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America's Dangerous Imbalance of Power

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Andrew Bard Schmookler     Permalink
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I heard the phrase recently, “the excesses of labor unions,” and it got me thinking.

There was a time when such charges were made frequently in American political discourse—the idea that the labor movement wielded too much power, that it used its power in ways that fostered injustice, that it was corrupt in ways that dragged America down, that it foisted inefficiencies onto the U.S. economy.

However much or little justification there was for any of those charges back, say, in the 1950s or 1960s, what hearing that phrase lately prompted in my mind is how little place any such concerns could possibly have in America today. For in the past several decades, the power of labor has been long broken, and the unions are not strong enough to wage any battle for anything "excessive."

That's why the wealth of the bottom half of the American economy has been stagnant or worse for a very long time. That’s why Congress passed laws to allow corporations to rip off employees about their pensions, legitimating broken promises. Laws that change the bankruptcy law in a way that helps out the credit card companies at the expense of families of whom half are in a predicament because of something like a medical disaster in the family.

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The Loss of Countervailing Powers

Back in the 50s, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about “countervailing” powers –big business, labor, and government—vying for control over America’s destiny. At that time, there was a rough kind of balance among the powers.

But in the battle between big labor and big business, the fight was fought and labor lost. Labor lost, in part, because of the evolution of the modern economy toward new kind of work, and in part because of the loss of lower level industrial jobs to other parts of the world. But as labor lost leverage, business came not only to dominate labor in their negotiations but also to take control of government.

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This compounded the problem of America’s dangerous imbalance of power, an imbalance for which America has paid an enormous price.

The check that labor imposed on business in the realm of power made us one kind of society. It was a society governed by liberal values, one that was moving toward greater equality of opportunity and that engendered a strong middle class. The loss of that check has opened the floodgates to the passage of unjust laws (as in the areas of pensions and bankruptcy). But it has proven, with this Bushite regime, worse still: with the loss of countervailing powers, this regime has now led America down the road toward fascism.

Corporations Are Not Benign

What kind of entities are these corporations that now have scarcely any rival for control over America’s destiny?

Americans should know that we are not safe when the power of the corporate system is unchecked. We have the evidence right before us. Consider this:

We've had two major industries who discovered along the way that the fortune they were making was at the expense of killing people: the asbestos industry and the tobacco industry.

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Both have been amply exposed in court, and in both cases we find that the industry showed itself almost universally willing to lie to people to enrich their corporate coffers, even though the effect of these lies was to kill people.

Being willing to deceive and kill people for one's own enrichment is corrupt and unjust, the kind of conduct one would expect of gangsters. And the evidence suggests that American industry in general would be entirely willing to do it: The only difference between tobacco and asbestos on the one hand, and every other industry, is that the former had the bad luck to be selling stuff that kills.

So when virtually every company in those industries proved itself ready to kill people for money, we get an index of what it is that has to be held in check if we in America are going to have a decent society. America’s substantial imbalance of power has led not only to unjust laws (as on pensions and bankruptcy) but more broadly has opened the door for our nation’s descent toward fascism.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
 

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