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.

 

Slapstick nation

Sam Smith – The other evening I watched, probably for the last time, the latest episode of Glee. Although the show has long had its fantastical side – such as highly professional musical performances suddenly appearing in otherwise realistic contexts – something more fundamental had changed. People weren’t talking to each other; they were shouting. Rachel was speaking far too fast and too loud. The school principal, Sue Sylvester, had transformed herself from amusingly mean cynic into a ludicrous imitation of herself. And one point, a review noted, “Sue traps Blaine and Kurt in an ersatz elevator before the Warblers perform and, via a mechanized robot, tells them that they must passionately kiss if they want to leave—which they do, after spending over a day in confinement.” Even if you saw it, it made no sense.

In short, Glee had become a slapstick version of itself, an example of a dominant style that is not limited to television series but is leaving its mark on our politics and culture. Beyond the slapstick humor and poor plot of shows like Backstrom, for example, we also find ourselves being loudly lectured by Steven Kornacki, Rachel Maddow and the Fox crew as though we were students of Sue Sylvester.

Move over to politics and we find slapstick candidates like Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz, who seem dreamed up by some second rate script writer.

Almost every public space we peer into we find the loud, the dumb, the exaggerated, the boisterous and the super simplistic taking unprecedented dominance. Sometimes, we can’t even hear music anymore without it being overwhelmed by theatrical background, including fireworks and dancing fish. Whether it is a TV show, State of the Union address, snow storm in New York or half time at the Super Bowl we are surrounded by media propelled hyperbole while things that really matter – such as our declining democracy, environment and economy – proceed with little attention.

Perhaps it helps to explain why we can’t get out of Mid East conflicts and are on the cusp of another Cold War. Exaggeration is the language of the day and bombast the favored lifestyle. Even deflated footballs have become inflated matters of concern.
The original slapstick was a device described by one dictionary as “consisting of two paddles hinged together; used by an actor to make a loud noise without inflicting injury when striking someone.”

In other words, slapstick creates the sound of action while not engaging in  any real version of it. Which is pretty much the story of America today; an excess of noise and drama and a paucity of productive action.

The Sterling case and the Green Bay Packers

Sam Smith – My weekly appearance on the Mark Thompson Sirius XM Show (Mondays 8pm Channel 127) was entirely occupied last night talking about the Donald Sterling case, mostly in conversation with listeners.

My argument in part was that we gave too much attention to individual incidents like this and not enough to the culture and practices behind them. I noted that, for example, only nine blacks had been elected the Senate since Reconstruction and two of them had been there less than a year, yet the media and the public hardly ever talks about this.

There was also talk about the role of owners in professional sports and the problems involved with them. It occurred to me (although I didn’t mention it) that professional sports owners were actually a role model for the much more powerful contemporary oligarchy we have come to face in America today.

Which led me to turn to Wikipedia to look something up (reporters multitask even on talk shows) and as I was doing so, Mark Thompson said, “What about the Green Bay Packers?”

i was stunned, because that was exactly what I was looking up, and I accused Mark of spying on me through my computer camera.

But here is what I was looking at when Mark asked about the Packers:

In 1960, on at least one team, a color barrier still existed in the NFL.But Jack Vainisi, the Scouting Director for the Packers, and [Vince] Lombardi were determined “to ignore the prejudices then prevalent in most NFL front office in their search for the most talented players.” Lombardi explained his views by saying that he “viewed his players as neither black nor white, but Packer green”….

An interracial relationship between one of the Packer rookies and a young woman was brought to the attention of Lombardi by Packer veterans in his first training camp in Green Bay. The next day at training camp, Lombardi, who had a zero tolerance policy towards racism, responded by warning his team that if any player exhibited prejudice, in any manner, then that player would be thrown off the team. Lombardi, who was vehemently opposed to Jim Crow discrimination, let it be known to all Green Bay establishments that if they did not accommodate his black players equally as well as his white players, then that business would be off-limits to the entire team. Before the start of the 1960 regular season, he instituted a policy that the Packers would only lodge in places that accepted all his players. In the all-white Oneida Golf and Riding Country club in Green Bay, of which Lombardi was a member, Lombardi demanded that he should be allowed to choose a Native American caddy, even if white caddies were available. Lombardi’s view on racial matters was a result of his religious faith and the prejudice he had experienced as an Italian-American.

Lombardi’s unprejudiced attitude was not confined to his players’ race or ethnicity. Lombardi was aware of tight end Jerry Smith’s homosexuality, and upon arriving in Washington, told Smith in confidence that it would never be an issue as long as he was coaching the Redskins. Smith flourished, becoming an integral part of Lombardi’s offense, and was voted a First Team All-Pro for the first time in his career, which was also Lombardi’s only season as Redskin head coach. Lombardi invited other gay players to training camp, and Lombardi would privately hope they would prove they could earn a spot on the team. At the Washington Redskins training camp in 1969, Ray McDonald was a gay player, with sub-par skills, who was trying to make the Redskin roster again, but this time with Lombardi as the Redskins’ new head coach. Lombardi told running back coach, George Dickson, ‘I want you to get on McDonald and work on him and work on him – and if I hear one of you people make reference to his manhood, you’ll be out of here before your ass hits the ground.’

As noted here before, we unintentionally tend to build the celebrity status of the Sterlings, Bundys and Zimmermans of our time while forgetting about the stories that could lead us in a better direction.  A good trick for news editors and journalists would be to put the Sterlings of the world up against a real alternative.

And it’s not just about ethnicity or sexual character. The Sterling story is also about a man whose use of money as a justification for deeply misguided narcissism – like so many in the top of our culture these days – is based on an economic model being foisted upon us by our media and politicians. Here again the Green Bay Packers have something to tell us:

The Packers are the only community-owned franchise in American professional sports major leagues. Typically, a team is owned by one person, partnership, or corporate entity, i.e., a “team owner.” The lack of a dominant owner has been stated as one of the reasons the Packers have never been moved from the city of Green Bay. It has long been operated as a non-profit organization….

In 1950, the Packers held a stock sale to raise money to prevent the team from moving out of Green Bay. No shareholder was allowed to purchase over 200 shares, a safeguard to ensure that no individual could assume control of the club. In 1956, area voters approved the construction of a new city owned stadium…

Shares of Packers stock do not include the same rights traditionally associated with common stock or preferred stock, although the shares are referred to as “common stock” in the offering document. They don’t include equity, dividends, can not be traded, have no securities-law protection, and stock ownership brings no season ticket privileges. While newly purchased shares can be given as gifts, once ownership is established, transfers are technically allowed only between immediate family members. Packers shareholders, however, are entitled to voting rights, an invitation to the corporation’s annual meeting, and the opportunity to purchase exclusive shareholder-only merchandise…

Green Bay is the only team with this form of ownership structure in the NFL; such ownership is in direct violation of current league rules, which stipulate a limit of 32 owners of one team and one of those owners having a minimum 30% stake. However, the Packers corporation was grandfathered when the NFL’s current ownership policy was established in the 1980s, and are thus exempt. The Packers are also the only American major-league sports franchise to release its financial balance sheet every year.