HOW IT USED TO BE BEFORE CORPORATIONS RULED AMERICA: AN ESSAY

AND YOU CAN THANK OUR ILLEGITIMATE PRESIDENT FOR THE COMING MAJOR RECISSION IN OUR CIVIL AND LEGAL  RIGHTS



When I was a youngster growing up in suburban Rochester, NY, I didn’t know that we were a lower middle class working family.  Why?  Well, because we had a three bedroom house on four acres of land, we had a new car every two years, we took a month’s long vacation (to Canada or to Florida) each summer, we had new school clothes every fall and pretty much wanted for nothing.  Okay. Not entirely true.  There was a whole bunch of stuff me and my brother “wanted” – me a horse, my bother a motorcycle, for example – that my parents in their infinite wisdom chose not to purchase for us.

 How did all this plenty occur particularly when my father never finished high school and my mother was a stay-at-home housewife (just like Phyllis Schlaffley would have wanted) and nobody in the family had inherited millions like Donald Trump?  Well, it was mainly because of the Eastman Kodak Company where my father worked.  And while this is going to sound like a fantasy crafted from whole cloth, recall that this was happening during a time in this country’s history where if you worked for a major American company and did a good job, they took care of you and rewarded you for your hard work and loyalty. 

My dad was a “steamfitter” maintaining the heating and cooling systems of Kodak’s vast film and chemical production plants and did so from the age of 17, when his father died and he was forced to quit school, until he retired in 1965.  And what did he receive for his work and loyalty?  Well, a good salary that allowed a family of four all of the suburban bennies noted above.  He also received an annual bonus, a company financed pension, paid family health insurance and stock options each year.   (I swear I’m not making this up!)  It was a good life; we were living the quintessential American Dream.

I relate this story not to wax nostalgic for a mythical time past when everything was hunky dory, but simply to contrast a prototypical Middle Class life not so very long ago, with the stark differences that Middle Class America faces today. (By the way, when I finished 7 years of higher education –a five year undergraduate program in Architecture and a two year graduate program in City and Regional Planning in 1972 - I owed a grand total of $2,450 to the New York State Higher Education loan program.  In today’s money that would be $14,570, less than your typical annual tuition at many state universities.) 

Such workplace mutual respect and benefits simply no longer exist today.  There are a plethora of reasons why, not the least of which is the vast expansion of global trade.  In Kodak’s case, (the company still exists but is operating in bankruptcy) it was the boom in digital cameras and digital photography that sundered the company’s reliance on film and film cameras.  The company was simply blindsided and unprepared for the enormous change digital photography wrought.  It had been a long run for Kodak – George Eastman invented the Brownie Camera in 1900 that box that revolutionized picture taking.  But along with the offshoring of manufacturing jobs and the substitution of low wage foreign (and domestic) labor for American labor, has come the ascendancy of corporate rights and power beginning in the 1980’s and continuing until today.  This “corporatization of America” – the burgeoning of corporate legal rights (Citizen’s United) and the diminishment of worker rights in the face of corporate legal, political and financial power (Right To Work Laws) – for several decades has so tilted the power balance between us and our corporate overlords so as to make us, U.S. Citizens, virtual slaves in the face of unrelenting  corporate privilege and dominance.  

All of this was accomplished over decades of slavishly adhering to the theoretical tenets of “Unfettered Free Market Capitalism” championed by Alan Greenspan and Milton Friedman (and Congress) as a means to unleash American industry and creativity.  And, today, if you are a corporate exec making 400 times the wage that your average employee does – up from a measly 4 times back in the 1960’s – then you’ve received all the benefits of this decades long effort.  If you are like me and the rest of us, tough luck.  You got screwed.   Make no mistake about it, working men and women are little more than corporate serfs today and have suffered greatly from blind adherence to an economic theory that has diminished the lives of ordinary Americans.

One way in which this power reveals itself, is in the steady diminishment of our rights to sue corporations in court for corporate malfeasance.  You know all those 60 page “Agreements” you never read but have to sign to get a Google mail account, shop at Amazon and watch videos on You Tube?  Well, buried deep inside those agreements that none of us ever read, are clauses that bind us to “arbitration” (sometimes “mediation”) and force us to forgo our rights to redress wrongdoing in a court of law.  I mean this sounds a bit crazy right?  Some carmaker installs a bum set of brakes that causes cars to crash and you can’t sue them?  Yup.   That’s where we are.  This erosion of our right to sue has been greased by Congress and the Supreme Court who have consistently placed corporate “rights” over our personal rights for thirty years now.  It’s been a slow, little noticed trend – I mean how many of us keep track of Federal, State and local court dockets to check on corporate intrusions into our lives? – but one that has fundamentally altered the legal landscape in favor of corporations to our profound detriment.


And don’t think for a moment that this erosion was some sort of benign happenstance or just one of those unanticipated consequences of policy decisions.  No.  Not at all.  Do you recall the famous case of 79-year-old Stella Liebeck who in 1992 sued McDonald’s after having spilled a cup of hot coffee on her lap? Her case was one of a number of cases that the Clinton and Bush I Administrations (and corporate attorneys) called “frivolous.”  There were many such examples of them appearing in the press and all received massive amounts of mainstream media attention.  I mean, spilling a cup of coffee results in a lawsuit?  How absurd.  As a result, however, may states passed legislation to cap jury damage awards and to require much more complex procedures and standards to pursue such cases in court.  The entire standard for class action suits – once a very powerful check on corporations run amok – was changed to make it virtually impossible to mount such a case today.   But you know what?  Mrs. Liebeck’s case wasn’t frivolous at all.  She suffered first, second and third degree burns, her skin melted away, she required skin grafts, and she was hospitalized for weeks.  Do you know what she wanted from McDonald’s?  To pay for that part of her hospital bill that her insurance wouldn’t cover.  (It was something like $800 as I recall.) They refused and their refusal led to her lawsuit.  Which she won, by the way, to the tune of $3 million.   But her case actually caused a strong reaction among the legal and business community with the resultant caps and legal hurdles, which is why you so rarely hear of large jury awards any more.   Just a few years ago, it was admitted that the entire “frivolous lawsuit” propaganda campaign was nothing more than a coordinated effort to protect corporations from legal actions by us citizens.    It has been a smashing success.

Just as we were beginning to claw back a small portion of the rights and protections we’ve lost over thirty years of Free Market Economics thanks to the Obama Administration – Glass Stegal, The Consumer Protection and Finance Bureau, minimum wage hikes, the ACA, etc. etc. along comes Donald Trump who, with the “guidance” of Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan (R-WI) and other radical conservatives, seems to indicate that every single ounce of progress made under the Obama Administration, is to be undone with a vengeance.   

There is no mystery, no huge unknown about why working and middle class families have not gained all that much –in fact they’ve lost ground - over the past three decades.   It’s because of tax policies, anti-union policies, anti-citizen legal decisions, pro-corporate treatment, and little attention paid to the stunning impacts such policies have had on the American Working and Middle Classes.  Politicians offer tax cuts to create jobs (and sometimes they do, minimum wage, no benefit ones at Walmart and McDonald’s), give ordinary Americans a few hundred more bucks in their pockets while rewarding CEO’s with massive tax cuts and favorable tax treatment of their earnings that they can well afford to pass up.  But for you and me, when corporate taxes are cut it means that the rest of us have to make up the slack from our own pocketbooks.



When I was growing up enjoyment of our city parks, the zoo, the beach were all free.  You didn’t have to pay to play baseball or swim at the public beach.  Today?  Not a chance.  Used to be the public amenities like parks, were considered part of the general welfare.  Same with State University Systems that offered lower cost higher education to everyone.  But no more.  Those days are gone.  Today it’s “pay as you go” and  “pay to play” for the rest of us as those publicly supported institutions have become privatized and “monetarized” and public funds have dried up.   What’s actually happened, all in the name of free market economics and “reform,” is that what used to be considered “the public good” and, therefore, paid by all of us to benefit American society as a whole, (like public education, for example, that I pay for even though I no longer have children in the pubic school system) has become some sort of “unearned welfare” of the nanny state and must be eliminated no matter what the negative outcomes for the rest of us.    

The folks who think they are the real ones who’ve suffered from discrimination, have been left behind, no longer can achieve the American Dream and have lost the culture war, - let’s call them “the delusionals,” shall we? - just guaranteed that the small progress we’ve made over the past right years will be reversed.  Big time.  In fact, looking at Trump’s potential Cabinet nominees it appears as if we are going to suffer from even more “laissez faire,” “tickle down,” “the markets are self regulating” capitalistic bullshit than even in the past three decades.  So folks, if you voted for Donald Trump, if you thought that he would be a change agent, if you believe that corporations are looking out for your best interests, then you got the right man.

Good luck with that.  I’d recommend buying a tent, some survival gear and lots of canned goods because when Trump and Ryan and the Republicans are finished, that’s what you’re going to need to survive.   They are not going to bring back manufacturing jobs, - they can’t - they are not going to “reform” Social Security and Medicare, they are going to privatize and destroy every single one of FDR’s social welfare programs that have served Americans so well since the Great Depression.

MRS. LIEBECK'S "FRIVOLOUS" INJURIES
Say goodbye to all of it.  And it’s not going to be pretty.      









      

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