11 02 2006

It’s been called putting a bandaid on cancer, and that’s not even my wild-eyed, crazy way of saying it. Tennessee State Senator Steve Cohen, an elected official, called it that. But he’s an advocate of medical marihuana, so maybe he is wild-eyed and crazy. Still, he’s an state senator, and I, who am deeply suspicious of elected officials, am inclined to agree with him. What we are referring to is the ethics reform bill just passed by the Tennessee Legislature. Like any promise of reform from an unrepentant addict, it’s heartbreakingly meaningless. The bill puts limits on what lobbyists can do, but that’s like putting limits on how much a shark can bite instead of getting rid of the shark—if the shark has to take ten little bites to eat you instead of one big one, he’ll just take his time and bite you ten times to get what he wants, because you still haven’t kept him from getting what he wants.

What would “getting rid of the shark” look like? We can see an example in the State of Maine, which has recently made public financing of political campaigns a cornerstone of its democracy. Most Maine legislators are now campaigning with funds provided by the taxpayers of Maine, instead of the state’s wealthy business interests, and it is making a difference. Maine is now the only state in the Union that offers universal health care—something blocked year after year by lobbying interests although poll after poll reveals its popularity and study after study reveals its sanity. Just for another example, Maine has also passed legislation guaranteeing truckers overtime pay, although every trucking company in the state opposed it.

Here’s how lobbying and state government work elsewhere: in West Virginia, when legislation was introduced due to public outrage over accidents from illegally overloaded coal trucks, by the time the  lobbyists got through with it the law raised the legal load limit on coal trucks

A great deal of this has to do with the legal notion that corporations are “persons” in somewhat the same sense that you and I are persons: corporations are entitled to the same rights of free speech and discretionary spending that human beings are. (Fortunately, they have not yet been accorded the right to vote—although they can buy elections a lot more easily than you or I!) Now, there are some important differences between a corporation with the right of free speech and discretionary spending and a human being with those rights.

First, a corporation is likely to have a great deal more money and other resources than a human being—insofar as freedom of the press is for those who own one, they can buy not merely presses but editors and publishers and distributors and retail outlets. They can buy out their competition and shut it down much more readily than a private citizen can. Comcast, Bell, and some other big corporations are trying to do that to the internet, even as we speak.

Second, corporations, properly run, live much longer than human beings, and having composite brains made up of replaceable individuals dedicated to their service, are capable of carrying out more complex and longer-term plans than individual human beings. This can be a good thing. It can also be a very bad thing.

Third, a for-profit corporation is committed through its charter to one basic purpose: becoming bigger and wealthier. To state this a little differently, for-profit corporations are dedicated to infinite self-agrandisement. If this were the case for an individual human being, that person would be deemed a dangerous sociopath or psychopath, removed from all positions of responsibility, and segregated from society. In the case of corporations, we tend to put them in positions of responsibility and let them order society. I don’t know about you, but this does not make sense to me.

Not-for-profit corporations, by contrast, are primarily dedicated to providing some kind of service, rather than to self-enrichment. This is a much saner business model.

A fourth difference between corporations and individual humans is that, while humans may face capital punishment for crimes against society, corporations face no such direct threat. Only financial judgments may be levied against them, and if those financial judgments wreak havoc with the corporate bottom line, there are bankruptcy courts that are the financial equivalent of Intensive Care Units, designed to do everything they can to keep their corporate patients’ cash flowing. There is no such state-run fallback mechanism for individual human beings who run afoul of the death penalty—and due to recent changes in the law there’s a lot less help for those of us who fall into mere bankruptcy, too.

Now, I seem to be a bit far afield from ethics reform in the Tennessee Legislature, but I think real legislative ethics reform has to be sweeping enough to bring corporations to heel, including capital punishment for the most serious corporate crimes. That is, a corporation should be subject to dissolution for doing things that get large numbers of people killed or injured—think Bhopal, Three Mile Island, Dow, Dupont, asbestos, coal mining…the corporate sector in America is completely out of control. It should exist to serve the people, not the other way ’round, as our current government advocates.

I think another wider reform that would bring us a more ethical government would be greater competition in the political field. We need to work to break up the Demopublican stranglehold on elected office. The either-or political choices we are forced into by this monopoly do not encourage creative thinking. We need to make politics more of a multiple choice affair. Just for openers, we need to make it legal for so-called “third party” candidates to list their party affiliation on the Tennessee ballot.

Equally important would be the institution of Instant Runoff voting, which allows you to vote for your second choice as well as your first choice. For example, I’d rather see the Green Party’s Chris Lugo as senator from Tennessee than Democrat Harold Ford, but I’d much rather see Ford in the post than, just for example, Van Hilleary. So I could cast my primary vote for Chris, and my secondary vote for Harold. And, if Chris doesn’t win, but Ford can plainly see that he won because he was the second choice of a substantial minority of Green Party voters, then he knows he has to keep the Green Party faction happy to get elected. And if Chris gets elected because a whole lot of people feel more comfortable voting for a Green over a Democrat because they know they’re not supporting a Republican by splitting the non-Republican vote, so much the better.

Other reform measures that would result in a more honest legislature would be making referendum and recall readily available to the citizens of Tennessee, so that not only do the Republicrats lose their monopoly on elected office, the legislature no longer has a monopoly on enacting legislation. And of course, the foundation of any electoral system is a tamper-proof voting system—for which we need national legislation to replace Bush’s Helping Americans Vote Republican act, which, by pushing states towards non-verifiable electronic voting systems, makes it easier to steal elections.

Meanwhile, there’s cancer in our legislature and all we’ve got for it is this lousy bandaid. Guess we need to make more noise.

(no music segue)



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