This article originally appeared in the June 11, 2012 issue of The Nation magazine, and was coauthored with Thomas Hanna.
TVA offices in Chattanooga, Tennessee
It’s time to put the taboo subject of public ownership back on the progressive agenda. It is the only way to solve some of the most serious problems facing the nation. We contend that it is possible not only to talk about this once forbidden subject but to begin to build a serious politics that can do what needs to be done in key sectors.
Proposals for public ownership will of course be attacked as “socialism,” but conservatives call any progressive program—to say nothing of the modest economic policies of the Obama administration—“socialist.” However, many Americans are increasingly skeptical about the claims made for the corporate-dominated “free” enterprise system by its propagandists. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that a majority of Americans have an unfavorable view of corporations—a significant shift from only twelve years ago, when nearly three-quarters held a favorable view. At the same time, two recent Rasmussen surveys found Americans under 30—the people who will build the next politics—almost equally divided as to whether capitalism or socialism is preferable. Another Pew survey found that 18- to 29-year-olds have a favorable reaction to the term “socialism” by a margin of 49 to 43 percent.
Public ownership in certain sectors of the economy is the only way to solve some of America’s most pressing problems. Take the financial arena, where the current recession was hatched. Today, five giant banks control more than one-third of all deposits. Wall Street claims this makes it more efficient; but even if the Big Five banks were efficient (which is open to question—how “efficient” are institutions that didn’t know they were carrying a huge backlog of underwater loans?), they were all deeply involved in creating the meltdown that cost taxpayers billions in bailouts, and the overall economy trillions. Numerous economists, left and right, believe that these unbridled operations will inevitably lead to another crisis. JPMorgan Chase’s recent speculative loss of at least $2 billion should be fair warning.
The traditional liberal approach calls for more regulation. But, important as it is, this tool for controlling corporate behavior has been increasingly undermined by fierce lobbying. As Senator Dick Durbin observed, “The banks…are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they, frankly, own the place.” Most of those who created the mortgage crisis went scot-free, and the financial reforms that have since been enacted are flimsy in many areas and easily evaded. Nearly two years after the Dodd-Frank legislation was approved, only 108 of 398 necessary regulations have been written, 148 deadlines have been missed (67 percent) and nearly two dozen Congressional bills scrapping parts of the law proposed. The draft measures implementing the Volcker Rule (which limits proprietary trading by banks) are so full of holes as to be almost meaningless.
The underlying problem is that the economic and political power of corporations in general, and banks in particular, has grown dramatically. On the eve of the Great Depression in 1929, 250 banks controlled roughly half the nation’s banking resources. Now, a mere six banks control almost 74 percent of the nation’s banking resources. The steadily increasing concentration of power occurred, not surprisingly, as progressives’ power declined. Organized labor, the institution that has given progressive politics its muscle, has shrunk from a 1954 peak of 34.7 percent of the workforce to a mere 11.8 percent—only 6.9 percent in the private sector. As unions have grown weaker, conservative politicians at the state level, backed by right-wing-funded lobbying groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, have launched drives to pass a raft of “right to work” and other anti-labor laws, further undermining the liberal-left’s key institutional power base.
That corporations can undo the regulations affecting them has been demonstrated time and again. Starting with trucking, airlines and railroads, since the 1970s deregulation has gone forward in sector after sector under Democratic and Republican administrations alike. The trend has continued in the energy, communications and, to a lesser degree, food and drug industries. The big coal and oil companies have resisted comprehensive curbs on greenhouse gas emissions, including spending millions in 2009–10 to defeat cap-and-trade legislation in the Senate after it passed the House. This is in addition, of course, to concerted efforts, year in and year out, to discredit climate change science.
The other traditional progressive response to concentrated corporate power has been stronger enforcement of antitrust laws. In the wake of the mortgage crisis, demands to “break them up” were made as a way of bringing under control banks deemed “too big to fail.” These demands were ignored, but even if they were to succeed, within a few years the most aggressive of the broken-up banks would likely find ways to regroup, just as AT&T did recently (and as Standard Oil did after it was broken up in the early part of the twentieth century). After banks were deregulated in the 1980s and ’90s, the majors gobbled up the small fry, eliminating 7,000 banks and increasing average bank size 400 percent. The institutional power imbalances guarantee that the banks will likely overcome any temporary effort that does not strike deep when the next crisis opportunity arises.
The near collapse of several big banks and mortgage lenders in 2008–09 offered such an opportunity, but it was squandered. The government provided so much bailout money to institutions like Citigroup and AIG that it could easily have taken them over, turning them into managed public utilities. Instead, it meekly handed voting to trustees who, in the case of AIG, were corporate insiders recruited by the New York Federal Reserve. At the outset of the crisis Willem Buiter—shortly before becoming the chief economist of Citigroup—came much closer to the right approach than many progressive critics when he asked: “Is the reality…that large private firms make enormous private profits when the going is good and get bailed out and taken into temporary public ownership when the going gets bad, with the taxpayer taking the risk and the losses? If so, then why not keep these activities in permanent public ownership?”
There is a second reason that a strategy going beyond regulation and antitrust is essential. Large corporations are subject to Wall Street’s first commandment: grow or die. “Stockholders in the speculation economy want their profits now,” observes Lawrence Mitchell, author of The Speculation Economy, “and they do not much care how they get them.” If a corporate executive does not show steadily increasing quarterly earnings, the grim quarterly-returns reaper will cut her down sooner or later.
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