April 29, 2011

Gilded Age v2.0

This week, the Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 decision in AT&T Mobility v Concepcion that protects certain types of corporate wrongdoing from class action lawsuits by consumers.  As with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, it represents yet another blow to the rights of citizens, and one more step forward in what has clearly become a concerted effort to consolidate corporate power to the detriment of the individual.

Citizens United held that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in elections cannot be limited, effectively giving those with the deepest pockets the loudest voice.  AT&T Mobility, meanwhile, essentially permits companies to break the law, as long as they only do it a little bit at a time.  Specifically, this finding allows corporations to use consumer and employment contracts to take away customer rights to join class-action lawsuits.  What this means is that, if you sign a contract with a service provider, and that company mistreats you, your only path of redress is through arbitration.  You cannot join other customers who have experienced the same problem in a class action to address what may be widespread, programmatic negligence, or even criminal activity.

Imagine, for instance, that your phone company illegally charges you and one million other customers $10 a piece. The company is now $10 million richer, but under the Supreme Court’s new ruling, the company can use an arbitration “agreement” hidden in the depths of the contract you signed with them to prohibit you from working with other customers to hold the firm accountable for its actions.  The fact is that almost no one has the time, the money or the expertise to take on an enormous corporation over ten dollars - or $100 or even $1,000 for that matter - and since customers must work separately to address this problem, the company is basically protected from having its widespread malfeasance stopped or even exposed.

Even if one considers AT&T Mobility a relatively small thing on its own (I don't), the fact remains that we are, by all manner of measure, witnessing a return to the worst excesses of the Gilded Age.  But where that period also saw the rise of unions in response to the untrammeled might of private, moneyed interests, todays titans of industry have been undermining their union counterweights in a three decades-long assault that is now reaching a fever pitch.  In New Jersey, GOP Governor Chris Christie has been attacking unions for some time now; in Ohio, Republican Governor John Kasich has signed anti-union legislation; his fellow party member, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, has done the same and is now wielding flagrantly anti-democratic powerFlorida's Republican chief executive is pursuing the same course; and most famously, Wisconsin's GOP Governor Scott Walker has made crushing unions his primary focus.  Meanwhile, in Maine, the Tea Party-backed Governor Paul LePage is working to loosen restrictions on child labor, and of course, going after unions.

At the same time, Republicans in the House of Representatives have put forth a budget bill that would lower taxes on the wealthiest, end Medicare as a defined benefit program, expand taxes on the middle class, and maintain or grow what can only be described as our current insane levels of defense spending.  How out of whack, how tilted away from the needs of Americans and toward the aims of arms manufacturers and defense contractors are our current priorities?  So misaligned, in fact, that two men serving under the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote A National Strategic Narrative (PDF), which brings us the remarkable sight of military personnel calling attention to the fact that the United States spends far too much on the military at the expense of everything else:
The term “national security” only entered the foreign policy lexicon after 1947 to reflect the merger of defense and foreign affairs. Today our security lies as much or more in our prosperity as in our military capabilities. Our vocabulary, our institutions, and our assumptions must reflect that shift.  “National security” has become a trump card, justifying military spending even as the domestic foundations of our national strength are crumbling. “National prosperity and security” reminds us where our true security begins.
There are signs that, having played a patient game of attrition for years, corporatists in the United States may have become impatient enough that, their goals in sight, they have begun overplaying their hand.  House Republicans are facing anger among their consistuents, and organized labor - particularly in the public sector - has won enormous support in the wake of the anti-union actions of demonstrably corrupt hacks like Wisconsin's Walker, but it has taken a long time for Americans to begin waking up to the bill of goods they have been - and are being - sold.  So far, there has been little sustained, organized resistance.

Make no mistake, this attack on individual rights to meet the needs of corproations and the richest among us is a concerted, sustained phenomenon, one that lurked beneath the surface of American society for decades and that began gathering momentum after World War II, picked up steam with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, grew into full-throated song in the wake George W. Bush's misrule, and continues today.  It's got to be stopped.

Excerpts from President Dwight D. Eisenhower's farewell address, in which he remarks specifically and forcefully about the dangers of combined military and economic power:

The Daily Show's Jon Stewart explores the pitfalls of Citizens United v Federal Elections Commission:

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