Most of us are by now well familiar with those "experts" whose opinions on the day's issue are eagerly sought by the media.
They most often teach at the major schools of economics or law, or are "senior fellows" at conservative or right wing
think tanks. Sometimes they enjoy both distinctions. (I use the terms "conservative" and "right wing" advisedly, because
it seems to me that the number of "senior fellows" from the liberal or progressive end of the think tank spectrum whose
opinions are sought by the media is vanishingly small by comparison.)
Over time, my question—dumb or dishonest?—arose spontaneously after hearing or reading some of the positions actually spoken
out loud by some of these characters. Specifically, to my own satisfaction at least, I had to conclude that if the "expert"
was not trying to con the audience—i.e.: he believed his own rhetoric —then he was dumb; if she was trying to con her
audience, then she was dishonest. It just didn't seem possible that they could be smart AND honest. To me, the question
is important, because these people are significant molders of public opinion and official government policy.
First, though, let me assure the reader that in the following I do not in any way intend to make fun of people who are
clinically sub-normal in intelligence. To accuse someone of stupidity, and to mean it, is to be malicious, and I intend no
malice below. Thus, I intend the term "dumb" to be understood as it is most commonly applied: to someone who can
reasonably be expected to know something he appears not to know; or when we can reasonably expect her to have predicted
the negative or unintended consequences that arose from her action. For example, as expressed by such familiar comments
as "what planet have you been living on?" or "That was a dumb thing to do."
The Corporation, a film by Canadians Joel Bakan, Mark Achbar, and
Jennifer Abbot, examines the modern, mostly
American, publically held corporation. Now available as a DVD, it provides two
fitting subjects about whom we can
plausibly ask my question. It features both critics and defenders of the corporation, which
enjoys legal status as a real person.
The film was inspired by law professor Bakan's 2004 book of the same name, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of
Profit and Power. (Somewhat peripheral to the purpose of this essay is that Bakan draws on the work of his University of
British Columbia colleague, psychiatrist Robert Hare, to conclude that the corporation is a psychopath. The film makes
the same point, but with somewhat less emphasis.)
The Corporation begins with a montage of corporate logos, segueing into rapid-fire news and talking head alternations between
whether corporate America's "bad apples," like Enron, TYCO, etc. are anomalies, or whether they are just the tip of a
corrupt corporate iceberg. This "bad apple" montage is followed by a soaring bald eagle, merciless eye and fearsome beak
directed right at the camera. We hear a cheerfully reverent overvoice:
"The eagle—soaring, clear-eyed, competitive, prepared to strike but not a vulture. Noble, visionary, majestic, that
people can believe in and be inspired by, that creates such a lift that it soars."
Cut to the speaker: Ira Jackson, then Director, Center for Business and Government, Kennedy School, Harvard University.
Jackson wears a self-conscious smile that suggests a certain discomfort with his situation.
"I can see that as being a good image for the principled company."
As Jackson gets up from his perch, two off-camera voices begin to question him. "OK, guys, enough bullshit," he quips,
and quickly exits.
While the film doesn't make clear what question Jackson was responding to, my guess is that he was asked what he considered
to be a proper logo for the principled corporation, in contrast to the "bad apples" that preceded his appearance.
As it happens, Jackson is dead wrong. In fact, the bald eagle is by natural inclination a thief and a bully. When at all
possible, this particular eagle gets its dinner by stealing it from a hard-working Osprey, or some other raptor. As the
biggest bird on the block, the bald eagle has an easy time harassing the smaller birds into dropping their catch.
Only when the bald eagle has no choice does it bother to hunt for its own food. Such is the competitiveness of the symbol
Jackson suggests we can "believe in." Moreover, the bald eagle might as well be a vulture when it comes to feasting on a
dead seal or some other carrion it can scavenge, all the while keeping its eagle eye out for a hungry wolf or a coyote.
Millions of Americans are ignorant of this noteworthy food chain tidbit, and they are also
ignorant of Founding Father Benjamin Franklin's opinion of the bald eagle:
"For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral
Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where,
too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length
taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him
and takes it from him.
"With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is
generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks
him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest
Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country . . .
Apparently the original drawing of the bald eagle resembled an American Wild Turkey. Franklin
"I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For
[in] Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of
America . . .He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a
Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on."
[Franklin was writing to his daughter from France in January, 1784. The "brave and honest Cincinnati of
America" refers to the Society of the
Cincinnati, a brotherhood of Revolutionary War officers formed in
1783. The brotherhood was inspired by the legend of Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, a Roman farmer of the fifth century B.C.E.
who left his fields to lead the Roman Army against the the Aequi and Volscians.
The story has it that after his triumph, instead of
installing himself as the newest
dictator, Cincinnatus returned home to his farm. George Washington was considered America's Cincinnatus, and was elected
the first President General of the Society.
Franklin disapproved of the Society because membership
was hereditary, and not dependent on merit.]
As regards Jackson, my view is that one doesn't get to be head of the Kennedy School of Business and Government
at Harvard without having learned about Franklin's opinion of the bald eagle somewhere along the way, and my bet is
that he had it in mind even as he spoke to the camera. Jackson may thus also have known about the less-than-noble qualities
of our national symbol, although his proclivity to business might have disinclined him toward pursuing the matter through
some nature study. But, I think
he knows perfectly well that the bald eagle is a better symbol for the corporate "bad apple" than for the "principled"
company. His parting shot as he flees from further questioning—"OK, guys, enough bullshit!"—is evidence that he was
playing his own private joke on the film makers and on the audience.
Jackson is small potatoes, though, compared to Michael Walker, another "expert" appearing in the film. At the time of
filming, Walker was Executive Director of Canada's Fraser Institute, a "market solutions think tank," as the credit
puts it. The Institute's website now identifies him as President of the Institute's Foundation; and, surprise—a
Senior Fellow at the Institute. Walker believes in laissez-faire capitalism—a.k.a. the "market"—with a purity and a
passion that makes even the most pious religionists of history look like the rankest of hypocrites. For Walker, this
means that there is no social or physical problem we can imagine that cannot be fixed—first by defining it as a
strictly economic problem; second, by turning it over to private enterprise.
Walker first speaks to us in the chapter Case Histories/Harm to Workers/Sweatshops. The chapter begins with Charles
Kernaghan, Director, National Labor Committee, leading the camera into a room filled with items made in Third World
sweatshops. Kernaghan displays a Liz Claiborne jacket that retails for $149, and for which the seamstress was paid 74
cents. A shirt made in El Salvador sells for $14.99, and the seamstress who made it got 3 cents.
While in Honduras, Kernaghan and his staff were approached by some young girls who worked in a garment factory. They wanted
to tell the NLC about the awful working conditions in the factory. A secret meeting was set up, but the factory owner found
out about it and sent some "very tough-looking guys" as spies. "Obviously, we didn't have the meeting,"
But the girls were smart, he says, and under the table they passed him their pay stubs and the labels of the companies they
made the clothes for. "So I took my hand out after they left, says Kernaghan, "and in the palm of my hand was the face of
Kathy Lee Gifford. And at the bottom [of the label] was: ‘A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this garment will be
donated to various Children's Charities.' Very touching ... gets you right here [Kernaghan pats his heart]. Wal-Mart is
telling you if you purchase these pants ... and Kathy Lee is telling you if you purchase these pants you will be helping
children. The problem is that the people that handed us these labels were thirteen years of age."
This campaign led to a public repudiation of sweatshop conditions by Gifford, which for a while at least had a salutary
effect on working conditions. In any case, it made the exploitation of child labor in the Third World front page news
across the country.
Following some quick footage of the sewing room floor, the film cuts to Michael Walker. He is an animated speaker,
continually pumping the air with his fists and waving his hands. Unless it is an act, his face reveals the truest of
"Let's look at it from a different point-of-view," he says. "Let's look at it from a point-of-view of the people of
Bangladesh who are starving to death; the people in China who are starving to death, and the only thing they have to
offer, to anybody, that is worth anything, is their low-cost labor. [Walker's emphasis.]
"And, in effect, what they're saying to the world [here Walker looks skyward and makes as if he's waving a large flag]
... is they have this big flag that says ‘come over and hire us, we will work for ten cents an hour, because ten cents
an hour will buy the rice we need not to starve.'
"And, ‘come and rescue us from our circumstance' ... and so, when Nike comes in, they are regarded by everybody in the
community as an enormous god-send."
Cut to a tumultuous scene as Kernaghan and his crew attempt to enter and film the interior of a sweatshop: a rapid succession
of off-balance, jerky images of sewing machines, a barred gate, a hand over the camera lens; shouts of "you can't come in
here." The owner upbraids him for entering without permission.
Cut to a garbage dump.
Kernaghan: "We went through a garbage dump in the Dominican Republic ... we always do this kind of stuff, we dig around.
One day we found a big pile of Nike's internal pricing documents. Nike assigns a time frame to each operation. They don't
talk about minutes. They break the time down to ten thousandths of a second. You get to the bottom of all 22 operations,
they give the worker 6.6 minutes to make a shirt. [6.6141 minutes, as shown on the film.] It's $0.70 an hour in the
Dominican Republic. That 6.6 minutes equals $0.08.
"These are Nike documents. That means the wages come to three tenths of one percent of the retail price. This
is the reality. It's the science of exploitation."
Cut to Walker:
"What happens in the areas where these corporations go in and are successful? They soon find that they can't do any
more in that country because the wages are too high now. And what's that [but a] way of saying that the people are
no longer desperate. ‘So, ok, we've used up all the desperate people there; they're all plump and healthy, and
wealthy. [Cut to image of a young slum-dweller with his ribs showing.] Let's move on to the next desperate lot,
and employ them and raise their level up.'"
Cut to an ariel shot of an "export processing zone." Close-up of a battlement protecting the factory, guards behind the wall.
Concertina wire strung over barbed wire in front of the wall. Cut to a large billboard behind a security fence: American
Park Free Zone. Cut to girls/young women at a factory entrance. Two male armed guards, one carrying an M-16 assault
rifle. The girls undergo a quick pat-down by a female guard as they pass through the gate. It's not clear whether they
are entering or leaving.
Cut to Naomi Klein, author of No Logo:
"Well, the whole idea of the export processing zone is that it will be the first step towards this wonderful new
development; through the investment that's attracted to these countries there will be a trickle-down effect in these
"But because there are so many countries now in the game of creating their own free trade enclaves, they have to keep
providing more and more incentives for companies to come to their little de-nationalized pocket. And the tax holidays
"So the workers rarely make enough to buy three meals a day, let alone support their local economy."
Well, now. We're confused: who is telling the truth—Walker or Klein? With his hand-waving dramatization, Walker is
clearly trying to plant real images in the viewer's mind—images that will neutralize the scurrilous suggestion that
transnational corporations thrive on exploitation. Do his assertions make sense, even on their own terms, when measured
against Klein's comments?
Toward separating the likely false from the at least plausible, let me now present my own little dramatization, mostly a
cut-and-paste from The Corporation. My imaginary country below, Parador, is a shameless plagiarism from the anti-U.S.
imperialism film Moon Over Parador, starring Richard Dreyfuss, the late Raul Julia, Sonja Braga, and Jonathan Winters.
One of our characters will be Cornelius Morgan, the majority shareholder of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, which we will
posit as the leading U.S. manufacturer of up-scale apparel. Edward "Eddie" Galt is TSC's CEO. He has just returned from
an inspection of TSC's huge plant in the tiny southeast Asian country of Spangladesh. Galt has invited Morgan to the bar
of the TSC penthouse in Manhattan, where he will give him a report. Morgan enters in an
Morgan: Good to see you again, Eddie. How goes it in the provinces?
Galt: I've got some good news and some bad news,
Mr Morgan. What'll you have?
Morgan: Make it a martini, Eddie. Give me the bad news first.
Galt: Well, I'm sorry to have to tell you that TSC can't do any more in Spangladesh.
Morgan: Why not? Last year's profits sent our stock price through the roof. What happened?
Galt: I know, Mr. Morgan. But, the wages are too high now.
Morgan: What!! What do you mean "the wages are too high now"? For our workers, or for Spangladesh as a whole?
Galt: Spangladesh as a whole. We're not alone. All of us, Triangle Shirtwaist, Smell-O-Pod, Gemini Audio &
Video—all the U.S. multi-nationals that came in and were successful. The people there are no longer desperate. We just
can't do any more in Spangladesh.
Morgan: That makes no sense at all, Eddie. Two years ago you told me that these same workers were waving a big flag that
said "come over and hire us. We'll work for 10 cents an hour because ten cents an hour will buy us the rice we need to
keep from starving." So we did. I threw a ton of money into that plan—on your advice, I might add.
(Morgan realizes something)
Wait a minute!!! You said that the wages were too high now. You haven't been paying them more than ten cents an
hour have you?
Galt: Of course not, Mr. Morgan. We weren't even paying ten cents an hour, and we're paying the same now as we
were when we went into Spangladesh. In fact, we've fended off several demands by the workers for higher wages. They
even tried to form a union, but we put a stop to that by firing the bad apples, and hiring some pretty tough-looking
local guys to keep an eye on them.
Morgan: Good! The last thing we need is a bunch of commie, bleeding-heart Spangladeshis hanging around the factory.
I'm old enough to remember when that kind of thing happened here in the States. It wasn't pretty, I can tell you.
But how did the wages get "too high?"
Galt: I don't know. Before I inspected the plant, the wife and I toured the country. What we saw was mostly slums
surrounding a few really spiffy neighborhoods. But when I got to the plant, I took one look at our workforce—they were
all plump, and healthy, and wealthy. It was immediately clear that we couldn't do any more in Spangladesh.
Morgan: You mean that the workers got all plump and healthy and wealthy even though we paid them only enough to buy the
rice that would keep them from starving? How can that mean that the wages are too high now?
Galt: I can't explain it, Mr. Morgan, but I recently learned about a fellow who might be able to:
Michael Walker, a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute, in Canada. I'll give him a call later.
Morgan: You'd better find out, or I'll see to it we have a new CEO. How do you plan to fix this mess?
Galt: That's the good news, Mr. Morgan. We've found
an even better denationalized pocket that we can relocate to.
Morgan: What do you mean "denationalized pocket?" I don't like the sound of that.
Galt: I don't either, Mr. Morgan, but since there aren't any reporters listening in, I can be honest with you.
Remember the spiffy neighborhoods I just mentioned—the ones surrounded by the slums?
Galt: Well, the people who live in those neighborhoods are mostly the ones who are either in the government or who
own the country's best real estate. (Galt whispers to Morgan: Usually they're the same people.) For a "consideration,"
they make it possible for companies like Triangle Shirtwaist to manufacture consumer goods while paying the lowest
possible wage—and no benefits, of course. They're the ones who supply the tough-looking guys.
Morgan: (wistfully): Kind of like America's industrial golden days, eh?
Galt: Exactly. And, to show our appreciation, we usually hire their relatives to run the plant. For example,
our on-site manager, Mohammed, is a nephew of the Spangladeshi president's third cousin.
Morgan: Too bad we can't do it that way here. Although we're working on it. But, where does the "denationalized" fit in.
It sounds as if this arrangement should benefit the people of Spangladesh. They've got money to spend, right?
Galt: It's kind of complicated, Mr. Morgan. The biggest players in Spangladesh do have a lot of money from their
connections with industries like TSW, to say nothing of the cut they get from loans by the World Bank and the International
Monetary Fund for big development projects.
Morgan: Well, what do they do with their money? Don't they spend it?
Galt: To some extent, but the money they spend on luxuries usually goes out of the country. They really like Jeeps,
for example. And, there is a thriving local economy based on armoring the Jeeps. Rebels, you know. But aside from that,
it's really only the
money they spend on servants and food that goes into the local economy, and that's not enough to lift the people out of
If they invested that money in the Spangladeshi economy, say by financing food production for local consumption
instead of for export, and industries that would serve a domestic market instead of TSW's U.S. teeny-bopper
clientele, Spangladesh would benefit. It would'nt enjoy the standard of living we have here, of course, but at
least fertility rates and infant mortality rates would go down. Over time, there would be fewer Spangladeshis,
and lower overall morbidity. But that's not our concern.
But to answer your question: that's why these places are called "denationalized pockets," and why these people are
called "denationalized elites" in some bleeding-heart liberal circles. They're not interested in developing the
economic potential of their own country, or in the welfare of their compatriots. That's good for us, of course,
because it makes for a hungry work force.
Morgan: Well, then, what do they do with the rest of their money?
Galt: Mostly they invest it in U.S. securities. They know they'll make more by propping up the U.S. economy than
by helping Spangladesh become economically independent.
Morgan: I get it, Eddie. I'll confess: I envy you Harvard business school types.
I never learned much about
business and economics. In fact, I never got higher than a "C" in any of my classes. I inherited all my wealth, and if
it weren't for you, I'd have to go out and get a real job. So tell me, where is this new denationalized pocket?
Galt: In South America—Parador. The tax holidays there are getting longer and longer, and the Paradorians are
really hungry, too. In fact, they're so hungry that when they tried to wave the big flag, they just fell over from
exhaustion. So, we'll be dealing directly with the oligarchy this time. The man in charge of the security forces there,
Roberto Straussman, has some pretty tough guys working for him, too, so we won't have any trouble with union types.
We'll probably get away with paying five cents an hour.
Morgan: It sounds good, but what if the market analysts get hold of this? Won't they think Triangle Shirtwaist
is moving because we're in trouble, and downgrade our rating?
Galt: Not to worry, Mr. Morgan. I've already instructed the financial department to prepare a statement for the
analysts: (He raises his hands as if framing a banner) "Triangle Shirtwaist has never been in better shape. You can
bet your retirement on Triangle Shirtwaist." (Galt whispers to Morgan): It worked for Enron, and it'll work for us. These
analysts never learn.
Morgan: But won't this mysterious process that happened in Spangladesh happen in Parador too. Won't wages there get too
high—even up to ten cents an hour, say? Won't we have to move again?
Galt: Yes, we will, Mr. Morgan; but we can spin this, especially to the mush-headed liberals who don't buy our stock
because they think we're exploiters. Follow me here: what happens is, when we go in to a country and are successful, we
soon find we can't do any more there because the wages are too high and the workers are all plump and healthy and wealthy,
Morgan: Right, Ed. They're no longer desperate.
Galt: Now, there's an old Latin saying: post hoc, ergo propter hoc. "After, therefore because of." That simple
one-liner put me at the top of the debating team at Harvard, Mr. Morgan. All I had to do was show that a mom-and-pop
grocery in some po-dunk town in Oregon increased its profits after the Reagan administration gutted pollution controls on
coal-burning power plants in the mid-West. The gallery—usually econ post-docs—went wild, and the judges had no choice but
to give me the blue ribbon. Happened every time.
Morgan: Brilliant, Ed!! Our workers in Spangladesh got plump and healthy and wealthy just because we paid them only
cents an hour, right? Perfect!! Show me the incentive-sapping, personal responsibility-robbing, bleeding-heart United
Nations food aid program; or any commie/liberal-inspired land reform program that ever transformed poor people into plump,
healthy, wealthy people. How about a new mission statement for Triangle Shirtwaist: Goodbye Desperation, Hello Health
And Wealth—All On 5 Cents An Hour.
Galt: Look who's calling who brilliant, Mr. Morgan. We'll say that since we've used up all the desperate people in
Spangladesh, we're moving on to the next desperate lot, so we can raise them up.
There might be only one problem: in spite of our friends like Rush Limbaugh and Anne Coulter, America still has a
fair number of bleeding-heart liberals who listen to the "other side"—people like Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky.
Michael Moore and Howard Zinn, too.
There's even an outfit in Canada that made a nasty film about us: The Corporation. They're sure to go public
with the fact that Parador is a better denationalized pocket than Spangladesh. Even though you own a
pretty substantial chunk of the mainstream media, they may still be able to tarnish our image. In fact, Naomi
Klein is going around telling people that the people who work for us rarely make enough to buy three meals a day,
let alone support their local economy. She might hurt us if we don't move quicky to neutralize her.
Morgan: Good point, Ed. What do you have in mind?
Galt: I know just the person who can handle this one: Lucy Hughes, formerly of Initiative Media North America.
She's a genius at manipulating people into buying things, especially kids. Best of all, by her own admission she's a bit
unclear on what's ethical and what's not when it comes to advertising. Her creative executions and media placements will
make hash out of the Naomi Klein types.
Morgan: Good. Call her right away. And I'll get the Wall Street Journal
and The Economist on board; I've got lots of friends there. Our stock will soar like an eagle.
Galt: Meanwhile, I'll check with a friend in Parador's Import-Export Ministry. He's got his eye on a 20 hectare section
that would be perfect for the new plant. It's been occupied for generations by an Indian community that only uses it to
grow food. (Morgan shudders at the thought.) My friend tells me that Straussman's tough-looking guys won't have any
trouble in persuading them to leave. And because their ancestors never acquired paper title to the land, they won't have any
recourse in the courts. As usual, we'll probably have to hire some of my friend's relatives as managers, though.
Morgan: Hire all his relatives, Ed. Get back to me as soon as you can. (Morgan leaves, muttering to himself: "What's a
Galt: (He picks up the telephone and makes a call):
"Hello, Lucy? Have I got an idea for you! This will be even bigger than The Nag Factor." (See below for more on
Not all of this parody is nonsense, but what nonsense there is arises naturally from Walker's earnest presentation. The
ridiculous notions that "wages get too high" and the workers become "plump and healthy and wealthy" are precisely what he
wants the viewer to accept.
Walker gets even better in the next chapter. Boundary Issues begins with Jeremy Rifkin, corporate America's
explaining the origin of private real estate. The wealthy and royalty of Britain and Europe began enclosing the great
"commons" which had for centuries, if not millennia, been worked by all for the benefit of all. Rifkin doesn't mention it,
but these enclosures were certainly effected by force.
Over time, the right of the land owner to do whatever he or she wished with the property became sacrosanct, and everyone
else simply had to live with the consequences. Among those consequences are today's hole in the ozone layer and the melting
of the Siberian permafrost. Walker offers a solution to these problems, and to any other problem we can
We see pictures of smokestacks spewing pollutants into the air. Walker (waving hands):
"Even in the case of air there's been some progress, and that is the trading of pollution permits. And here the
idea is to say ‘Look, we can't avoid the dumping of carbon dioxide. We can't avoid the dumping of sulphur oxides,
at least we can't at the moment afford to stopping it. So we're dumping a certain amount of stuff into the
environment. So we're going to say with the current tonnage of sulphur oxides, for example, we will say ‘that is
the limit.' And we'll create permits for that amount and give them to the people who've been doing the polluting
and now we will permit them to be traded. And so now there's a price attached to polluting the environment.
Now, wouldn't it be marvelous if we had one of those prices for everything?"
Film maker, off camera:
"It sound as if you're advocating private ownership of every square inch of the planet."
Film maker: "Every cubic foot of air, water."
Walker, nods, with a serious look on his face. [Cut to ariel shot of stream and pristine woodlands]:
"It sounds outlandish to say we want to have the whole universe, the whole of the earth owned. That doesn't mean I
want to have Joe Bloggs owning this square foot [cut to Walker making a square with his fingers]. But it means that
the interests that are involved in that stream [cut back to stream and forest] are owned by some group or by some
people who have an interest in maintaining it. And that, you know, that is not such a looney idea. It's in fact,
the solution to a lot of these problems."
We can look at Walker's above speech as directed at two separate, mutually exclusive, audiences. One audience I will call
the Naive. In the U.S., they number in the millions. They are to be convinced of the wisdom of privatizing every atom in
existence, even though they are already conditioned to detest government to such a degree that they believe laissez-faire
capitalism will actually benefit them and their progeny.
The second audience is Big Money—those who aspire to ownership of "the whole of the earth." Big Money does not need
convincing, of course, but such public utterances as Walker gives us above do need to be tailored toward reassuring them
that he is a competent spin-meister.
"Even in the case of air there's been some progress, and that is the trading of pollution permits," Walker says. Given the
montage of pollution-belching smokestacks preceding this comment, the Naive will think that Walker considers "progress" to
be the lessening of smokestack emissions, and the consequent benefits to the environment and human health. Nope.
Given the gathering momentum to regulate emissions, Big Money understands "progress" as precisely the
successful delay of
government regulation of toxic emissions. The delay is effected through smokestack industry lobbying and buying of
legislators, until, out of desperation, opposing stakeholders such as the environmental and health lobbies accept
industry's own "solution": pollution permits. In spite of looming environmental disaster, "progress" for
Walker and Big Money
is any rear-guard action that delays hits to the quarterly bottom line. Pollution permits ensure
that Big Money will
continue to profit from pollution until the next round of regulation makes its appearance. No dollar value can
be assigned to children at healthy play, so for Big Money,
progress would be an extra penny on the Fortune 500 index, even if it meant that every child in the nation had to stay
inside at recess because of unsafe particulate levels. So far, Walker is doing fine.
"So we're going to say with the current tonnage of sulphur oxides, for example, we will say ‘that is the limit,'" says
Walker. "And we'll create permits for that amount and give them to the people who've been doing the polluting and now we
will permit them to be traded."
"We will say 'that is the limit.' ... we'll create permits ..." The Naive will hear this as from a partner eager to
cooperate with government, and with the public health and environmental lobbies toward solving the problem of pollution.
Big Money appreciates Walker's real message: "Let industry—us—decide the numbers, or you can expect unending opposition to
your plans to reduce the environmental costs we generate to society. Unless we are in control, there will be no
The Naive will read "this is the limit" as the result of scientific determination of what the environment can safely absorb,
or of a safer particulate level, say. The Naive assume that as new technology is developed, the limits will be lowered so
that even less pollution is discharged into the air and water. Big Money understands that "this is the limit" means
exactly that: no downward revision of the limit on pollutants for as long as they can fend it off. Industry's major
propaganda tool here is the accusation, usually swallowed whole by the Naive, that new, lower limits are all based on
"And so now there's a price attached to polluting the environment," says Walker. "Now, wouldn't it be marvelous if we had
one of those prices for everything?" he asks. The Naive will read "marvelous" as referring to that happy day when there
is no pollution. Big Money will read "marvelous" as describing their astounding success in convincing the Naive to stand
by while their governments hand over "the whole of the earth" to the corporation. Whether or not that leads in fact to a
reduction of pollution is completely irrelevant.
As sophistry goes, Walker is batting 1.000. But, finally, he goes too far.
"It sounds outlandish to say we want to have the whole universe, the whole of the earth owned. That doesn't mean I
want to have Joe Bloggs owning this square foot. But it means that the interests that are involved in that stream are
owned by some group or by some people who have an interest in maintaining it. And that, you know, that is not such a
looney idea. It's in fact, the solution to a lot of these problems."
On the basis of Walker's earlier presentation, the Naive will easily imagine that Big Money wants nothing more than that
they follow their own dreams free of government regulation (and taxes, too). Here though, an alert naive viewer might ask why
Walker doesn't want to have Everyman Joe Bloggs own "this square foot." After all, didn't President Bush say that his own
most cherished goal was the creation of the "ownership society?"
The question itself suggests the answer: Joe's ownership of that "square foot" will most likely not profit Big Money.
Joe might want to just fish in the stream, for example. Our alert naive viewer might then realize that Walker wants
"the whole of the earth" owned by Big Money alone, and that he or she will, ultimately, have to rent from the "ownership
Finally, in my humble opinion, Walker has to be flat-out lying—a no-no in the land of spin.
Walker intends the Naive to understand "an interest in maintaining it [the stream]" as an interest in
maintaining the stream
as a stream. The Naive are subtly nudged to project their own vague, unarticulated sense that the
environment is indeed worth protecting onto Walker's preferred owners of all those square feet—Big Money.
But Big Money and Walker know perfectly well that according to their own laissez-faire creed, by definition
there can be no
"interests that are involved in that stream" as a stream. The stream and its environs simply occupy a
portion of 3-space,
and if something else—say a lumber mill, or an open pit mine, or an upscale subdivision complete with a
course—can occupy that same space more profitably, it will replace the stream. So as to placate
neighbors, or to neutralize
a suspicious environmental lobby, the owners of "the interests that are involved in that stream" will simply
asked if they "have an interest in maintaining it." "Of course we do," they will say with a straight face.
Walker knows this, and thus, I suggest, he is caught in a lie.
"And that, you know, that is not such a looney idea. It's in fact, the solution to a lot of these problems,"
Really? Let us return to those halcyon days when Walker's dream-world did exist—the America of
the mid-to-late 1800s and
early 1900s. For all practical purposes, the capitalists did own the whole of America.
Let us now imagine that America's pioneers and their heirs had whole-heartedly accepted the logic of
capitalism. Thus, during the heyday of America's industrial development, not a single law protecting
the environment had
ever been proposed; not a single law protecting workers from unsafe working conditions—even prohibiting
ever been imagined; no one had ever considered creating a National Park, or protecting a species; Upton
children's books instead of The Jungle.
Can we seriously imagine that "the market" would have solved the abuses so vividly documented in the histories
of that era?
That a "market" for steel made in non-polluting plants would have naturally arisen from America's vast
consumer base? That
a contractor presented with a steel girder for a speculator's office complex would say "nope, my client won't
one. Bring me one from a mill that doesn't pollute the air." That home makers in the mountains of
Colorado would have
refused to buy cast-iron skillets in protest of the soot that blackened the laundry of their rust-belt
cousins as it hung
on the line to dry? That Boston's textile barons would have hired only grown-ups because hard-working
farmers refused to buy overalls made of denim produced by children? That if they couldn't buy coal
mining operations, the consumers of the upper Midwest and the Northeast would have shivered through the
winter on principle?
Scenarios like these are precisely what Walker means when he says that "having the whole of the earth owned"
fact, the solution to a lot of these problems." They are so preposterous that I have concluded that Walker
a bit looney. Walker's performance raises deeper issues than I have touched on here, and of
a darker dimension. I will try to address them in a separate essay.
Rent or buy The Corporation. Have a house party.
Vote the Republicans out of control of Congress in 2006.
Note on Lucy Hughes:
At the time of filming The Corporation, Hughes was a Vice President of Initiative Media North America, the largest
buyer of media advertising time in the world. She appears in the chapter Basic Training. Hughes is co-creator of a
highly successful marketing strategy for Big Toy: The Nag Factor. As Harvard psychiatrist, and Hughes's film
opponent, Susan Linn puts it, the purpose of The Nag Factor is to "help corporations to help children nag for their
products more effectively. ... One family cannot combat an industry that spends $12 billion a year trying
to get to their children. They can't do it."
Following my hero, Dave Barry, I do not make things up: Hughes really is unclear
on what is ethical and what is not in advertising. At the end of her interview, she remarks:
"Somebody asked me, you know: ‘Lucy, is that ethical? You know, you're essentially manipulating these
children.' ...... Well, yeah, is it ethical? I don't know. But our role at Initiative is to move products.
And if we know you move products with a certain creative execution, placed in a certain type of media vehicle,
then we've done our job."
It's clear that Hughes does not lose a moment's sleep pondering whether her manipulation of children is ethical. Nor
does she lose any sleep worrying about the ultimate goal of her work on behalf of Big Toy: the breakdown of parental
authority, and of parents' ability to pass along to their children their own traditional values: self-restraint,
thrift, patience, say.
Is Hughes clueless about the contradiction between this profoundly anti-family marketing strategy, and the pious
exploitation of "family values" by corporate America's wholly owned subsidiary, the Republican Party? Were she given the
task of neutralizing criticism of The Nag Factor, would she blame even honest, hard-working, conservative
parents for not exercising "personal responsibility" in resisting her manipulations?
But, unlike Jackson and Walker, in my opinion at least, Hughes has been honest with us.
My web search on Hughes indicates that she left Initiative Media in September 2003, to take a position with AdLink in
Los Angeles. Perhaps her candor in The Corporation ended her career there. But, I could not find
her name on the current who's who roster for AdLink, either. Perhaps the film interview triggered a
downward employment trajectory for Hughes. If any visitor knows where she is now, I welcome an update.