June 4, 2009

Triumph of the Sell
Matt Yglesias makes a good point in a post analyzing the food and beverage lobby's mobilization to oppose an increase in sugar/soda/alcohol taxes as a means to fund health care reform:

The fact that the people who sell and market this stuff don't want to pay the tax is, politically, a crucial fact. But on the merits it's neither here nor there. Policymakers aren't supposed to be serving the interests of the guys who make Coors Light ads or who make a living by selling an addictive substance to people with a serious problem.

Right. You'd think this is obvious. And yet our political system, along with the media for that matter, continue to show a bizarre and overwhelming deference to the objections, desires, and, too often, the research of companies whose products would be directly affected by government regulations. Maybe their arguments shouldn't be totally ignored. How about just severely discounted. You know, we get it. A soda company isn't going to like the fact that its product will have a special tax on it. Nor will Sunoco cheer a ban on bisphenol-A. And, make no mistake, they will spend millions of dollars communicating that fact to politicians and consumers.

Look, I understand the political realities of the influence of lobbying and regulatory capture and all that. I get that the playing field is slanted in favor of corporate interests. But this goes beyond corporate lobbyists' ability to dominate the legislative process and beyond the fact that, for example, the FDA relies on product studies performed by the companies who stand to profit from the product at issue. Americans just have way too much faith in corporations, so why shouldn't our politicians and the media?

It's not like this everywhere, of course. Europeans and their representatives take a much more skeptical stance toward corporations. They seem to understand that the profit motive just might cloud a company's judgment. It's not perfection on the other side of the Atlantic, but Europeans do seem to get things right more often that we do. They restrict the use of many toxic substances -- from artificial food colorings to pesticides -- that we still allow. Benefits like universal health care, family allowances, and paid maternity and sick leave are common on the Continent in large part because corporate objections were never taken for anything but what they were -- an obvious expression of self-interest by the corporate sector. There just doesn't seem to be the same willingness to throw reforms out the window because it might inconvenience some corporate citizens.

Whereas here, a bunch of companies making enough noise about being singled out for a tax is often enough to kill it. As if politicians are shocked, shocked to discover that taxing a product will make it more expensive. Who knew?! I remain stumped by why such complaints should carry any weight with anyone. Our willingness to bend over backward for corporations says everything about the vast numbers of regulatory failures we've had over the last decade. People like to laugh off the old "What's good for GM is good for America" line as corporate hubris. But from what I can tell, that sentiment continues to pervade American boardrooms and, too often, Congressional hearing rooms as well. And it strikes me as too deep rooted an American vice to be plucked from the collective unconscious anytime soon.

Update: Chris Hayes at The Nation has a distressing companion piece on the full court press corporate lobbyists have underway against Democrats. Again, institutional issues surrounding corporate influence are huge. But I still don't think that's the whole picture. There's something deeper going on involving a government and media that, rather than seeing their roles as a counterweight to corporate interests, instead see themselves as natural allies. This goes along with a general public that wants to believe that corporations have a consumer's best interests at heart.

Photo by Skelly B used under a CC license

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