In the Public Trust

Great Depression

Debates rage in Congress, State Houses and on Cable News over government intrusion on business. Talk of bailouts, nationalizing banks, regulating hedge funds, limiting power companies’ pollution, charging fair grazing fees and mining rights on public lands, direct loans to corporations, pseudo-government corporate ownership, government-sponsored investment funds, companies too-big-to-fail, corporate campaign contributions, limiting offshore tax havens, unfair government competition with cable and telephone suppliers over opening up the broadcast spectrum to free wireless internet to everyone, and unfair government competition with private insurers over universal medical coverage (to name more than a few), has brought labels of socialism, big government and anti-business back to the forefront of popular Google searches. So, what is the role of business vis-a-vis government?

Before there were corporations, there was government. Before government, there were people. Corporations are allowed to exist only because government gives them the standing. Likewise, at least in the US, government is only allowed to exist because of a special pact – a contract, if you will, with the people. We refer to it most often as the Constitution. It is the people, who have inalienable rights. Not government. And certainly not business.

While individuals have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” corporations do not. For much of US history, to create what we now call a corporation, required an act of a state legislature and those charters were closely regulated to protect the public interest (the federal government can only create corporate entities from the powers derived from the Constitution – for instance, Federal Banks). Things changed dramatically in late 20th century as states wishing to attract more “bizness,” loosened regulations (Delaware and Nevada are the most notorious for lack of regulation and where the largest corporations who have not yet gone offshore to escape almost any regulation or taxes, are most likely chartered).

Corporations, when combined with inexhaustible supplies of capital; limited stockholder representation in management; competition between states who would look the other way on regulation in exchange for the hope of jobs and campaign contributions; an inexhaustible supply of workers – legal or otherwise; new manufacturing and distribution methods; the expansion of the patent laws; the proliferation of lobbyists and their perks; the lack of transparency of what they were doing before it was too late; their unlimited budget for lawyers; and the opportunity for profit, lead quickly, of course, to monopolies, aka: cartels (and predatory pricing, price gouging, manipulation of markets by limiting supplies, collusion, discriminatory trade, tort reform, inability to organize workers, fraud, bribery, dangerous products, pollution, more lobbying, George W. Bush, etc.). Nefarious monopolies were first outlawed around 50BC, and in the US in 1894, but the laws are largely ignored here except during times when the majority of the Supreme Court was appointed by Democrats. There are some exceptions to the monopoly law. Most notable are professional sports and public utilities which are supposed to maintain infrastructure for a public service and be closely regulated, but the power to corrupt will always trump good intentions.

By now, your thoughts must be screaming, “when will you get to the point?” How ‘bout I skip the rest of the civics lesson and offer it now? Our government need not protect an industry or corporation’s ability to profit when it is contrary to the public trust. Government needs to do what’s good for the people. Practical examples:

• We’ve gone to digital television to open up the underutilized television broadcast spectrum. Our so-called public utilities (cable, satellite providers, wired and wireless phone companies and power companies – okay, not all in this list are still public utilities) want to own this spectrum so they can continue to do what they do best: provide as little service as possible while charging us as much as possible. Problem is, this bandwidth (and about a billion dollars or so, some cooperation/mergers and some maintenance) could provide internet access for everyone and the enhanced internet could be used to replace all cell and television service saving the people hundreds of billions every year. What is in the public good?

• US employers need to be more globally competitive, yet the cost of providing employee heath insurance is among their greatest expense. The number of uninsured in the US is about 50 million and rising. As a society, we pay for care anyway through indigent care expenses, lost productive and taxed wages, and early death of the uninsured. The problem is that we have the health insurance industry and they have lobbyists. Ditto the unions. Ditto big-pharma. Now ask yourself, what’s in the public good? Maintaining a vibrant health insurance industry, helping executives and union members have extravagant health plans and allowing the drug companies to overcharge? Or, making business more competitive and everyone more healthy at a lower cost?

• Admittedly, any regulation of hedge funds would make them less competitive with the criminals in other countries and it may mean that some of these imaginary deals will end up being made offshore, but since they do absolutely nothing to positively improve the human condition short of enriching the schemers themselves, is it really in the public good that they should do whatever they want and answer to no one when the result of this practice so far, has led to financial ruin of hundreds of millions? Ask yourself if government would be acting in the public trust to keep this unregulated (which they are now) or even under-regulated, which any lobbyist-inspired Congressional compromise would surely render?

• Admittedly, the financial industry funds more campaign contributions and lobbyists than any other group; likewise, community giving, and we’d miss that for a while. But clearly history has shown us that the FDIC can take over, fix and re-privatize a bank without anyone suffering, other than the executives and shareholders who took the failed risks and should be responsible. What is in the public good of doing otherwise?

• In your wildest dreams, does anyone believe that power companies with investments in dirty coal (Georgia Power comes to mind) will ever reduce their pollution unless forced to or incented to? Yes, it would cost their customers some money through increased rates. Money that companies in states with public regulation have long ago paid. But just to top it off, please note that Georgia Power’s lobbyist just bribed the legislature to pass an increase in rates for a fictitious nuclear reactor they pretend they are going to build 10 years from now even though no reactor has been licensed in the US in more than 20 years. Scandalous, for sure. In the public interest? Not.

Government must be for the people. Not for the corporations.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.” –Declaration of Independence as originally written by Thomas Jefferson, 1776. ME 1:29, Papers 1:315

One thought on “In the Public Trust

Leave a Reply