A Citizen Agenda toBased on When Corporations Rule the World by David C. Korten
Tame Corporate Power,
Reclaim Citizen Sovereignty,
and Restore Economic Sanity
Kumarian Press and Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1995
Policies advocated by free market or corporate libertarian ideologues have led to the creation of an economic system out of control. So what can we do? Needless to say, it hasn't been easy to create an economic system able to produce 358 billionaires while keeping another 1.3 billion people living in absolute deprivation. It took long and dedicated effort by legions of economists, lawyers, and politicians on the payrolls of monied interests to design and implement such a system. It required a radical altering of the dominant culture and the restructuring of many important institutions. It will take a similarly committed effort on the part of civil society to design and put in place an economic system supportive of economic justice and environmental sustainability.
Reclaiming Our Political SpacesTo reclaim our economic spaces, we must first reclaim our political spaces from the corporations and other big money interests that control them. This will require far more than incremental or marginal changes. The following are among the obvious, but ambitious measures that must be considered.
- Prohibit political advertising on television. TV political ads are far more often misleading than informative, extremely expensive, discredit the political system, and give money inordinate power in deciding elections. In their stead, electronic communications media that enjoy access to the public airways should be required as part of their public service obligation to provide ample time for debates, interviews, and roundtables with political candidates-thus giving the public in-depth exposure to their ideas and personalities.
- Place strict limits on individual campaign contributions. The principle of democracy is one person one vote, not one dollar one vote.
- Place strict limits on campaign spending. We want to know what a political candidate can do with a limited budget, not how effectively he or she can manipulate us with large amounts of money.
- Strip corporations of their fictitious human rights. Take appropriate legislative action to put aside the legal fabrication created by a corrupted court system that corporations have the same rights as individuals. Only living things have natural rights.
- Get corporations entirely out of politics. Corporations are public bodies created by public charter to serve a public purpose. It is the responsibility of the corporation so created to obey the rules that people chose to set for them, not make the rules. Therefore, corporations should be barred from making political contributions of any kind. Indeed, they should also be barred from any involvement in politics and political advocacyincluding the solicitation of their employees, shareholders, sales outlets, and suppliers to make either political contributions or representations on political or public policy matters. Corporate charitable contributions should also be prohibited in recognition of their widespread abuse to advance corporate political aims. The corporation's workers and individual shareholdersnot corporate managementshould make their own decisions as to how their shares of corporate income will be allocated for political and charitable purposes.
- Eliminate the concentration of media ownership. To avoid concentration of media power and assure a diversity of political voices, the communications media should be subjected to strict anti-trust provisions prohibiting any single individual or corporation from owning more than one major electronic or print media outlet. This would both increase the diversity of independent editorial voices and strengthen competition in the media industry.
- Take back the corporate charter. Facilitate citizen action to withdraw the charters of corporations that demonstrate disregard for the law or otherwise fail to serve the public good.
Reclaiming Our Economic SpacesOne of the fundamental points on which Adam Smith and Karl Marx agreed is that workers should own their means of production. Though not widely noted, in the small enterprises of Adam Smith's ideal economy the worker was generally also the owner and manager. Furthermore, Smith assumed that enterprises would be locally owned and that their owners would thus be imbedded in a framework of local community values and interests. While Smith believed in the benefits of trade, he considered it logical that most markets would be local because of the costs and uncertainties of trading with foreign lands. He took an especially dim view of large corporations with absentee owners that used their political and market power to extract monopoly profits.
Our present globalized economic system affirms much of the wisdom of Smith's vision. The more economic power becomes highly concentrated and detached from any local interest, the more surely it is used to benefit the power holders at the expense of larger community interests.
If we intend that markets allocate resources efficiently in the public interest, then we must restructure them to fulfill the appropriate conditionsmuch as Smith defined them. Thus, it will be necessary to break up large concentrations of economic power, re-establish the connection between investment returns and productive activity, create incentives for producers to internalize their costs, and root the ownership of capital locally in people and communities engaged primarily in local production to meet local needs. It will also be necessary to reduce and slow international financial flows, deflate the global pool of extractive capital, and favor long-term over short-term investment.
The needed restructuring is appropriately guided by a vision of a global system of localized economies that reduce the scale of economic activity and link economic decisions to their consequences. Working out the details of an appropriate policy agenda will require our best minds and substantial experimentation. The following are some of the measures that should be considered.
- A 0.5 percent financial transactions tax on the purchase and sale of financial instruments such as stocks, bonds, foreign currencies, and derivatives to discourage short-term speculation and arbitraging.
- A graduated surtax on short-term capital gains to make most speculation unprofitable, stabilize financial markets, and lengthen investment perspectives without penalizing long-term productive investment. The surtax on the sale of an asset held less than a week might be as high as 80 percent.
- A 100 percent reserve requirement on demand deposits to reduce the ability of the financial system to create money by pyramiding loans. This would make it possible to restore the connection between the creation of money and the creation of wealth.
- Preferential Treatment of community banks. Governments should guarantee only deposits placed in unitary community banks that channel the majority of their funds back to the community.
- Rigorous enforcement of anti-trust laws to break up concentrations of corporate power. Buy-out and merger proposals should be subject to intensive and skeptical governmental review with the burden of proof resting on the proposing party to show that the proposal will advance the long-term publicnot just short-term investorinterests.
- Worker and community buy-outs. Before a major corporation is allowed to close a plant or undertake a sale or merger, the affected workers and community should have a legal right of first option to buy-out the assets on preferential terms. The terms should reflect the workers' years of personal investment of their labor in the company and the collective investment of the local community in public facilities that have made its local operations possible. Bankruptcy rules should be structured similarly to give employees and communities a buy-out option. Similarly, when a company is required to divest parts of its operation under antitrust, employees and/or the community should have first option to buy the divested units. Government oversight should assure that such buy-outs are structured so that workers and/or communities have real control. Rules governing company pension funds might be revised to allow their use by employees to purchase voting control of their firm's assets.
- Tax Shifting. Corporate tax law should be revised to shift taxes from things that benefit society, such as employment-employer contributions to social security, health care, and workman's compensationin favor of taxing activities that contribute to social and environmental dysfunctionsuch as resource extraction, packaging, pollution, energy use, imports, corporate lobbying, and advertising.
- Annual Profit Payout. Corporate income taxes should be eliminated simultaneously with the introduction of a requirement that corporations pay out their profits each year to their shareholders. These profits would thus be taxed as shareholder income at the shareholder's normal marginal rate. Corporations would then have no incentive to shift profits around the world to the jurisdiction with the lowest tax rate. Interest payments on debt financing would come directly out of profits, rather than out of taxes, thus discouraging the use of debt financing and making most corporate buyouts unprofitable.
- Corporate Subsidies. Welfare reform should give top priority to getting dependent corporations off the welfare rolls.
- Intellectual Property. The appropriate purpose of intellectual property rights protection is to provide incentives for research and creative contribution, not to create protected information monopolies. Intellectual property rights should be defined and interpreted narrowly and granted only for the minimum period of time necessary to allow those who invest in research to recover their costs and a reasonable profit. The patenting of any life form or genetic process, any discovery funded with public monies, or any process or technology that gives the holder effective monopoly control over a type of research or class of products should be precluded by law.
- Advertising. Those forms of advertising that serve to encourage consumption rather than simply inform prospective customers regarding the availability and specifications of products should be banned. This will at once eliminate an important market advantage of large corporations and remove an important underpinning of the consumer culture.
- Debit Cards. Replace credit cards, which encourage indebtedness and consumption beyond one's means, with debit cards, which are merely a convenient substitute for cash.
Economic Equity and SecurityInequality makes it possible for those with economic power to pass the costs of their unsustainable consumption onto the economically weak and encourages extravagant consumption by the few. Economic insecurity creates a significant incentive for individuals to accumulate wealth beyond their real need. Public policies that favor economic equality and assure basic economic security should move us toward sustainability as well. Appropriate measures may include:
- A guaranteed income sufficient to meet basic subsistence needs;
- Highly progressive income and consumption taxes on levels of income and consumption above those required to comfortably meet basic needs;
- Taxation of inheritance and trust income at the same rate as any other income to avoid creating a perpetual privileged class and provide an incentive for the offspring of wealthy families to make their own creative contribution; and
- A reduced workweek to allocate available paid employment equitably.
International ReformsA number of reforms are required at the global level to remove important sources of injustice and restrain the power of transnational capital. These include:
- Eliminating international debts of low income countries. The public international debts of low income countries should be eliminated through a two step process. Odious debts contracted without public consent or for purposes that did not serve public purposes should be repudiated through appropriate internationally sanctioned legal processes to pass the costs onto the responsible individuals and financial institutions. The remaining debts should be repaid out of an international fund under agreements that preclude recreating them.
- Closing the World Bank as part of the plan to end the process of international debt creation. It is time to recognize that creating an institution to increase the debts of poor countries was simply a bad idea.
- Placing an international financial transactions tax on all spot transactions in foreign exchange to dampen speculative currency movements. The funds generated should be used to retire Third World debt and fund the United Nations.
- Closing the World Trade organization (WTO) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and transferring responsibility for international economic management to the United Nations, with the mandate to maintain a balanced and equitable system of economic relationships among nations that encourages and supports substantial environmental and economic self-reliance. Responsibilities would include negotiating and enforcing agreements establishing standards of conduct for transnational corporations, coordinating international antitrust action, and protecting the rights of all nations to chose with whom they will trade under what terms and to set rules and standards for businesses operating in their jurisdictions. Decision processes should be transparent and open to public participation.
- Monitor cross border environmental flows. Establish an international monitoring system to report imbalances in flows of environmental resources between countries as a step toward limiting the ability of one country to pass the environmental burdens of its consumption to another.
This is an admittedly full agenda. And it is surely incomplete. There is no simple fix for a system as badly broken as the one we presently have. This list is illustrative of the types of measures that must be considered. There is need for a vigorous public debate toward building a broadly based political consensus in support of comprehensive citizen agendas for national and international reforms adequate to the task of building just and sustainable societies for the new millennium.
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