold on his website.

Companies routinely profit off your crisis whether it’s no rental car, no phone service, or intractable one-star reviews. By refusing to ensure employees are available for customer needs and capable of fully comprehending English and U.S. social norms, corporate moguls like Zuckerberg and Bezos zoom to the top echelons of the world’s wealthiest people along with bankers who can pull off mortgage fraud and the ultra-rich Walton heirs who insist they can’t possibly pay their employees a living wage.

News alert to the Waltons: It’s the employees who earn your fortunes.

Feeling so smug with their “success,” what these greedy MFs don’t realize (or care about) is the steady toll on our society, their contribution to the destruction of the marketplace, the rising level of anger and frustration, or the inevitable outcome when all that bottled up rage manifests itself in violence.

I like to think of a time when vacant big box stores have been converted into housing or indoor farmers markets, when I can wander into a mom and pop store and ask where to find that thing I bought three months ago and they lead me to the shelf where it’s now found. Or they tell me how long it will take for them to get the next order. You know, human interaction, smiles and apologies and gestures of good will.

I like to think of Zuckerberg spending his days sitting face to face with people subject to his data gathering and advertising, to hear real world crises with his genius setup so that he can actually understand the problem. I like to imagine Bezos being subjected to one-star reviews for his books – but then he’s never written a book, so…

I don’t have anything against the people of India or the Philippines or anywhere else where people need jobs. But I don’t think for one minute that the employment of foreign workers is about helping them. It’s about paying the cheapest possible labor in order to generate higher profits for the fat cats at the top.

It’s about pushing customers in need of those goods and services as far as possible toward the brink, of Bezos calculating that authors like me need to market on his website and will continue to use those services even if he doesn’t protect me from hate campaigns. It’s about Walmart knowing they’ve destroyed all the local stores and entire companies and product lines in order to create a monopoly on the majority of consumer goods.

None of this is new. It’s a creeping illness in our society—and the world—that has yet to hit bottom. We’re hooked on what they offer and can’t get off the hook.

How long before we revolt? The guillotine comes to mind.

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Michael Douglas in Falling Down: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkwQ6EjLdMQ

Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdIXrF34Bz0