Our culture of impunity

Sam Smith, 1998 – Underneath the sturm und drang of political debate, official Washington — from lobbyist to media to politician — has reached a remarkable consensus that it no longer has to play by any rules but its own.

There is a phrase for this in some Latin American countries. They call it the culture of impunity. In such places it has led to death squads, routine false imprisonment and baroque corruption. We are not quite there yet but we are certainly moving in the same direction and for some of the same causes…

In a culture of impunity the rules serve the internal logic of the system rather than whatever values ostensibly guide a county, such as those of its constitution, church or tradition. The culture of impunity encourages coups and cruelty, at best practices only titular democracy, and puts itself at the service of what Hong Kong with Orwellian understatement refers to as “functional constituencies,” which is to say major corporations.

Such a culture does not announce itself. It creeps up day by day, deal by deal, euphemism by euphemism. In recent months we have seen it at work.

And in a culture of impunity, what replaces the Constitution, precedent, values, tradition, fairness, consensus, debate and all sort of arcane stuff? Simply greed. As Michael Douglas put it in one of his movies: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.”

Of course, there has always been an overabundance of greed in Washington. What is different today is the stunning lack of restraint on the avarice. The federal city has become a town without heroes, without conflict over right and wrong, with little but an endless struggle by narcissistic boomer bandits to get more money, more power, and more press than the next guy. In the chase, anything goes and the only standard is whether you win or lose.

The federal government no longer effectively regulates corporate greed. Republicans no longer combat Democratic greed and vice versa. Liberals and centrist Republicans have become pathetically ineffective forces within their own parties. The local bar largely devotes itself to undermining decent government. The media has lost both its will and skill for keeping others honest. And, increasingly, law enforcement, intelligence, and military agencies make their own rules.

The culture of impunity is not an exclusively Washington phenomenon, as demonstrated recently by the NYPD officers torturing a prisoner as they cried, “It’s Giuliani time.” Consider also that the UN estimates the worldwide drug trade accounts for 8% of the global economy — roughly equivalent to the world automobile industry or, in this country, to all state and local government. Is it possible that such a huge industry — alone among major economies — lacks easy access to every statehouse and major city hall?

Still Washington sets the tone, the style, and many of the new rules under which the country increasingly functions. These are not the rules we were taught in civics but the laws of competing mobs in control what we once thought was our capital.

We are talking here of culture, not of conspiracies. If you have a strong enough culture you don’t need a conspiracy. One of the reasons ethnic minorities and women continue to have such a hard time moving into the institutions of our country is precisely because there is no one to blame, no smoking gun, nothing on paper — only the stone wall of implicit values and ingrained behavior.

How the corpocrats are killing our culture as well as our economy

Sam Smith

It’s becoming more widely understood that America’s corpocracy has badly damaged the middle class, greatly weakened the labor unions that helped create it, grossly diverted wealth to the top of society, overpaid its executives and underpaid its employees, hidden its profits in tax free offshore havens, transferred large number of jobs to other countries, and convinced the Supreme Court to let it buy our elections.

But that’s just the financial side of the story. Allowing corporate greedsters to take over our society has affected every aspect of our culture, and not in a happy way. Here are some examples

Values such as integrity, kindness, cooperation and community no longer lead the list. Instead profit, dominance, branding, marketing and control have replaced them. Image has taken over from actual achievement, public relations has assumed the place of logical argument, status is more significant than substance, and a good pivot is more admirable than a good principle.

Our language has dramatically changed as we adopt more of the clichés of corporations, their lawyers and business schools. This language does not reflect reality, but only the abstractions of advertising, legalese and selling. It is enough to use trite words and phrases such as best practices, comprehensive approach, due diligence, entrepreneur,  envision, iconic, optic, pivot, proactive, rigor, robust, silo, stakeholder, strategic, synergy and transparency to give the illusion that you’re actually talking about something. One sad indication of how fully corporate gibberish has invaded our language is to see how often it is used by non-profits wanting to prove how financially skilled they are –  to an extent that starts to conceal their actual purpose.

Arts: The expansion of copyright and its enforcement by corporate police such as RIAA has had a largely unreported and counterproductive effect, namely it deflates participation and audience for music or literature not currently being produced and promoted. A few years ago we noted some of the effects:

One survey has found that the percentage of adult population performing or creating any of the major genres of music never surpasses 4% with the exception of those in choirs of chorales (about 6%).

On the other hand 14% engage actively in photography, 13% in weaving and sewing, and 9% in painting or drawing.

A study by the National Endowment of the Arts found that between 2002 and 2008, attendance at jazz events was down 28%, classical music performances down 20%, and opera down 34%. There was no evidence that the missing audience was illegally downloading these performances.

What is even more striking is another study that found a huge drop in attendance by those aged 18-24 between 1982 and 2008. The worst hit was jazz with a decline of 58% but even musicals fell by 13%. For adults as a whole the decline ranged from 19% for jazz to 30% for opera.

And there are other considerations. For example, in 2004 Rolling Stone pubished what it said were the 500 best songs of all time. Let’s leave aside the question of whether they ignored a few centuries of western music by only choosing numbers from the 1940s on. What is truly amazing about this selection – made by critics widely considered among the hippest – is that only 5% of the songs came from 1990 and later. Forty percent came from the 1960s and 28% came from the 1970s. Even the 1950s did better than the 1990s.

There is a similar effect in publishing as was illustrated in a paper by Paul Heald published by Berkeley Law:

Copyright owners are in the business of collecting royalties on existing works, so they advocate extending copyright terms in order to perpetuate revenue streams. Once a work has been published, however, lobbyists lose the ability to make pro-extension arguments based on incentive-to-create rationales because the work already exists. Instead, they argue—without empirical support—that bad things will happen to the work when it falls into the public

 

The public interest, so the story goes, requires term extension to prevent a public domain calamity. The history and effectiveness of this argument has been chronicled at length elsewhere, but one persistent assertion bears repeating: Creative works need owners who will assure their availability and adequate distribution.

Although Congress in 1998 relied on this argument in extending the term of protection in the U.S. by 20 years, empirical studies have thus far failed to support this key assertion made by copyright lobbyists.

 

… In fact, Heald (2008) studied bestselling novels from 1913 to 1932 and found that public domain status significantly increased the chance that a book would be in print and increased the number of publishers of it.

 

The paper also notes:

Random sample of new books for sale on Amazon.com shows more books for sale from the 1880’s than the 1980’s. Why? This paper presents new data on how copyright stifles the reappearance of works. First, a random sample of more than 2000 new books for sale on Amazon.com is analyzed along with a random sample of almost 2000 songs available on new DVD’s. Copyright status correlates highly with absence from the Amazon shelf.

Together with publishing business models, copyright law seems to deter distribution and diminish access.

And here’s a chart that shows how it works in real time:

The 2266 random editions of new books available on Amazon during the fall of 2012 are charted by the decade of the original publication date for the corresponding title. Both fiction and non-fiction editions are included. Editions of books now in the public domain (those published prior to 1923) constitute 72% of the total, while editions of titles still under copyright constitute 28%.

Our educational system – at every level – is being badly damaged by the corpocracy. Common Core and Race to the Top were not designed by actual educators but by those seeking ways to privatize the education system whether by making it heavily dependent on the corporate testing industry or by draining public education with private charter schools. And it’s not just at lower school level. As Jackson Lear noted in Commonweal:

One consequence of this seismic cultural shift is the train wreck of contemporary higher education. Nothing better exemplifies the catastrophe than President Barack Obama’s plan to publish the average incomes earned by graduates from various colleges, so parents and students can know which diplomas are worth the most in the marketplace, and choose accordingly. In higher education as in health care, market utility has become the sole criterion of worth. The monetary standard of value has reinforced the American distrust of intellect unharnessed to practical purposes: the result is an atmosphere toxic to the humanities.

Our military, aka foreign, policy has long been overwhelmingly driven by the desires of the defense industry rather than the best interests our country. We’re talking about a country that could cut its military budget by a third and still have one twice as large as China. A country that since the Cold War has deployed its military 5 times more often than in the preceding 19 decades. It is the largest misappropriation of government funds in human history – welfare for the defense industry.

Not content with its massive profits from the conventional military, the corpocracy has gone on to militarize our police departments with grim results like those seen of late in places like Baltimore and Ferguson. No small part of the profit comes from defining the weakest segments of our citizenry as the enemy.  It inspired the war on drugs,  private prisons and the corporate gold mine of a war on terror.

Our health care system has been incredibly distorted by a desire for continued domination by private insurance companies. In creating Obamacare, for example, neither the White House nor Congress had the courage to include a public insurance option by expanding Medicare in some way.

The media, which should be telling us things like the aforementioned, has become a loyal partner of other large corporations and the politicians who support them. Major media are now some of the largest corporations in America and act like the rest while pretending to be something different. Among the consequences: you don’t hear about the virtues of cooperatives, union involvement in corporate management, the assault on unions or how to protect small business from the mega-corpocracy. And, of course, they won’t let you hear about such huge problems as the TPP plan. Further, probably the most powerful educational institution in America today is the advertising industry. Unfortunately, it doesn’t teach well at all.

 So, bad as things like Citizens United and offshore tax havens are, the modern corpocracy is having enormous cultural effects on our society as well. And the fact that we hardly ever talk about it shows how serious the problem is.