In my travels and conversations this year, I've been encouraged that grass-roots people of all progressive stripes (populist, labor, liberal, environmental, women, civil libertarian, et al.) are well aware of the slipperiness of "victory" and want Washington to get it right this time. So over and over, Question No. 1 that I encounter is some variation of this: What should we do!?! How do we make Washington govern for all the people? What specific things can my group or I do now?
Near my home in Austin, Texas, there is a great, old refurbished motel that I recommend to people when they come to visit our fair city. It not only is right on the famed Congress Avenue but also has a keep-it-real attitude that is expressed right on its iconic marquee: "No additives, no preservatives, corporate-free since 1938."
The good news is that more and more businesses across the country are adopting this attitude, providing a buy-local, un-corporate, anti-chain alternative for customers. Food shoppers and restaurant goers, for example, have made a huge shift in recent years away from the likes of McDonald's, Pepsi and Taco Bell, preferring upstart, independent outfits with names like "The Corner," "Caleb's Kola," and "US Taco Co."
But uh-oh, guess who owns those little local alternatives. Right -- McDonald's, PepsiCo and Taco Bell. Leave it to ethically challenged, profiteering monopolists to grab such value-laden terms as "genuine," "local" and "honest," empty them of any authenticity, then hurl them back at consumers as shamefully deceptive marketing scams.
In Huntington Beach, California, US Taco Co. poses as a hip surfer haunt, with a colorful "Day of the Dead" Mexican skull as its logo. The airy place peddles lobster tacos and other fare at $3 or $4 each -- very un-fast-foody. Nowhere is it whispered that this is a big-chain outlet, created by a group of Taco Bell insiders. They even usurped the enterprising word "entrepreneur," stripped it of its outsider connotation, and twisted it into an ugly corporate vanity, calling themselves "intrapreneurs."
Fast-food restaurants are not the only ones that play this profitable imitation game. As everyone who travels a lot soon learns, when you stay in the hotels of the big chains, it's easy to forget where you are, since they are all so alike, offering all the charm of Noplace, USA.
This disorienting sameness has become even more dizzying in recent years as the chains have merged and conglomerated. Weary travelers might choose to stay overnight in one of the Residence Inn hotels, a Courtyard, the TownePlace Suites or even splurge for a night in a ritzy Ritz-Carlton. In fact, though, whichever one you choose, you're in a Marriott -- the $14 billion-a-year combine that owns all of the above chains, along with 15 others. Marriott is among the world's 10 largest hoteliers that have a combined 113 different chains in their crowded stable of brand names.
Naturally, as uniformity and conglomeration have taken over the industry, a consumer rebellion has erupted, with more and more travelers -- especially younger ones -- seeking out independent hotels, unique inns and local B&Bs. They prefer the un-corporate places that have cool names like the Moxy, Canopy and Vib. But oh, crud, guess what. All three of those are chains of "hip" hotels that opened in the past year and are owned respectively by Marriott, Hilton and Best Western.
Known in the industry as "lifestyle hotels," these fake-independent lodgings are the hot new niche for mega-conglomerates trying to nab travelers in search of authenticity. "The big hotel chains are in the business of pretending they aren't big chains," says Pauline Frommer, editor of the well-regarded Frommer's travel guides. "They want you to think they are boutiques."
Sneaky, sneaky! But the real problem with these fabricators of corporatized authenticity is that reality will win out in the end. Small and local has a genuine feel and flavor that the imitators can't sustain as they sprawl out into 1,000 and then 10,000 stores. And as they do that, it becomes obvious to customers that they've been duped -- and that's not a good marketing strategy. We dupes will not only quickly see that we're being sold plastic "authenticity" but also be ticked off about it.
They say there's honor among thieves, but I say: That depends on the thieves.
Your common street thief, yes -- but not those princely CEO's of corporate larceny. America's working families have learned the elites in the top suites are rewarded for being pickpockets, swindlers, thugs and scoundrels, routinely committing mass economic violence against the majority of America's working people to further enrich and empower themselves.
But now comes a cabal of about two-dozen corporate chieftains pushing a vicious new campaign of physical violence against workers. The infamous anti-labor bully, Wal-Mart, is among the leaders, but so are such prestigious chains as Macy's and Nordstrom, along with Lowe's, Kohl's and Safeway. Their goal is to gut our nation's workers compensation program, freeing corporate giants to injure or even kill employees in the workplace without having to cover all (or, in many cases, any) of the lost wages, medical care or burial expenses of those harmed.
Started more than 100 years ago, workers comp insurance is one of our society's most fundamental contracts between injured employees who give up the right to sue their companies for negligence when injured on the job and employers who pay for insurance to cover a basic level of medical benefits and wages for those harmed. Administered by state governments, benefits vary, and they usually fall far short of meeting the full needs of the injured people. But the program has at least provided an important measure of help and a bit of fairness to assuage the suffering of millions.
But even that's too much for the avaricious thieves atop these multibillion-dollar corporations. Why pay for insuring employees when it's much cheaper just to buy state legislators who are willing to privatize workers' comp? This lets corporations write their own rules of compensation to slash benefits, cut safety costs -- and earn thieving CEO's bigger bonuses.
But who, you might ask, would help these corporate crooks in their callous and calculating scheme to rob workers of their hard-earned benefits? Why, that would be the work of ARAWC -- the Association for Responsible Alternatives to Workers' Compensation.
When you come across a corporate lobbying group claiming to be pushing "Responsible Alternatives to Such-and-Such," you can rightly assume that it's really pushing something totally irresponsible, as well as malicious, shameless, self-serving and even disgusting. Mother Jones magazine reports that ARAWC is a front group funded by these hugely profitable retail chains and corporate behemoths that want to weasel out of compensating employees who suffer injuries at work. By law, corporations in nearly every state must carry workers' comp insurance, but the ARAWC lobbying combine is pressuring legislators to allow the giants to opt-out of the state benefit plans and instead substitute their own, highly restrictive set of benefits.
What a deal! But it's a raw deal for injured workers. In Texas, which already has this write-it-yourself loophole, more than half of the corporate plans -- get this -- pay nothing to the families of workers who're killed in job accidents! Similarly, under an ARAWC-written opt-out provision that a Tennessee senator sponsored this year, employers wouldn't have to cover artificial limbs, home care or even funeral expenses of on-the-job accident victims.
Also, the Tennessee bill lets a company simply walk away from maimed workers after just three years or after paying only $300,000 in expenses. Corporations always claim to "value" their employees -- and this tells us exactly how little that value is.
By the way, the CEO of ARAWC also happens to be the head of "risk management" at the mingiest of workplaces: Wal-Mart. And that's what this opt-out scam amounts to -- corporate profiteers hoping they can manage to escape paying for risking the lives of America's workforce. Yes, this shifty move is a scurrilous crime, but it's a crime that pays richly for those at the top. And the money can fill the hole in their souls where their honor used to be.
At last, America's political leaders indicate that they now hear the voices and feel the pain of the poor and of the millions of working families slipping out of the middle class.
Congress had previously paid no attention to the ever-widening chasm between the rich and the rest of us, but that inequality has recently emerged as a top political topic in the race for such Republican presidential contenders as Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. They are publicly lamenting the wealth gap and -- by gollies -- proposing solutions. Alas, though, the "solution" proposed by each of them is not to provide help for those who've been knocked down, but to offer aid to the same corporate elites who've been enriching themselves by knocking down the middle class and holding down the poor.
Specifically, their solution is to cut taxes on corporations and the rich, do away with environmental and labor protections and cut or privatize government programs -- from Head Start to Social Security -- that ordinary people count on. For example, Sen. Rubio proposes to kill the food stamp program (even though the need for it is greater than ever) and redirect that money into what he calls a subsidy for low-wage workers. Does he think we have sucker-wrappers around our heads? That's not a subsidy for workers, but for low-wage employers. Why should taxpayers subsidize the poverty pay of profitable giants such as McDonald's, rather than making them pay living wages and cover their own labor costs?
I guess we should count it as progress that Republican candidates are at least having to admit that inequality is a problem, but come on -- offering the same old failed, anti-government snake oil is an insult to the American people. Jeb Bush shows how vacuous their flim-flammery is by saying that, to address the ever-widening wealth and income gap, he'll "celebrate success and ... cherish free enterprise." Gosh, what a comfort that'll be to America's hard-hit majority.
It may be futile to hope that the GOP's gaggle of corporate-hugging, right-wing presidential candidates will seriously address the issue of rising inequality in our "Land of Opportunity" -- but where are the Democrats?
At present, they're mostly with Hillary Clinton, who has warned that, "extreme inequality has corrupted other societies." Uh ... yes, but what about our society? Clinton says: "We have to have a concerted effort to meet a consensus about how to deal with this."
Huh? That's not an answer, much less a solution -- it's a political tap dance around a crucial matter facing America. Why would she dodge a chance to swing away at a down-the-middle, working-class issue that's right in the wheelhouse of her party's populist strength? After all, recent polls show huge public support for direct government action to reduce the wealth gap, from raising taxes on the superrich to raising the minimum wage above the poverty level.
But there is one tiny constituency whose opinion outweighs all others on this issue: The 1-Percenters. Clinton and other top Democrats are weaker than Canadian hot sauce when it comes to embracing the unequivocating populism that ordinary voters want, because only 13 percent of the superrich think government should take action to redress inequality. These privileged ones tend to blame America's widening inequities on the very people who're losing jobs, income and wealth -- claiming that such people should simply improve their work ethic and character.
Why would Democrats care what these few supercilious elites think? Well, because meek Democrats like Clinton have become so dependent on rich people's campaign checks that these Democrats let the 1-percent restrict the party's policies and message, thus alienating the workaday majority.
When both parties kowtow to money, the people's needs are ignored, and politics becomes illegitimate.
"Do the crime, do the time," the old saying goes. Unless, of course, the criminals are corporate executives. In those cases, the culprits are practically always given a "Get out of jail free" card.
Even the corporate crimes that produce horrible injuries, illnesses, death, massive pollution, consumer ripoffs, etc. are routinely settled by fines and payoffs from the corporate treasury, with no punishment of the honchos who oversee what amount to crime-for-profit syndicates. The only bit of justice in these money settlements is that some of them have become quite large, with multibillion-dollar "punitive damages" meant to deter the perpetrators from doing it again. Yet the same bad corporate actors seem to keep at it.
What's going on here is a game of winkin' 'n' noddin', in which corporate criminals know that those headline-grabbing assessments for damages they've caused have a secret escape hatch built into them. Congress has generously written the law so corporations can deduct much of their punitive payments from their income taxes! As Sen. Pat Leahy points out, "This tax loophole allows corporations to wreak havoc and then write it off as a cost of doing business."
For example, oil giant BP certainly wreaked havoc with its careless oil rig explosion in 2010, killing 11 workers, deeply contaminating the Gulf of Mexico and devastating the livelihoods of millions of people along the Gulf coast. So, BP was socked with a punishing payout topping $42 billion. But -- shhhh -- 80 percent of that was eligible for a tax deduction, a little fact that's been effectively covered up by the bosses and politicians.
This crazy quirk in America's laws to deter corporate crime forces victims to help subsidize criminals. Follow the bouncing ball here: First, a court orders a corporation to pay punitive damages to a victim of its criminal acts; second, the corporate offender pays up, and then merrily subtracts a big chunk of that payment from its income tax, effectively taking money out of our public treasury; third, while the criminal is counting its tax break, the victim is notified that the punitive damage money he or she received from the corporation will be taxed as "regular income;" fourth, that means a big chunk of the victim's payment goes into the treasury to replenish the public money the corporate villain subtracted.
This is nothing but shameful pandering by government officials to rich and powerful criminals. It's bad enough that corporate-financed lawmakers legalize such encouragement of criminality, but corporate-coddling judges are playing the same disgraceful game -- drastically reducing the amounts that juries order corporations to pay. In a Montana case, for example, a jury awarded $240 million in punitive damages to the families of three people, including two teenagers, killed in a car crash. The deaths were blamed on a steering defect that South Korean automaker Hyundai was found to have known about and "recklessly" ignored for more than a decade. But a district judge has since supplanted the jury's ruling with her own. While declaring that Hyundai's "reprehensibility" certainly warrants a sizeable punishment, she cut the corporation's punitive payment down to $73 million.
Hello -- that's not punishment to a $79-billion-a-year car giant, it's pocket change. Why would Hyundai executives quit putting corporate profits over people's lives if that's their "punishment"?
Plus, we taxpayers and the victims' families are still lined up to subsidize whatever "punishment" Hyundai ultimately pays. With subsidies and wrist-slaps, the corporate criminal whirligig will continue to spin, making a mockery of justice. Fortunately, Sen. Leahy has had the good sense to introduce legislation to lock down this escape hatch for thieves, killers and other executive-suite villains. For more information on the moral outrage of ordinary taxpayers being forced to subsidize corporate criminals, contact U.S. PIRG at www.uspirg.org.
Chicago! City of broad shoulders. Plutocratic hog butcher. Toolmaker for progressive change. Stacker of the wheat of grassroots power, wheat separated from the chaff of corporate politicians. Stormy, husky, brawling. Planning, building, breaking, rebuilding. Under its wrist is the pulse, and under its ribs is the heart of the people. Laughing! Proud to be hog butcher, toolmaker, stacker of wheat.
Apologies to Carl Sandburg for my butchering of his 1914 poetic paean to the rise of this colossus of a working-class city -- but I see a promising new movement of broad-shouldered populist change for all of America arising today from the heart of Chicago's workaday people. Under the banner of "Reclaim Chicago," a dynamic, politically savvy progressive coalition has emerged, engaging thousands of grassroots Chicagoans in a people-led democratic movement to reclaim their city from the cabal of corporate elites and corrupt politicians now reigning over them.
These are not just mad-as-hell ranters, but mad-as-hellers with a bold agenda for moving their city toward fairness and justice for all. They're mad-as-hellers who have a shared vision; a long term plan; a democratic organizational framework; a range of trainers to provide movement skills and tools for all involved; a network for developing, electing and holding accountable their own office holders; and -- most important -- both a strong sense of purpose and an energizing sense of fun. After all, battling the bastards is about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on!
And the people of Chicago are about to have some fun. They're grappling with a big question that nearly every urban place in our country faces: Can anyone really govern such a sprawling, brawling city?
Reclaim Chicago says the answer is a great big "NO." Moreover, asserts this grassroots group, no one should. Rather, the many should, and if they're organized through a democratic network, the people can be their own government, producing egalitarian policies that improve the lives of everyone, advancing the whole city.
Indeed, the problem in Chicago has been that "one" has been in charge, imposing corporate rule that further enriches the rich, while holding down everyone else. At present, the city's Numero Uno is Rahm Emanuel, the strong man mayor and Wall Street Democrat who uses everything from privatization schemes and tax favoritism to harsh budget cuts and arbitrary police action to shift money and power away from the people and the common good, into the coffers of the moneyed elites. Emanuel's plutocratic ruthlessness is surpassed only by his blimp-sized ego -- "Mayor 1-Percent," as the people have dubbed him, thinks he's untouchable.
Reclaim Chicago, however, is about to test that. This independent coalition is backing a top-notch slate of 14 people's candidates to challenge incumbent city council members who've been tail-wagging lapdogs for Emanuel's corporate rule. And Mayor 1-Percent himself has drawn two opponents for the Feb. 24 election.
Of course, Emanuel is floating on a boatload of special interest cash, but Reclaim Chicago has hundreds of its seasoned and trained members holding personal, door-to-door conversations with Chicagoans. With a platform that includes supporting public schools, a living wage and criminal justice reform, and opposing privatization of public sector jobs and cuts to pensions, Reclaim Chicago is reclaiming the common sense proposals that advance the notion of "Everybody does better, when everybody does better." Win or lose in this go-round, Reclaim will keep moving onward and upward -- and that's what it takes to build a winning people's movement.
Reclaim Chicago is not merely building another election apparatus but a permanent progressive majority that functions year-'round, year after year, so the people truly can become self-governing. Tune in to these democracy builders at www.ReclaimChicago.org.
When five Supreme Court justices decreed that corporations are entitled to full free speech rights in our elections and that corporate money is a form of speech that can’t be restricted, they produced a nightmare tsunami of corporate cash that is now drowning our people’s democratic rights.
Hightower: Who the Hell's in Charge Here? BP Disaster Caused by a Nasty Mix of Government Impotence and Corporate Rule
Many news reports about the Gulf oil catastrophe refer to it as a "spill." Wrong. A spill is a minor "oops" — one accidentally spills milks, for example, and from childhood, we're taught the old aphorism: "Don't cry over spilt milk." What's in the Gulf isn't milk and it wasn't spilt. The explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon well was the inevitable result of deliberate decisions made by avaricious corporate executives, laissez faire politicians and obsequious regulators.
Bill Moyers TV Farewell with Hightower -- The Fight of Our Lives: The Populist Battle with Corporate Power
The following is a transcript of Bill Moyers' interview with Jim Hightower from the final broadcast of Bill Moyers Journal. It has been edited for length.
Another Greek-based cargo ship and its crew was recently hijacked by Somalian pirates, costing the Greek owners an undisclosed amount in ransom.
Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to war we go! Pound the drums loudly, stand with your country proudly!