Why the Environment’s Trashed, You’re Broke, and Wars Drag On

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How corporate power is ruining your life, explained in animated GIFs

April 1970,when 20 million Americans hit the streets to celebrate the
first Earth Day: 

And it wasn’t just a party.
People of all ages and political stripes were demanding regulations protecting earth,
air, water, and wildlife.

Not everyone was happy about it, though.
When Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer from Richmond, Virginia, heard about Earth Day:

Why? Powell served on the board of directors of several international
corporations–corporations whose profitability would be hampered by all the new

When Powell thought of a way to stop them:

He schemed up
a memo–titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System”–and presented it to
the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on August 23, 1971. In it, he laid out a broad
plan: corporate leaders would use an “activist-minded Supreme Court” to enact
“social, economic, and political change” in favor of corporate power.

What the rest of America
was doing:

The memo was secret, so barely anyone knew about Powell’s plot until
much later.

Really, Powell’s idea wasn’t totally new. He had already sued the U.S.
government on behalf of
the cigarette industry, saying the
government’s assertion that cigarettes were dangerous was
controversial and that cigarette companies had a right under free speech to promote their product in whatever
way they liked. It worked. America’s
response was to keep ’em lit:

And when President Nixon nominated Powell for the Supreme Court and the
Senate voted him in (less than six months after the Chamber read his memo):

With Powell on the Court, corporations got busy creating legal
foundations to fund lawsuits across the country. They introduced the idea that
corporations were “persons,” “speakers,” “voices,” and “protectors of our
freedoms.” They said that government regulations over pollution, wages, or
political spending made corporations feel like this:

Meanwhile, Americans were cleaning house. The Clean Water Act was
passed in 1972. After this came the Endangered Species Act (1973), the first fuel
economy standards for cars (1975), and the Toxic Substances Control Act (1976).



“Strength,” Powell had written in his memo, “lies in organization, in
careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over
an indefinite period of years.”

By 1978, Powell and his cronies were ready to take his plan to the next
level. A few corporations got together to challenge a Massachusetts law banning corporate spending
in referendum ballots. They wanted to use corporate funds to defeat a
progressive income tax vote later that year.

When they lost,
progressives were all:

But then they took their case to the Supreme Court, where Justice
Powell had been waiting for just such an opportunity: 

Powell cast the deciding vote (5-4), declaring that
“corporations are persons” and corporate money is “speech” under the First
Amendment, ushering in the current era of corporate power.

Between 1978 and 1984, Justice Powell overrode laws citizens had agreed
on, in favor of legislation benefitting the pharmaceutical, energy, tobacco,
and banking industries. By the time he resigned in 1987, the corporate world
had made up its mind:

When the agribusiness industry spends $75-145 million a year lobbying to make sure America always has a good supply of junk food at its fingertips:

Meanwhile, Americans: 

“The health of Americans is secondary to layers of taxpayer
subsidies and preferential treatment for corporate food giants and coal and
utility corporations, resulting in epidemic-level rates of obesity, asthma, and
type 2 diabetes,” writes
Jeffrey D. Clements
for YES! Magazine. And this in spite of healthy profits for pharmaceutical and health care corporations (which spent over $2 billion lobbying the government between 1998 and 2010). 

That’s not all. Between 1998 and 2010, military contractors spent over
$400 million and ExxonMobil spent $151 million lobbying. But “control of our energy
policy by global fossil fuel corporations and unregulated corporate lobbying,
even for weapons the Pentagon doesn’t want,” Clements writes, “leads to endless
war in the Middle East and uncontrolled
military spending.”

It also means we continue
to drive everywhere. When we build roads for cars that pollute the air and
suburbs that destroy wilderness:

So, we pay with our health, with endless war, and destruction of the
environment–but there’s more. Corporate rule is also why we’re broke.

Yep. Between 1998 and 2010 the Chamber of Commerce spent $739 million
lobbying in favor of big business. The results? “Corporate-friendly trade and tax policies
have moved jobs overseas, destroyed our manufacturing capacity, produced vast
wage and income inequality, and gutted local economies and communities,” writes

What that means for the
corporate elite:

What that means the rest of us:

Then, in 2010, the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission gave
corporations the go-ahead to spend as much as they wanted influencing

Politicians who failed to do what corporate lobbies asked were punished
with negative ads funded by the corporate elite. So now when our elected
officials look at us:

And while corporations love consumers, this is what they say when we
try to act like citizens:

Case in point: Monsanto, when Vermonters tried to enact labeling laws
for recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH):

And when people try to get environmental protections, fair wages, or an end to military offensives, one corporation or another is always:

Nearly 80 percent of the
public opposes the Citizens United
decision. That it hasn’t been reversed goes to show how skewed the current
balance of power is. Many
representatives and citizens’ groups
are calling for a constitutional
amendment to reverse it and end money’s use as “speech” altogether. When that day comes, we may finally be able to slow climate change, end
war, get healthy, and get paid.

This article is based on Jeffrey D.
Clements essay, “Rights
are for Real People
,” from the Spring 2012 issue of
Yes! Magazine. Clements is the author of the book Corporations Are Not

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