The bracing reality that America has two sets of rules -- one for the
corporate class and another for the middle class -- has never been more
The middle class, by and large, plays by the rules, then watches as
its jobs disappear -- and the Senate takes a break instead of extending
unemployment benefits. The corporate class games the system -- making
sure its license to break the rules is built into the rules themselves.
One of the most glaring examples of this continues to be the ability
of corporations to cheat the public out of tens of billions of dollars a
year by using offshore tax havens. Indeed, it's estimated that
companies and wealthy individuals funneling money through offshore tax
havens are evading around $100 billion a year in taxes -- leaving the rest of
us to pick up the tab. And with cash-strapped states all across the
country cutting vital services to the bone, it's not like we don't need
You want Exhibit A of two sets of rules? According to the White
House, in 2004, the last year data on this was compiled, U.S.
multinational corporations paid roughly $16 billion in taxes on $700 billion
in foreign active earnings -- putting their tax rate at around 2.3
percent. Know many middle class Americans getting off that easy at tax
In December 2008, the Government Accounting Office reported
that 83 of the 100 largest publicly-traded companies in the country --
including AT&T, Chevron, IBM, American Express, GE, Boeing, Dow, and
AIG -- had subsidiaries in tax havens -- or, as the corporate class
comically calls them, "financial privacy jurisdictions."
Even more egregiously, of those 83 companies, 74 received government
contracts in 2007. GM, for instance, got more than $517 million from the
government -- i.e. the taxpayers -- that year, while shielding profits
in tax-friendly places like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. And Boeing,
which received over $23 billion in federal contracts that year, had 38
subsidiaries in tax havens, including six in Bermuda.
And while it's as easy as opening up an island P.O. Box, not every
big company uses the dodge. For instance, Boeing's competitor Lockheed
Martin had no offshore subsidiaries. But far too many do -- another GAO
that over 18,000 companies are registered at a single address in the
Cayman Islands, a country with no corporate or capital gains taxes.
America's big banks -- including those that pocketed billions from
the taxpayers in bailout dollars -- seem particularly fond of the Cayman
Islands. At the time of the GAO report,
Morgan Stanley had 273 subsidiaries in tax havens, 158 of them in the
Cayman Islands. Citigroup had 427, with 90 in the Caymans. Bank of
America had 115, with 59 in the Caymans. Goldman Sachs had 29 offshore
havens, including 15 in the Caymans. JPMorgan had 50, with seven in the
Caymans. And Wells Fargo had 18, with nine in the Caymans.
Perhaps no company exemplifies the corporate class/middle class
double standard more than KBR/Halliburton. The company got billions from
U.S. taxpayers, then turned around and used a Cayman Island tax dodge
to pump up its bottom line. As the Boston Globe's Farah
Stockman reported, KBR, until 2007 a unit of Halliburton,
"has avoided paying hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Medicare
and Social Security taxes by hiring workers through shell companies
based in this tropical tax haven."
In 2008, the company listed 10,500 Americans as being officially
employed by two companies that, as Stockman wrote, "exist in a computer
file on the fourth floor of a building on a palm-studded boulevard here
in the Caribbean." Aside from the tax advantages, Stockman points out
another benefit of this dodge: Americans who officially work for a
company whose headquarters is a computer file in the Caymans are not
eligible for unemployment insurance or other benefits when they get laid
off -- something many of them found out the hard way.
This kind of sun-kissed thievery is nothing new. Indeed, back in
2002, to call attention to the outrage of the sleazy accounting trick, I
wrote a column announcing I was thinking of moving my
syndicated newspaper column to Bermuda:
I'll still live in America, earn my living here, and enjoy
the protection, technology, infrastructure, and all the other myriad
benefits of the land of the free and the home of the brave. I'm just
changing my business address. Because if I do that, I won't have to pay
for those benefits -- I'll get them for free!
Washington has been trying to address the issue for close to 50 years
-- JFK gave it a go in 1961. But time and again Corporate
America's game fixers -- aka lobbyists -- and water carriers in
Congress have managed to keep the loopholes open.
The battle is once again afoot. On Friday, the House passed the American
Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act. The bill, in addition to
extending unemployment benefits, clamps down on some of they ways
corporations hide their income offshore to avoid paying U.S. taxes. Even
though practically every House Republican voted against it, the bill passed 215 to 204.
The bill's passage in the Senate, however, remains in doubt, with
lobbyists gearing up for a furious fight to make sure America's
corporate class can continue to profitably enjoy the largess of
government services and contracts without the responsibility of paying
its fair share.
The bill is far from perfect -- it leaves open a number of loopholes
and would only recoup a very small fraction of the $100 billion
corporations and wealthy individuals are siphoning off from the U.S.
Treasury. And it wouldn't ban companies using offshore tax havens from
receiving government contracts, which is stunning given the hard times
we are in and the populist groundswell at the way average Americans are
getting the short end of the stick.
But the bill would end one of the more egregious examples of the
double standard between the corporate class and the middle class,
finally forcing hedge fund managers to pay taxes at the same rate as
everybody else. As the law stands now, their income is considered
"carried interest," and is accordingly taxed at the capital gains rate
of 15 percent.
The issue was famously brought up in 2007 by Warren Buffett when he noted that his receptionist paid 30 percent of her
income in taxes, while he paid only 17.7 percent on his taxable income
of $46 million dollars.
As Robert Reich points out, the 25 most successful hedge fund
managers earned $1 billion each. The top earner clocked in at $4
billion. And all of them paid taxes at about half the rate of Buffett's
Closing this outrageous loophole would bring in close to $20 billion
dollars in revenue -- money desperately needed at a time when teachers
and nurses and firemen are being laid off all around the country.
Hedge fund lobbyists are currently hacking away at the Senate's
resolve with, not surprisingly, some success. And it's not just
Republicans who are willing to do their bidding, but a number of
Democrats as well. Indeed, it was a Democrat -- Chuck Schumer -- who led the fight against closing the loophole in
"I don't know how members of Congress can return home and look an
office manager, a nurse, a court clerk in the eye and say 'I chose hedge
fund managers instead of you and your family'," said Lori Lodes of the SEIU.
Nicole Tichon, of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, framed the debate in similar terms:
It's hard to imagine anyone campaigning on protecting hedge
fund managers, Wall Street banks and companies that ship jobs and
profits overseas. It's hard to imagine telling constituents that somehow
they should continue to subsidize these industries. We're anxious to
see whose side the Senate is on and what story they want to tell the
Up until now, the story has been a familiar narrative of Two
Americas, with one set of rules for those who can afford to hire a fleet
of K Street lobbyists and a different set for everybody else. It's time
to give this infuriating tale a different -- and far more just and
satisfying -- ending.
British Petroleum is, rightfully, taking a lot of grief for the
massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but we should save some of our
vituperation for Transocean Ltd., the company that leased the ill-fated
Deepwater Horizon drilling rig to BP. Transocean is no innocent
bystander in this matter. It presumably has some responsibility for the
safety condition of the rig, which its employees helped operate (nine of
them died in the April 20 explosion).
Transocean also brings some bad karma to the situation. The company,
the world’s largest offshore drilling contractor, is the result of a
long series of corporate mergers and acquisitions dating back decades.
One of the firms that went into that mix was Sedco, which was founded in
1947 as Southeastern Drilling Company by Bill Clements, who would
decades later become a conservative Republican governor of Texas.
In 1979 a Sedco rig in the Gulf of Mexico leased to a Mexican oil
company experienced a blowout, resulting in what was at the time the
worst oil spill the world had ever seen. As he surveyed the oil-fouled
beaches of the Texas coast, Gov. Clements made the memorable remarks:
“There’s no use in crying over spilled milk. Let’s don’t get excited
about this thing” (Washington Post 9/11/1979).
At the time, Sedco was being run by Clements’s son, and the family
controlled the company’s stock. The federal government sued Sedco over
the spill, claiming that the rig was unseaworthy and its crew was not
properly trained. The feds sought about $12 million in damages, but
Sedco drove a hard bargain and got away with paying the government only
$2 million. It paid about the same amount to settle lawsuits filed by
fishermen, resorts and other Gulf businesses. Sedco was sold in 1984 to
oil services giant Schlumberger, which transferred its offshore drilling
operations to what was then known as Transocean Offshore in 1999.
In 2000 an eight-ton anchor that accidentally fell from a Transocean
rig in the Gulf of Mexico ruptured an underwater pipeline, causing a
spill of nearly 100,000 gallons of oil. In 2003 a fire broke out on a
company rig off the Texas coast, killing one worker and injuring several
others. As has been reported in recent days, a series of fatal accidents
at company operations last year prompted the company to cancel
executive bonuses. It’s also come out that in 2005 a Transocean rig in
the North Sea had been cited by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive for a
problem similar to what apparently caused the Gulf accident.
Safety is not the only blemish on Transocean’s record. It is one of
those companies that engaged in what is euphemistically called corporate
inversion—moving one’s legal headquarters overseas to avoid U.S.
taxes. Transocean first moved its registration to the Cayman Islands in
1999 and then to Switzerland in 2008. It kept its physical headquarters
in Houston, though last year it moved some of its top officers to
Switzerland to be able to claim that its principal executive offices
In addition to skirting U.S. taxes, Transocean has allegedly tried to
avoid paying its fair share in several countries where its subsidiaries
operate. The company’s 10-K annual report admits that it has been assessed additional amounts
by tax authorities in Brazil and that it is the subject of civil and
criminal tax investigations in Norway.
In 2007 there were reports that Transocean was among a group of oil
services firms being investigated for violations of the Foreign Corrupt
Practices Act in connection with alleged payoffs to customs officials in
Nigeria. No charges have been filed.
An army of lawyers will be arguing over the relative responsibility
of the various parties in the Gulf spill for a long time to come. But
one thing is clear: Transocean, like BP, brought a dubious legacy to
this tragic situation.
“Good governance in extractive industries contribute to a better
domestic investment climate for U.S. businesses, increase the
reliability of commodity supplies, promote greater U.S. energy security
and thereby strengthen our national security,” says the summary on Lugar’s Web site.
“I was tortured and imprisoned by the Nigerian military for my
peaceful protests against Shell Oil’s destruction of our land,” Suanu
Kingston Bere, a Nigerian activist who spoke at the Berkeley City
Council meeting, said in JINN’s news release. “I believe the City’s
support sends a strong message that communities in the U.S are
concerned about the human rights abuses and environmental damage
associated with oil extraction. I do not want to see my people continue
to go through what I went through.”
Berkeley’s resolution also calls on the State Department to support
third-party peace talks in the Delta to address environmental
destruction and lack of investment in the oil producing region. The
resolution was co-sponsored by Councilmembers Jesse Arreguin, Darryl Moore and Max Anderson and was introduced to the council through the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission, which worked with JINN to draft it.
JINN says 50 years of oil exploitation in the Niger Delta has
produced over $700 billion in oil revenues shared between the Nigerian
government and oil giants like San Ramon-based Chevron as well as Exxon Mobil and Shell.
More than 40 percent of Nigeria’s oil is exported to the U.S. Yet
despite the corporate oil wealth, local residents’ quality of life has
deteriorated – their drinking polluted, their food fisheries poisoned,
their access to education, health care and even electricity limited.
“Oil companies in Nigeria have had long a relationship with the
notoriously corrupt and historically brutal Nigerian government where
rampant corruption, fraudulent elections and violent suppression of
peaceful protests are the norm in the Delta,” Nigerian writer and
activist Omoyele Sowore said in JINN’s news release. “The proposed ESTT
Act in the Senate is an important step toward holding oil companies
accountable for their collusion with the Nigerian government, which
protects their profits while killing and injuring innocent local people
and destroying the Delta’s fragile environment.”
The best time to announce the worst news is late on Friday. The
federal government and public relations firms have known this for
years. So it was that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)
scheduled its press conference last Friday for 3 p.m., Pacific Daylight
Time or (even better!) 6 p.m. in the east.
As planned, the news that stocks of Bering Sea pollock – America’s
largest fishery – have declined to a 30-year-low was reported only in
the fishing trade press and the Seattle and Anchorage papers. Mission accomplished.
Every summer, NMFS technicians survey pollock. The amount of fish
allowed to be caught in 2009 was based on the 2008 summer survey. The
2010 quota will be based on the 2009 survey and so on. On one hand,
these surveys are about “environmental protection.” (Alas, we must us
the dreaded quotation marks, because the environment has not
been protected.) On the other hand, the surveys are a
government-subsidized service for the industrial trawler fleet that
pulls the pollock from the sea.
On the other, other hand (we’re playing three hands today), most
people don’t know what a pollock is, but we eat enough of it. (As I
mentioned two paragraphs ago, it’s America’s largest fishery.) All that
imitation crabmeat in the supermarket wet case? Pollock. (And why must
pollock imitate crabmeat? American fisheries management.)
Pollock is the whitefish in all those
disgusting frozen fish sticks. Pollock is, or was, the fish in the
sandwiches at the fast food restaurants. Now that pollock is in severe
decline, McDonald’s is considering switching to hoki. This has nothing
to do with environmental awareness; McDonald’s requires a steady supply
of a consistent product at a predictable price. Hoki, a whitefish
that’s overfished by industrial trawlers in New Zealand waters, will be
a temporary fix, a few years at best. Thanks, Ronald.
Where was I? Oh right, severe decline. Three years ago, NMFS
allowed the trawlers to take 1.5 million metric tons of pollock out of
the Bering Sea. This year, because the decline was already evident in
last year’s survey, the quota was set at 815,000 metric tons. The
industry trade press headlines news like this as: “Pollock prices
likely to rise.”
The At-Sea Processors Association, the trade group that represents
the industrial trawlers, will try to convince the feds to keep the
quota high and if the past is any evidence, they’ll do it. That’s why
the fish population is crashing. What’s worse, they may bully the feds
into continuing the pollock roe season. Roe, of course, is fish talk
for eggs. The trawlers deliberately target the pregnant females, strip
the eggs out of their bellies and sell them for big bucks on the Asian
What the Epicureans of Korea and Japan eat for dinner is what
doesn’t become a fish in the Bering Sea, with tragic consequences for
the sea and the other animals that live there. Pollock have
traditionally been mighty breeders, the rabbits of the northern seas
(one reason we fish them so hard). As such, they’ve provided much of
the food for the rest of the animals in the ocean, like Steller sea
lions and Pribilof fur seals. Because we humans got greedy with the
trawlers and the roe, now those species (and more) are in trouble.
Yes, eating the eggs is a great way to deplete a population of fish
(or any other wild creature) and yes, there’s more to it than that.
Global warming plays a role, with warm water moving north into the
Bering Sea, making conditions for pollock love less favorable than
they’ve been in decades past. The pollock don’t cause global warming,
though, nor do sea lions or fur seals. So yeah, we should stop burning
so many fossil fuels, but until we do, we have to back off with the
trawlers and give the pollock time to rebuild their numbers.
An irony here (not the irony, there’s too much irony for
that) is that Bering Sea pollock are often referred to (by the
industrial trawling people) as “the best-managed fishery in the world.”
Sadder still is that the statement is not far from accurate. Look at
Atlantic cod, that population crashed 15 years ago and has yet to come
The RDM case may become the first test for the Netherlands’ new anti-corruption legislation and for its will and ability to prosecute corporations for making foreign bribes.
The RDM bribery scandal dates back to 1998 when the company sold 202 Leopard tanks to the Chilean army. The Rotterdam-based company had purchased the tanks as scrap metal from the Dutch Department of Defense and rebuilt them. It then paid bribes to Chilean army officials facilitating the sale.
Joep van den Nieuwenhuyzen, the Dutch businessman, and officials of his company—who offered and facilitated the bribes—have never been prosecuted in relation to this case. The Dutch Public Prosecutor’s Office told CorpWatch that at the time of RDM’s bribes, the Netherlands had no laws against offering bribes to officials overseas. Legislation to make these practices illegal was introduced in 2001. Further muddying the waters, RDM went bankrupt in 2006, and Joep van den Nieuwenhuyzen, its owner, was jailed for fraud. He was released two years ago.
The current Dutch government investigation will delve further into the extent and mechanics of the bribery scheme, and interview key politicians active at the time. A Dutch parliamentary team is following up on the case in the Netherlands and in Chile. Key targets of the investigation include Edmundo Perez Yoma, Chile’s former minister of defense and currently its interior minister, along with his then deputy Mario Fernandez, now member of the Constitutional Court. Both are suspected of facilitating the bribery. Chile has announced similar investigations.
One Dutch official at the time of the tank sales, then Minister of Defense Joris Voorhoeve, joined the call for parliament to undertake a broad investigation into RDM’s bribes. He defended his own role. While Voorhoeve acknowledges that he issued an export license for the 202 Dutch Leopard tanks, he maintains he is appalled and shocked by the allegations of bribery. “The Netherlands government would never agree to pay bribes to get a deal closed,” he said, “nor participate in any other form of corruption.” The sales were justified, he said, because when they took place in 1998, Chile had become a democracy and General Augusto Pinochet, who had ruled from 1973 to 1990, was no longer president. But in fact, the former dictator still wielded considerable influence as senator for life and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, positions he retained until his death in 2006.
The parliamentary investigation, while welcomed by many, is late in coming. For years politicians ignored requests by the Netherlands Socialist Party for a formal investigation—again, sparked in part by CorpWatch’s reporting on the money RDM paid to the former dictator and his entourage.
According to a Swiss newspaper, van den Nieuwenhuyzen, currently a Swiss resident, said that he was not aware that the company he once owned was under investigation for payments to Chilean army officials.
But former RDM workers and associates charged that the company paid millions to Chilean colonels and brigadier generals through a third party, with $1.6 million going to a private consultant to the late general Pinochet. RDM said the $1.6 million was a donation to the Pinochet Foundation, a Santiago-based organization that promotes the general’s legacy.
Chilean and cooperating Dutch private investigators that examined the Pinochet’s overseas bank accounts have found that the dictator had stashed almost $28 million overseas, mainly in European bank accounts. Dutch investigators will look for links between that money, the two recently jailed Chilean army officers, and Pinochet.
The spokesperson of the Dutch Socialist Party in Rotterdam told CorpWatch that there have been no successful prosecutions of corporations in the Netherlands for foreign bribes, because it is extremely difficult to secure evidence in foreign countries. Of the scores of cases under consideration, none have yet reached the courts. If RDM is charged, it will be the first time Dutch officials or businesspeople are prosecuted under the new regulations.
These days just about every large corporation would have us believe
that it is in the vanguard of the fight to reverse global warming.
Companies mount expensive ad campaigns to brag about raising their
energy efficiency and shrinking their carbon footprint.
Yet a bold article in the latest issue of business-friendly Bloomberg Markets
magazine documents how some large U.S.-based transnationals are
complicit in a process that does more to exacerbate the climate crisis
than anything else: the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rain forest.
While deforestation is usually blamed on local ranchers and loggers, Bloomberg
points the finger at companies such as Alcoa and Cargill, which the
magazine charges have used their power to get authorities in Brazil to
approve large projects that violate the spirit of the country’s
Alcoa is constructing a huge bauxite mine that will chew up more
than 25,000 acres of virgin jungle in an area, the magazine says, “is
supposed to be preserved unharmed forever for local residents.” Bloomberg
cites Brazilian prosecutors who have been waging a four-year legal
battle against an Alcoa subsidiary that is said to have circumvented
the country’s national policies by obtaining a state rather than a
federal permit for the project.
Bloomberg also focuses on the widely criticized grain port
that Cargill built on the Amazon River. Cargill claims to be
discouraging deforestation by the farmers supplying the soybeans that
pass through the port, but the Brazilian prosecutors interviewed by Bloomberg expressed skepticism that the effort was having much effect.
Apart from the big on-site projects, Bloomberg looks at
major corporations that it says purchase beef and leather from
Amazonian ranchers who engage in illegal deforestation. Citing
Brazilian export records, the magazine identifies Wal-Mart, McDonald’s,
Kraft Foods and Carrefour as purchasers of the beef and General Motors,
Ford and Mercedes-Benz as purchasers of leather.
The impact of the Amazon cattle ranchers was also the focus of a Greenpeace report published in June. That report put heat on major shoe companies that are using leather produced by those ranchers.
Nike and Timberland
responded to the study by pledging to end their use of leather hides
from deforested areas in the Amazon basin. Greenpeace is trying to get
other shoe companies to follow suit.
Think of the Amazon the next time a company such as Wal-Mart tells
us what wonderful things it is doing to address the climate crisis.
After thirteen years and
countless hours by lawyers, community members, and activists around the
world, Royal Dutch Shell finally settled the Wiwa v Shell case in a New York court for $15.5 million.
Plaintiffs in the case, which included Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr., and the
families of other Ogoni men hanged in November 1995, charged the
Royal Dutch/Shell company, its Nigerian subsidiary, and the former
chief of its Nigerian operation, Brian Anderson, with complicity in the
torture, killing, and other abuses of Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa and
other non-violent Nigerian activists in the mid-1990s in the Ogoni
region of the Niger Delta.
they settled the case as a "humanitarian gesture" to the Ogoni. Does
anyone really believe that after fighting for more than a decade to
keep this out of court, Shell suddenly woke up and felt great
compassion for the Ogoni? Please.
Shell settled because they were scared, and they knew the evidence
against them was overwhelming. They publicly say they had nothing to do
with the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni, and yet there
were documents and video that they fought hard to keep out of the public eye.
Evidence that was to be introduced in the case included an internal Shell memo
where the head of Shell Nigeria offered to intervene on Saro-Wiwa's
behalf, if only Saro-Wiwa and others would stop claiming that Shell had
made payments to the military.
Witness were set to testify that they saw Shell vehicles
transporting Nigerian soldiers, that they saw Shell employees
conferring with the military, that they saw money being exchanged
between Shell employees and military officers, and that they heard
military officers, including the brutal Major Okuntimo of the Rivers
State Internal Security Task Force, make admissions regarding the work
they were doing on behalf of Shell.
We have known some of Shell's involvement in this tragedy for a long
time. In early May of 1994, Ken Saro-Wiwa Sr. faxed me a memo authored
by Major Okuntimo which read "Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence" and further called for "pressure on oil companies for prompt regular inputs."
I received that fax and immediately called Ken. He said "this is it.
They're going to kill us all. All for Shell." It was the last time I
talked with him. Several weeks later he was arrested on the trumped up
charges for which he was ultimately hanged.
In the last day, lots of people have asked me if $15.5 million is
enough to compensate for the hanging of nine men, the death of
thousands more, and for the destruction of an ecosystem. No of course
not. But was it on par with what a jury would have awarded in this
case? Yes, lawyers tell me, for sure.
More importantly, does the settlement bring relief to Ken Wiwa Jr.
and the families of the other men who were executed? If you read Ken's thoughtful and moving piece in the Guardian, the answer is clearly yes. That alone should be cause for celebration.
Ken Sr.'s famous last words from the gallows were "lord take my soul
but the struggle continues." In this moment, perhaps more than ever
before, we need to heed that call to action. The settlement in this
case brings satisfaction to the plaintiffs for an event that happened
14 years ago. It in no way, shape or form excuses or absolves Shell of
their ongoing destruction of the Niger Delta environment.
One of the central complaints of Niger Delta communities for forty
years has been gas flaring, which sends plumes of toxic pollutants into
the air and water of the Niger Delta. Gas flaring endangers human
health, harms local ecosystems, emits huge amounts of greenhouse gases,
wastes vast quantities of natural gas, and is against Nigerian law.
Shell does it nowhere else in the world in volumes that are even
remotely comparable to what they flare in the Delta.
But Shell is still flaring gas in Nigeria.
While there is no doubt that the settlement represented a
significant victory for the plaintiffs' in this one human rights case
against Shell, true justice will not be served as long as the people of
Nigeria continue to suffer the terrible impact of Shell's operations.
Shell estimates it would cost about $3 billion -- only 10% of just
their last year's profits -- to end Shell's gas flaring in Nigeria once
and for all.
But instead of putting their great "humanitarian concern" into
action, Shell points the finger at the Nigerian government and demands
that they pay to end this practice.
Send a message to Shell's CEO
Jeroen van der Veer, and let him know that if he really wants to prove
his great concern for the Ogoni people, he'll end gas flaring once and
When people with strong ideological perspectives are often outraged
by media coverage of their pet issues. When both sides are mad, you
know you're doing something right. But how often do you hear
corporations furious about they way they are covered in the business
section? The section seems to lend itself to favor-currying and
In the lead-up to Chevron's annual shareholders meeting tomorrow in San Ramon, the company landed a puff piece on KGO focusing on its efforts to decrease its water usage. No mention of the Amazon controversy, and no mention of outside pressure on Chevron, EBMUD's largest water user.
I'm disappointed to say that a Chronicleinterview
with the company's top lawyer also softballs the issues, while giving
Chevron the opportunity to present its side of the story with no
opportunity for response from the company's many critics. [Update: Chron editors tell me there will be more coverage of Chevron later in the week.]
Well, Chevron's opponents, including San Francisco's Amazon Watch, have taken matters into their own hands, releasing an alternate annual report that presents the externalities
not listed in the company's balance sheet, which shows a record profit
of $24 billion, making the company the second most profitable in the
Did you know that Chevron's Richmond refinery was built in 1902 and emitted 100,000 pounds of toxic waste in 2007, consisting of no less than 38 toxic substances? The EPA ranks it as one of the worst refineries
in the nation. With 17,000 people living within 3 miles from the plant,
you'd think the San Ramon-based company would take local heat from more
than just a couple dozen activists.
Chevron has sought to brand itself an "energy" company, one eagerly pursuing alternatives to petroleum. Its aggressive "Will You Join Us?"
ad campaign asked regular folks to reduce their energy consumption,
suggesting that Chevron was doing the same. In actuality, the company
spent less than 3 percent of its whopping capital and
exploratory expenditures on alternative energy. And it has refused to
offer better reporting on its greenhouse gas emissions, despite strong
shareholder support for it. (The aggressive, and misleading, ad
campaign seems to have ired the report's researchers as well: The
report is decorated by numerous parodies, and some have been
wheat-pasted around town.)
It's a very well researched report, written by the scholar Antonia Juhasz,
clearly divided into regional issues, and it's a much needed
counterbalance to the friendly coverage Chevron is otherwise getting.
(Juhasz was interviewed on Democracy Now this morning.)
For information on protesting the shareholder meeting early tomorrow morning, click here.
Posted by Laura Carlsen on April 3rd, 2009 Americas Policy Program, Center for International Policy
At the end of
March, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) celebrated its 50th
anniversary in Medellin. The occasion presents an opportunity to revise
concepts and move toward a fairer development model. It is logical to
think that among the festivities, a process of evaluation and
self-critique would begin regarding the bank's actions and work in the
The circumstances demand it. The continent has been plunged into a
grave economic crisis, in part because of the string of structural
reforms, deregulation, foreign market dependence, and privatization
that the IDB has supported in the region. Limits on the use of
non-renewable fuels have become more and more obvious while climate
change threatens to affect the production of basic foods and increase
the frequency of natural disasters. Forced migration characterizes
modern life and growing inequality has become the most important
challenge faced by all the countries in the region.
Medellin: site of the 50th anniversary of the IDB. Photo: www.skyscraperlife.com.
In spite of this gray outlook, it seemed that until now everything
suggested that the IDB would prescribe more of the same medicine. They
predicted an increase in loans to the region for the record figure of
US$18 billion for 2009 as a response to the crisis. This will generate
a new wave of debt in the recipient countries, while at the same time
the development model behind the loans faces a crisis of credibility
due to its dubious results. For the IDB, development is seen as a
process of ensuring the transnational mobility of capital, enabling
foreign investment, the transfer of goods, and access to natural
resources. In recent years, this model has been imposed on regions that
were previously closed off due to their geographical location or
because of little interest from big business. Now that the value of
natural resources is increasing and national economies have opted for
exports, mega-projects including transportation infrastructure and
hydroelectric power plants, among others, have become attractive again.
They generally target regions with a low population density, and, in
many cases, significant indigenous populations. While these communities
are often forgotten by their national governments and suffer high
levels of marginalization, at the same time their territories are rich
in both culture and biodiversity.
The IDB has been a major promoter of infrastructure mega-projects
designed to drive this vision. Two mega-project master plans have been
of particular interest to the IDB: The Plan Puebla-Panama (also known
as the Mesoamerican Integration and Development Project) and the
Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South
America (IIRSA). These plans include the construction of
super-highways, dams, electricity networks, and more. The projects
signal a drastic change in the use of land and resources. Local,
regional, and national markets—which generate more jobs and constitute
the majority of food distribution—are seen as a hindrance, and natural
resources—conserved by indigenous communities—are considered the spoils
of transnational business.
Among its objectives, the IDB aims to generate development in these
regions. However, a recent study revealed that the mega-projects
financed by the IDB in many cases end up displacing thousands of people
who are supposed to be the beneficiaries. The construction of dams is
the clearest example because it entails the involuntary displacement
through the flooding of vast areas which often include pre-existing
communities. One example is the La Parota hydroelectric dam in
Guerrero, Mexico which would displace around 25,000 people and has
currently been halted due to popular resistance. A group of 43
grassroots organizations met prior to the IDB meeting in Medellin. They
presented studies and testimonies on the impacts of these projects in
an effort to change the IDB's policies. Through the campaign known as
"The IDB: 50 years financing inequality," these groups argue that,
rather than alleviate the issue of poverty, mega-projects channel the
profits gained from natural resources into the hands of the private
sector and destroy the social fabric and community networks necessary
for indigenous survival.
The solution to poverty that the IDB fundamentally proposes would
seem to be: reduce poverty by expelling the poor. The two meetings—that
of the IDB authorities and that of the organizations which question its
practices—present an opportunity to revise the concept of development
and move toward a fairer development model.
Amid the worst financial and economic crisis in decades, the U.S.
business press tends to get caught up in the daily fluctuations of the
stock market and, to a lesser extent, the monthly changes in the
unemployment rate. By contrast, London’s Financial Times is looking at the big picture. It recently launched a series
of articles under the rubric of The Future of Capitalism. In addition
to soliciting varying views on this monumental question, the paper
published a feature this week presuming to name the 50 people around the world who will “frame the way forward.”
Kicking off the series, the FT’s Martin Wolf was blunt in asserting
that the ideology of unfettered markets promoted over the past three
decades must now be judged a failure. Sounding like a traditional
Marxist, Wolf writes that “the era of liberalisation [the European term
for market fundamentalism] contained seeds of its own downfall” in the
form of tendencies such as “frenetic financial innovation” and “bubbles
in asset prices.”
in the series by Gillian Tett casually notes that “naked greed, lax
regulation, excessively loose monetary policy, fraudulent borrowing and
managerial failure all played a role” in bringing about the crisis.
Richard Layard of the London School of Economics weighs in with a piece
arguing that “we should stop the worship of money and create a more
humane society where the quality of human experience is the criterion.”
Did editorial copy intended for New Left Review mistakenly end up in the FT computers?
Wolf finished his initial article
with the statement: “Where we end up, after this financial tornado, is
for us to seek to determine.” Yet who is the “we” Wolf is referring to?
Following the damning critique of markets and poor government
oversight, the last ones we should turn to for leadership are the
powers that be. Yet that is exactly the group that dominates the list
of those who, according to the editors of FT, will lead the way
forward. The 50 movers and shakers include 14 politicians, starting
with President Obama and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao; ten central
bankers; three financial regulators; and four heads of multinational
institutions such as the IMF and the WTO. Also included are six
economists, including Paul Krugman and Obama advisor Paul Volcker, and
three prominent investors, among them George Soros and Warren Buffett.
The list also finds room for three chief executives (the heads of
Nissan, PepsiCo and Google) and, amazingly, the chiefs of four major
banks: Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, HSBC and BNP Paribas. It even
includes two talking heads: Arianna Huffington and Rush Limbaugh.
Except for Olivier Besancenot of France’s New Anticapitalist Party,
who is included among the politicians in a way that seems a bit
condescending, there is not a single person on the list directly
involved in a movement to challenge corporate power or even to
significantly alter the relationship between business and the rest of
society. There is not a single labor leader, prominent environmental
advocate or other leading activist. The editors at FT seem never to
have heard of civil society.
Then again, the problem may not be thickheadedness among FT editors.
Perhaps the voices for radical change have simply not been loud enough
to earn a place on a list of those who will play a significant role in
the shaping capitalism’s future. In fact, one of the articles in the FT
that in Europe neither the Left nor the labor movement has taken a
leadership role in responding to the crisis, even as spontaneous
protests have erupted in numerous countries.
In the United States, where those forces are weaker, anger at the
crisis has to a great extent been channeled into support for the
Keynesian policies of the Obama Administration. That’s unavoidable in
the short term, but it doesn’t address the need for fundamental
alteration of economic institutions. If, as the Financial Times suggests, the future of capitalism is up for grabs, let’s make sure we all join the fray.
While the Norwegian Council of Ethics full recommendation mentions conflicts involving Barrick in Chile, Tanzania, and the Philippines, the panel acknowledged that, "due to limited resources," it restricted its investigation of Barrick to the Porgera mine in Papua New Guinea. The Porgera mine has been a prime target for criticism for its use of riverine tailings disposal, a practice banned in almost every country in the world.
"It's unbelievably embarrassing," admitted Green Party deputy leader Adriane Carr. "It's got to be bad news for Canada when a foreign government says it's going to sell its shares in a Canadian company they figure is unethical."
This isn't the first time that Norway's Fund has divested from a gold mining company. In fact, looking at a list, the fund – with the notable exception of Walmart – divests exclusively from mining (primarily gold mining) corporations and corporations that produce nuclear weapons or cluster munitions... an interesting juxtaposition highlighting the comparable nature of mining to the production of weapons of mass destruction, especially in terms of long-term environmental consequences.
Compare that to Canada's treatment of gold mining companies. Just this last December, Peter Munk, the chairman and founder of Barrick Gold, received the Order of Canada, Canada's highest civilian honor. Additionally, within Toronto he is honored as a philanthropist, with the Peter Munk Cardiac Center and the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto both adorning his name. Similarly, Ian Telfer, the chairman of Goldcorp, the world's second largest gold miner behind Barrick, has the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa bearing his name.
These symbolic gestures, along with the fact that several Canadian Pension funds and even Vancouver-based "Ethical Funds" are still heavily invested in Barrick Gold, show that Canada has a long way to go in demanding that its companies honor human rights and halt its colonial-style, exploitative economic regime. In fact, by its own admittance, Canada's Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade stated that "Canada does not yet have laws to ensure that the activities of
Canadian mining companies in developing countries conform to human
rights standards, including the rights of workers and of indigenous
peoples." Since the date of that landmark confession, Canada has yet to adopt any intervening structures (like an ombudsperson) or develop any mandatory regulations for Canadian companies operating abroad.
Gold mining produces an average of 79 tons of waste for every ounce of gold extracted, 50 percent of it is carried out on native lands, and about 80 percent of it is used for jewelry, according to the "No Dirty Gold" campaign, a project of Oxfam and Earthworks. It is no wonder that in a portfolio with plenty of human rights abuses, the Norwegian Pension Fund decided to concentrate on gold miners, cluster munition manufacturers and nuclear weapon producers first. It is time that the rest of the world catch up.
It was only a few years ago that a group of offshore outsourcing
companies based in India seemed poised to take over a large portion of
the U.S. economy. Business propagandists insisted that work ranging
from low-level data input to skilled professional work such as
financial analysis could be done faster and much cheaper by workers
hunched over computer terminals in cities such as Bangalore. The New York Times once described one of these offshoring companies as “a maquiladora of the mind.”
Among the most aggressive of the Indian firms was Satyam Computer
Services Ltd., which signed up blue-chip clients such as Ford Motor,
Merrill Lynch, Texas Instruments and Yahoo. In a 2004 report
I wrote for the U.S. high-tech workers organization WashTech, I found
that Satyam was also among the offshoring companies that were doing
work for state government agencies. It was hired, for example, as a
subcontractor by the U.S. company Healthaxis to develop a system for
handling applications for medical insurance services provided by the
Washington State Health Care Authority. As it turned out, Healthaxis’s
contract was terminated, allegedly because of late delivery and poor
quality in the work done by Satyam.
The Washington State fiasco may have been an early omen of things to come. Satyam has just admitted that for years it cooked its books and engaged in widespread financial wrongdoing. The revelation came in a letter
sent to the company’s board of directors by Satyam founder and chairman
B. Ramalinga Raju (photo), who simultaneously tendered his resignation.
Raju wrote that what started as “a marginal gap between actual
operating profit and the one reflected in the books” eventually
“attained unmanageable proportions” as the company grew. The fictitious
cash balance grew to more than US$1 billion. “It was like riding a
tiger,” Raju colorfully wrote, “not knowing how to get off without
While admitting that he engaged in very creative accounting, Raju
insisted he did not personally benefit from the fraud, denying for
instance that he had sold any of his shares in the company. I guess it
is meant to be some consolation that among his sins Raju is not guilty
of insider trading.
Apart from Raju, the party most on the hot seat is the company’s
auditor, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, whose Indian unit gave Satyam’s
financial reports a clean bill of health.
The Satyam scandal is being called India’s Enron. It should probably
also be called India’s Arthur Andersen as this seems to be another case
in which an auditor was either oblivious to widespread accounting
misconduct by one of its clients or complicit in it.
Some soul-searching is probably also in order for the many large
U.S. corporations that have not hesitated to take jobs away from
American workers and ship the work off to Indian companies such as
Satyam. The revelation that much of the work has been going to a
crooked company is all the more galling.
Why would "criminals" set fire to millions worth in mine equipment?
How was it that these "intruders" had an estimated 3,000 - 4,000 people backing them up?
In what appears to be a spontaneous civilian movement against Barrick Gold, the world's largest gold miner, thousands of people invaded Barrick`s
North Mara Gold Mine this week in Tarime District and destroyed equipment worth
$15 million. Locals say that the uprising was sparked by the killing of a local, identified as Mang'weina Mwita Mang'weina. According to a Barrick Public Relations officer (as reported by the Tanzanian Guardian newspaper), "the intruders stoned the security personnel relentlessly until they
overpowered them. The guards abandoned their posts and retreated to
Barrick implies that "high levels of crime" are the cause of this
recent outbreak, recent reports suggest a different picture.
Allan Cedillo Lissner, a photojournalist who recently documented mine life near the North Mara mine, explains:
Ongoing conflict between the mine
and local communities has created a climate of fear for those who live
nearby. Since the mine opened in 2002, the Mwita family say that they
live in a state of constant anxiety because they have been repeatedly
harassed and intimidated by the mine's private security forces and by
government police. There have been several deadly confrontations in
the area and every time there are problems at the mine, the Mwita
family say their compound is the first place the police come looking.
During police operations the family scatters in fear to hide in the
bush, "like fugitives," for weeks at a time waiting for the situation
to calm down. They used to farm and raise livestock, "but now there are
no pastures because the mine has almost taken the whole land ... we
have no sources of income and we are living only through God's wishes.
... We had never experienced poverty before the mine came here." They
say they would like to be relocated, but the application process has
been complicated, and they feel the amount of compensation they have
been offered is "candy."
Evans Rubara, an investigative journalist from
Tanzania, blames this action on angry locals from the North Mara area
who are opposed to Barrick's presence there. "This comes one week after
Barrick threatened to leave the country based on claims that they
weren't making profit," comments Evans after explaining that Barrick
does not report profit to avoid taxes in the country. "This is a sign
to both the government of Tanzania and the International community
(especially Canada) that poor and marginalized people also get tired of
oppression, and that they would like Barrick to leave."
Only one week prior, Barrick's African Region Vice President, Gareth Taylor threatened
to leave Tanzania due to high operating costs, claiming that the company did not make profits there. Barrick's Toronto office
quickly denied this report, stating that "the company will work with
the government to ensure
the country's legislation remains 'competitive with other
jurisdictions so that Tanzanians can continue to benefit from
Interestingly, Taylors threat came shortly after he attended a workshop to launch the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) in Dar es Salaam.
One thing is clear, though; these reports of hundreds, backed by thousands, of villagers attacking mine infrastructure reflects a resentment that goes beyond mere criminal
action. And this surge in violence should be examined in the context of
the on-going exploitation and repressive environment surrounding the
Back in the good old days of the Cold War, everybody’s favorite secret agent, James Bond, fought villains like Dr. No, an evil scientist out to sabotage U.S. missile tests, and Mr. Big, a Soviet agent using pirate treasure to finance espionage in America. But as Bond’s friend Mathis tells him in Quantum of Solace, released this month, “When one is young, it’s easy to tell the difference between right and wrong. As one gets older, the villains and heroes get all mixed up.”
The reference is to a shady new Bond villain, agent of the Quantum organization – one Dominic Greene. In public, Greene is a leading environmentalist whose organization, Greene Planet, buys up large tracts of land for ecological preserves. But behind the scenes, Greene has another agenda. As he says to his co-conspirators, “This is the most valuable resource in the world and we need to control as much of it as we can.”
The film makes a number of plays on the assumption that the resource in question is oil – but oil is so…twentieth century.
By the time Bond has pursued Greene from Italy to Haiti, from Haiti to Austria, and crash-landed his plane in a sinkhole in the high, barren desert of Bolivia, we make the discovery that this vital resource is – surprise! – water.
Colluding with Greene is a cast of evil characters taken straight from the history books. We have General Medrano, the ex-dictator of Bolivia, to whom Greene says, “You want your country back? My organization can give it to you.” We have the U.S. Ambassador, myopically sticking to the familiar program: “Okay, we do nothing to stop a coup, and you give us a lease to any oil you find.” And we have the British foreign office, continually wrangling with M15, Bond’s spy agency. When Bond’s boss, M, tells him that Greene is not an environmentalist but a villain, the Foreign Minister says, “If we refused to do business with villains, we’d have almost no one to trade with.” Ain’t it the truth.
The fact that Quantum of Solace makes water the villain’s object of greed, replacing oil, gold, diamonds, and mutually assured destruction, is telling of the point we’ve reached. More telling still is the fact that our villain’s cover has him acting as an environmentalist, the ultimate corporate greenwasher. The fact that the action winds up in Bolivia – the country where, in real life, both Bechtel and Suez have tried and failed to take control of community water resources during and shortly after the reign of former-dictator-turned-neoliberal President Hugo Banzer – brings the plot frighteningly close to reality. The privatization of water in Bolivia back in 2000, and the massive popular response that turned out rural water stewards and urban ratepayers to riot for months until the multinational transgressor was ousted, was the spark that set social movements worldwide on red alert. Since then, numerous private water companies have been refused contracts on the grounds that popular movements, and, increasingly, governments, recognize the need to treat water as a human right and a public good – not a commodity.
If only the water movement had a few organizers with the physique, the gadgets, and the, er, style of Bond.
While we have many great documentaries telling the story of the global water wars, including this year’s Flow and Blue Gold, one is forced to wonder if 007 does a greater service to the water movement than even our most highly talented documentarians. After all, who better than Hollywood to characterize the greenwashing corporate water profiteers as straight up evil, sans the need to justify the hyperbole?
Matieu Amalric, the actor who played Dominic Greene, wanted to wear make-up for the role, but director Marc Forster “wanted Greene not to look grotesque, but to symbolize the hidden evils in society.” Similarly, the original screenplay had Greene having some “hidden power.” But in the final cut, the director seems to have decided that corporate power was power enough.
One wonders if Dominic Greene – had he not died drinking motor oil to quench his thirst in the Bolivian desert – might give the keynote speech at the upcoming World Water Forum in Istanbul (WWF). After all, the World Water Council (WWC) that puts on the forum is presided over by Loïc Fauchon, a former executive at one of the French subsidiaries of Suez, the world’s largest private water corporation.
As we learn from the WWF website, “One of the benefits of joining the WWC is the Council's ability to influence decisions related to world water management that affect organizations, business, and communities.” Perhaps their secret meetings will also be attended by executives of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, whose recent partnership with Coca-Cola aims to help the global soft-drink giant become “the most efficient company in the world in terms of water use,” with “every drop of water it uses…returned to the earth or compensated for through conservation and recycling programs.” And, with this blending of fact and fiction, it would hardly be surprising to find Greene’s signature on the CEO Water Mandate, which has companies with such devastating environmental track records as Dow Chemical, Shell Oil, Unilever, and Nestlé pledging to “help address the water challenge faced by the world today.”
When M, Bond’s overweening boss at M15, finds out about Quantum, she demands, “What the hell is this organization, Bond? How can they be everywhere and we know nothing about them?”
Well, my darling M, the answer is simple: like transnational corporations, and like the large NGO’s that work with the private sector to reform its practices and green its reputation, and like the International Finance Institutions whose interests are increasingly endangering the United Nations’ mandate to defend and protect human rights, they can be everywhere because their particular form of villainy works best when hidden in plain sight.
Thankfully, the world’s water is safe, because, behind the scenes, secret agent 007 is on the job.
There's no question that this morning's announcement from the Treasury
Department, Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
(FDIC) is remarkable.
It was also necessary.
Over the next several months, we're going to see a lot more moves like
this. Government interventions in the economy that seemed unfathomable
a few months ago are going to become the norm, as it quickly becomes
apparent that, as Margaret Thatcher once said in a very different
context, there is no alternative.
because the U.S. and global economic problems are deep and pervasive.
The American worker may be strong, as John McCain would have it, but
the "fundamentals" of the U.S. and world economy are not. The
underlying problem is a deflating U.S. housing market that still has
much more to go. And underlying that problem are the intertwined
problems of U.S. consumer over-reliance on debt, national and global
wealth inequality of historic proportions, and massive global trade
Although it was enabled by deregulation, the financial meltdown merely
reflects these more profound underlying problems. It is, one might say,
Nonetheless, the financial crisis was -- and conceivably still might be -- by itself enough to crash the global economy.
Today, following the lead of the Great Britain, the United States has announced
what has emerged as the consensus favored financial proposal among
economists of diverse political ideologies. The United States will buy
$250 billion in new shares in banks (the so-called "equity injection").
This is aimed at boosting confidence in the banks, and giving them new
capital to loan. The new equity will enable them to loan roughly 10
times more than would the Treasury's earlier (and still developing)
plan to buy up troubled assets. The FDIC will offer new insurance
programs for bank small business and other bank deposits, to stem bank
runs. The FDIC will provide new, temporary insurance for interbank
loans, intended to overcome the crisis of confidence between banks.
And, the Federal Reserve will if necessary purchase commercial paper
from business -- the 3-month loans they use to finance day-to-day
operations. This move is intended to overcome the unwillingness of
money market funds and others to extend credit.
But while aggressive by the standards of two months ago, the most
high-profile of these moves -- government acquisition of shares in the
private banking system -- is a strange kind of "partial
nationalization," if it should be called that at all.
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson effectively compelled the leading U.S.
banks to accept participation in the program. And, at first blush, he
may have done an OK job of protecting taxpayer monetary interests. The
U.S. government will buy preferred shares in the banks, paying a 5
percent dividend for the first three years, and 9 percent thereafter.
The government also obtains warrants, giving it the right to purchase
shares in the future, if the banks' share price increase.
But the Treasury proposal specifies
that the government shares in the banks will be non-voting. And there
appear to be only the most minimal requirements imposed on
So, the government may be obtaining a modest ownership stake in the banks, but no control over their operations.
In keeping with the terms of the $700 billion bailout legislation,
under which the bank share purchase plan is being carried out, the
Treasury Department has announced guidelines
for executive compensation for participating banks. These are
laughable. The most important rule prohibits incentive compensation
arrangements that "encourage unnecessary and excessive risks that
threaten the value of the financial institution." Gosh, do we need to
throw $250 billion at the banks to persuade executives not to adopt
incentive schemes that threaten their own institutions?
The banks reportedly will not be able to increase dividends, but will
be able to maintain them at current levels. Really? The banks are
bleeding hundreds of billions of dollars -- with more to come -- and
they are taking money out to pay shareholders? The banks are not obligated to lend with the money they are getting. The banks are not obligated to re-negotiate mortgage terms with borrowers -- even though a staggering one in six homeowners owe more than the value of their homes.
"The government's role will be limited and temporary," President Bush said in announcing today's package. "These measures are not intended to take over the free market, but to preserve it."
But it makes no sense to talk about the free market in such
circumstances. And these measures are almost certain to be followed by
more in the financial sector -- not to mention the rest of economy --
because the banks still have huge and growing losses for which they
have not accounted.
If the U.S. and other governments are to take expanded roles in the
world economy -- as they must, and will -- then the public must demand
something more than efforts to preserve the current system. The current
system brought on the financial meltdown and the worsening global
recession. As the government intervenes in the economy on behalf of the
public, it must reshape economic institutions to advance broad public
objectives, not the parochial concerns of the Wall Street and corporate
The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games
have been referred to as the “People’s Games,” the “High Tech Games”
and the “Green Games,” but they could be more aptly described as the
Commercialism is overrunning the Olympics. It is undermining the
professed ideals of the Olympic Games, and subverting the Olympics'
veneration of sport with omnipresent commercial messaging and branding.
The Olympics have auctioned off virtually every aspect of the Games to
the highest bidder. In addition to multimillion-dollar sponsorship
deals between the International Olympic Committee and international
companies, smaller firms are paying for designations from “official
home and industrial flooring supplier” to the “frozen dumplings
exclusive supplier” of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
Corporate sponsors are showering money on each tier of the Olympic
organizational committees: the International Olympic Committee, the
Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (BOCOG) and the
International Federations governing each individual sport, to each
country’s National Organizing Committees. Corporations are sponsoring
many Olympic teams and national governing bodies for particular sports
-- including virtually every national governing body in the United
States -- and individual athletes themselves.
To its credit, the Olympics do prohibit advertising in sports stadia or
other venues. The Olympics also prohibit advertisements on uniforms
(other than uniform maker logos).
Everywhere else, Olympic spectators, viewers and athletes, and the
citizens of Beijing should expect to be overwhelmed with
A record 63 companies have become sponsors or partners of the Beijing
Olympics, and Olympics-related advertising in China alone could reach
$4 billion to $6 billion this year, according to CSM, a Beijing
marketing research firm.
The Olympic Partners (TOP) program,
run and managed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) since
1985, includes 12 companies for the Beijing Olympics. These 12
companies -- among them, Coca-Cola, GE, Johnson & Johnson, Lenovo,
Panasonic and Visa -- have paid $866 million to the International
The U.S. Olympic system is awash in corporate sponsor money. Well over
100 corporations are sponsoring the U.S. Olympic Committee or U.S.
Besides celebrating sport, there is an official ideology of the Olympics, called "Olympism." It aims to promote a pure blend of sport, culture and education.
Sports, of course, remain at the center of the Olympics, but
commercialism has overwhelmed whatever other values the Olympics hope
to embody. The overwhelming cultural influence at the Olympics is now
commercial culture; and the overwhelming informational message is: buy,
Commercial relations interfere with proper functioning of the Olympics.
In at least one notable case, commercial entanglements have called into
question the integrity of a national sports governing body. A lawsuit
and accusations around the activities of USA Swimming and the national
team coach -- both sponsored by swimwear maker Speedo -- charge Speedo,
the national team and the coach with antitrust violations. The lawsuit,
filed by Tyr, a Speedo competitor, alleges the coach has trumpeted the
benefits of LZR Racer, a new, high-profile Speedo suit, because of his
financial ties to the company. Tyr says its Tracer Rise swimsuit,
introduced weeks before the LZR Racer, is comparable to the Speedo
The Olympic race for corporate sponsors has also put the Olympics in unhealthy -- and sometimes quite unpleasant -- company.
+ The International Olympic Committee will not partner with hard liquor
companies, but the IOC tolerates sponsorships by beer and wine
companies. Anheuser-Busch says it is a sponsor of 25 national Olympic
Committees, including those of China, Japan, Great Britain and the
United States. A tequila maker, Jose Cuervo, is a sponsor of the U.S.
+ Notwithstanding the fundamental principles of "Olympism," which
celebrate healthful living, two of the 12 Olympic TOP sponsors run
businesses centered around the sales of unhealthy food: Coca-Cola and
McDonald's. Snickers, the candy bar made by Mars, is an official BOCOG
supplier. Hershey's is a sponsor of the USOC. Coca-Cola is a sponsor of
FIFA, the international soccer federation. McDonald's and Sprite are
sponsors of USA Basketball. McDonald's and Sierra Mist are sponsors of
the U.S. Soccer Federation. Coca-Cola is a sponsor of USA Softball.
Hershey's is a sponsor of USA Track & Field.
+ Many of the sports apparel and equipment makers partnered with the Olympics and official Olympic bodies -- among them Adidas, Nike and Speedo -- source their products from sweatshop factories. In a very disturbing development just before the start of the Olympics, Adidas reportedly announced it was transferring large amounts of its production out of China because wages set by the government were "too high" (!).
+ At least two major Olympic partners, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and Sinopec, have been linked to gross human rights violations in Sudan. Both companies are sponsors of the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games.
There is no doubt that the horse is out of the barn on Olympic
sponsorships, and the world is unlikely to see a commercial-free Games
Nonetheless, the most egregious problems with the Olympics' pervasive sponsorship arrangements can and should be addressed.
The IOC, National Olympic Committees, and international and national
sports governing bodies can and should scale back the number of
They can and should develop safeguards to ensure apparel and equipment
sponsorships do not compromise sports governing bodies' decisions.
Coaches of national teams should be prohibited from serving as paid
spokespeople or consultants for apparel and equipment makers.
They can and should refuse to accept sponsorships from any alcohol
company, including beer and wine companies. This recommendation does
not reflect a prohibitionist impulse. It merely extends the insight in
the present IOC ban on hard liquor sponsorships: promoting more alcohol
consumption is unhealthful, and inappropriate for an event with
enormous appeal to children.
They can and should end partnerships and sponsorship arrangements with
junk food, soda and fast food companies. These companies' operations
are incompatible with Olympic ideals of promoting fitness and healthful
living, and the companies use the association with the Olympics to
remove some of the tarnish of their unhealthy products.
They can and should insist that official, sponsoring apparel and
equipment makers disclose where their products are manufactured, and
ensure that their products are manufactured in a fashion that respects
core labor standards.
They can and should refuse to enter into sponsorship arrangements with
companies connected to gross human rights abuses. This is a simple
ethical standard, and one required by the Olympic commitment to
demonstrate "respect for universal fundamental ethical principles."
Will the IOC and other committees move in these directions? They
refused to respond to repeated requests for comment. It may be,
however, that it will be the corporate sector driving reduced
commercialization of the Olympics. The opportunity to project a
high-profile in China's fast-growing market has made the Beijing
Olympics uniquely attractive; but already leading sponsors
have indicated they do not intend to continue paying for the right to
besiege the planet with Olympics-related marketing in connection with
The recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to slash the damage
award in the Exxon Valdez oil spill case and the indictment of Sen. Ted
Stevens on corruption charges are not the only controversies roiling
Alaska these days. The Last Frontier is also witnessing a dispute over
a proposal to open a giant copper and gold mine by Bristol Bay, the
headwaters of the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery. Given
the popularity of salmon among the health-conscious, even non-Alaskans
may want to pay attention to the issue.
The Pebble mine project
has been developed by Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Ltd., but the
real work would be carried out by its joint venture partner Anglo
American PLC, one of the world’s largest mining companies. Concerned
about the project and unfamiliar with Anglo American, two Alaska
organizations—the Renewable Resources Coalition
and Nunamta Aulukestai (Caretakers of the Land)—commissioned a
background report on the company, which has just been released and is
available for download on a website called Eye on Pebble Mine (or at this direct PDF link). I wrote the report as a freelance project.
Anglo American—which is best known as the company that long
dominated gold mining in apartheid South Africa as well as diamond
mining/marketing through its affiliate DeBeers—has assured Alaskans it
will take care to protect the environment and otherwise act responsibly
in the course of constructing and operating the Pebble mine. The
purpose of the report is to put that promise in the context of the
company’s track record in mining operations elsewhere in the world.
The report concludes that Alaskans have reason to be concerned about
Anglo American. Reviewing the company’s own worldwide operations and
those of its spinoff AngloGold in the sectors most relevant to the
Pebble project—gold, base metals and platinum—the report finds a
troubling series of problems in three areas: adverse environmental
impacts, allegations of human rights abuses and a high level of
workplace accidents and fatalities.
The environmental problems include numerous spills and accidental
discharges at Anglo American’s platinum operations in South Africa and
AngloGold’s mines in Ghana. Waterway degradation occurred at Anglo
American’s Lisheen lead and zinc mine in Ireland, while children living
near the company’s Black Mountain zinc/lead/copper mine in South Africa
were found to be struggling in school because of elevated levels of
lead in their blood.
The main human rights controversies have taken place in Ghana, where
subsistence farmers have been displaced by AngloGold’s operations and
have not been given new land, and in the Limpopo area of South Africa,
where villagers were similarly displaced by Anglo American’s platinum
High levels of fatalities in the mines of Anglo American and
AngloGold—more than 200 in the last five years—have become a major
scandal in South Africa, where miners staged a national strike over the
issue late last year.
Overall, the report finds that Anglo American’s claims of social
responsibility appear to be more rhetoric than reality. Salmon eaters
Almost twelve years ago, when a group of us started CorpWatch, we did so because it seemed then that a few hundred transnational companies were intent on remaking the earth in their image. As we saw it, the corporate version of globalization undermined community, ecology and democracy. At that moment the Internet had just appeared on the scene, and it seemed to us, and to many others, a vehicle through which to build an alternative – a form of grassroots globalization that fostered human rights and environmental rights, and that helped hold corporations accountable across the globe. Thus CorpWatch was born.
In the ensuing dozen years, the corporate encirclement of the earth has only
grown – as has the grassroots response to it in every corner of the planet.
The Internet has boomed and become on the one hand, more corporatized than we might once have imagined and yet also an increasingly powerful tool for building democratic participation and communication (and I’m very proud that CorpWatch is still part of it). This dual nature of the Internet embodies a fundamental paradox of globalization. While globalization seems to concentrate power in the hands of a few in most every realm it touches, it also increasingly interconnects us, interweaving universal values into a multinational tapestry of cultures and politics.
I see this here in Argentina, where I’ve had the good fortune to live for the past year. As numerous people here will tell you, once, this country was so isolated from the rest of the world that a lot of folks were not aware of the magnitude of the horrors unleashed by the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. People knew enough and saw enough and felt enough to be afraid, and tens of thousands felt the direct impact as they or their loved ones were arrested, tortured, “disappeared.” But the truth was hard to come by; there was heavy local censorship, and there was no Internet. People abroad knew more about what was going on in Argentina, than many here did.
Today, the country, like most of the rest of the world, is dialed-in, networked to the hilt, totally online. It seems almost unthinkable that something similar could happen here again. There is a strong consciousness of and commitment to human rights, and an understanding of the connection between what Argentina went through, and similar histories and battles elsewhere in the Latin American region and the world. Argentina pulled itself out of the horrors of dictatorship, and as it has re-evolved as a nation, it has benefited in this way from globalization.
At the same time, the country is suffering many of the attendant ills. I asked my twelve year-old daughter what she had learned about the United States from spending a year outside of the country. Her reply was quick and clear – I’ve learned that the US controls the media in the rest of the world. From the mouths of babes...but after all, she learned to speak Spanish, in part, by watching American sitcoms dubbed into Spanish on the local TV. Meanwhile, although the country has reaped significant economic benefit from its agricultural prowess as a giant in the world soy market – the control of this commodity is increasingly in the hands of a few transnational corporations: Cargill, ADM and others. And the country’s forests are suffering as more and more trees are felled to make room for more and more soybeans. These facts will remain true, no matter the outcome of the current conflict between President Kirchner and the country’s farmers.
Finally, globalization and all its contradictions hits home directly for me here in the Buenos Aires neighborhood I’m living in. Once a zone of automechanics and warehouses, Palermo Viejo is today one of the hippest and most popular destinations in this wonderful city. Now known as Palermo Hollywood, it is a barrio in the midst of a vast transformation. Many of our neighbors have lived here for forty or more years – they are old-school butchers, bakers, antique dealers, bar owners. Yet they are increasingly surrounded by trendy boutiques and fashionable restaurants. Many are being squeezed out by big corporate real estate that has entered the scene and is speculating on a series of high-end apartment towers that will forever change the face of this low-slung old time neighborhood. In the midst of it all are a throng of artists, ex pats, and activists organizing for the soul of the barrio.
Don’t get me wrong; it ain’t all bad. To be honest, all the paradoxes and contradictions of the gentrification of this globalizing hub make it an exciting and wonderful place to live (for the moment). I decided to try and document the intersection – the convergence and contradiction – of these various separate realities-the old and the new of Palermo Viejo. You can check out my photo essay on the subject at http://www.palermobuenosaires.blogspot.com.
Josh Karliner is Founder and a board member of CorpWatch.
Wal-Mart Stores has put out a press release
patting itself on the back for promising the equivalent of about
$430,000 for disaster relief and reconstruction for the area of China
hit by a massive earthquake this week. The gesture was laudable but the
amount was less than impressive.
After all, the giant retailer would be nowhere today without the
countless Chinese workers who toil in sweatshops so that American
consumers can be offered the cheap goods that are at the core of the
company’s business model. Last year those largely Chinese-made goods
brought Wal-Mart profits of $12.7 billion, or about $1.4 million every
hour of every day. The $430,000 contribution thus represents less than
20 minutes of profit.
Wal-Mart also profits from Chinese consumers. The company operates more than 200 stores in
China (through joint ventures and minority-owned subsidiaries), several
of which have been shut down because of the tremblor. Wal-Mart was so
eager to operate stores in China that it agreed to let its employees
there be represented by unions (though of the government-dominated
Wal-Mart has a history
of using relatively inexpensive amounts of disaster relief to boost its
reputation. After Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005,
Wal-Mart maneuvered to get maximum exposure for its prompt delivery
of relief supplies. A fairly routine operation for a company possessing
the most advanced logistics infrastructure was seen as nearly
miraculous, given the ineptitude of federal and state public officials.
The company made an initial faux pas (quickly reversed) in
announcing that employees at its stores shut down by the storm would be
paid for only three days.
It also started out offering a measly $2 million in relief but soon
overcame its parsimonious instincts and upped the figure by $15 million, thereby winning wide praise. The wave of favorable coverage went on for several months, thanks at least in part to the efforts of
its army of p.r. operatives from Edelman and a conservative blogger who
was paid to tout Wal-Mart’s hurricane work in the blogosphere.
Wal-Mart may have to part with more than $430,000 to get a similar public relations bonanza from China’s suffering.
The world of global accounting is girding up for a trans-Atlantic battle. Last month L'Oreal, Royal Dutch Shell, and Unilever, all gigantic companies, asked the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to allow them to choose which accounting standards they want to use. (The companies belong to the European Association of Listed Companies, who delivered the letter.)
The reason is that U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) is 25,000 pages long (which are based on very specific rules) and they don't like it. By comparison, the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), is just one tenth the length (which are based on principles which can be more open to interpretation).
There are other good arguments for using the global rules - there are now more than 100 countries either using or adopting international financial reporting standards, or IFRS, including the members of the European Union, China, India and Canada.
But L'Oreal, Royal Dutch Shell, and Unilever, don't just want the easier rules, they want to choose which version of IFRS they can use - a European Commission version that allows them to choose how they value certain assets.
Financial Week, an industry magazine, in New York is up in arms.
" Imagine signing a contract and not having to hold up your end of the bargain. Or being able to say "I do" at the altar when you might sometimes mean "I don't." Having it both ways in such matters sure provides flexibility, to put it charitably. Yet that's exactly what a group of European companies want when it comes to accounting standards for global companies tapping the U.S. capital markets," editors of Financial Week, wrote earlier this month. (see "Converging on Chaos")
Another industry magazine, Accountancy Age in London, has also been critical of companies that use the more flexible European Commission rules. A couple of years ago, Taking Stock, the magazine's blog, asked Rudy Markham, the finance director of Unilver, why he was using flexible IFRS rules in reporting for the company, but he refused to comment, leading them to poke fun at him:
" TS understands that the biggest accounting change for a generation can be a complete turn off. We assume the numbers involved didn't mean that much to Markham anyway - a billion off the top line there, a billion on the bottom line there. He did, after all, personally take home just over £1.1 million last year. Money, money, money, as Abba used to sing... "
Today the International Accounting Standard Board, which drew up the IFRS, appointed a new chairman, Gerrit Zalm, a former Dutch finance minister, who has already announced that he would try to prevent local variations of the global rules: "One of my first priorities will be no new carve-outs in Europe and trying to get rid of the existing carve-out, because if Europe is doing this, other countries could get the same inspiration and then all the advantages of the one programme fade away," Zalm told the Financial Times. "The fragmentation of standards is costly for the enterprise sector and it doesn't help in creating clarity for investors."
We look forward to his efforts to create a single global standard. Stronger global rules are always welcome, especially if they are easier to follow, but weaker ones that cater to nationalistic interests are not.