"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present ... As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves — and then we shall save our country." —Abraham Lincoln, Dec. 2, 1862
The ugly corporate boardroom plots and rancor that followed Duke Energy's sacking of its supposed new CEO, Bill Johnson, could mark a real turning point. At the very least, they should purge Charlotte and the rest of North Carolina of Duke's self-created image as a great public benefactor. Whether what should happen will happen remains to be seen. In this part of the world, Duke's "Reddy Kilowatt, the sparky public servant" image dies hard, no matter how underhanded or unfair the company is to its customers. Sadly, this isn't surprising. Americans generally have a hard time holding big corporations accountable for their sins. It's as if we're under a spell. That's because we are.
In the quote above, Lincoln was talking about the need to slough off old ways of thinking in critical times. The mess the U.S. is in today may not compare to the Civil War, but still, we're in a political quagmire that screams for us to disenthrall ourselves from the usual ways of acting and thinking. I suggest that Topic No. 1 for our national disenthralling should be Americans' overly reverent, even submissive attitude toward big corporations and the people who run them.
For decades, and particularly since 1980, we Americans have had it hammered into our heads: Big business, big money and ginormous corporations practically make the world go 'round, so let them do whatever they want. And heaven forbid that corporations be held to account for their misdeeds. Even today, nearly four years into a depression triggered by investment banks' greed and deceit, any suggestions of tighter regulations of the financial industry — never mind jail time for guilty bankers — are routinely met with cries of "socialism." Such is our national subservience to corporations.
Simplifying small-business regulations and helping those businesses grow are, to my mind, legitimate functions of government. But bending over backward and looking the other way for humongous mega-businesses — banking and Big Oil and the "defense" industries — which are, without exaggeration, capable of throwing the entire world economy into chaos and ruin? You've got to be kidding. Sadly, defenders of mega-corporations aren't kidding when they equate the likes of Duke Energy and Bank of America with the mom & pop store down the street.
How indoctrinated, or enthralled, do you have to be to keep thinking that Corporate America is your friend? For one, you have to be able to read these recent news stories and shrug them off:
• Duke Energy plans to charge customers nearly $2 billion to improve Progress nuclear plants in the Carolinas — nearly three times the supposed "savings to the public" produced by the companies' merger.
• Fortune 500 companies racked up record-setting profits of $824.5 billion in 2011, while America's biggest non-financial corporations are sitting on around $2 trillion in cash instead of hiring more workers, investing in new projects, or even handing over money to shareholders — the dividend-to-payout ratio is at its lowest in more than a century. Wages, meanwhile, have risen less than the rate of inflation for over a year.
• Study proves it: Walmart super-stores kill off local small businesses.
• Former Bank of America executive indicted in widespread bid-rigging scheme.
• Higher gas prices earlier this year brought ExxonMobil $104 million in profit per day, while the company continued to support efforts by the American Legislative Exchange Council to lower environmental standards.
• Chesapeake Energy, which paid record-breaking fines for contaminating water supplies as a result of fracking, also paid for Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews to visit fracking sites, after which he rammed through a bill allowing fracking in N.C.
• The London Interbank Offered Rate, or LIBOR, scandal reveals that the global financial system is riddled with massive systemic fraud, and key "gatekeepers" in finance and government knew it and kept quiet about it — including Tim Geithner, Treasury Secretary under President Obama.
• Top News of the World execs are charged in a massive phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch-owned newspapers.
The good news is that in the last two examples, the government is fully investigating and is bringing corporate bigwigs to trial. The bad news is that they're in Great Britain. In the U.S., our enthrallment of corporations and their big piles of money means Geithner still sits in the White House, and not even a preliminary investigation of Murdoch's American news outlets' practices has begun. But let's be optimistic and say that the Duke/Progress mess will trigger a turnaround in attitudes toward corporate accountability. As I said, it certainly should. But don't hold your breath.