This organization may not be the one that first comes to mind. Yet with annual revenues of nearly $2.2 trillion, it dwarfs corporate giants like Exxon-Mobil ($191 billion), General Motors ($177 billion), and IBM ($85 billion). Indeed it is larger than the world's 15 top-ranked companies put together. (1)
The world's top corporation is extremely diversified. It has major stakes in industries from defense, energy, and transportation, to media, education, and banking, offices in nearly every country, and substantial operations in many more.(2) Yet despite this incredible wealth and power, it produces relatively few actual products and is heavily dependent on taxpayer subsidies.
As 2003 begins, this conglomerate acknowledges owing creditors over $6 trillion.(3) Even larger amounts of debt and liability are kept off the books through accounting tricks that would put Arthur Anderson to shame.(4) Its accounts are so poorly maintained that departments routinely lose track of millions of dollars. Yet it continues to grow, using the strength of its promissory notes and dominant market position to leverage additional borrowing power. Years before anyone heard of Enron, the leaders of this corporation were using numerous dishonest accounting methods such as advancing the due date on accounts receivable and delaying the dates for accounts payable. They are able to get away with this because they are bullies.
Many observers recognize that the corporation has long been on the edge of bankruptcy (moral as well as financial) if it is not in fact already bankrupt. But it has a long, successful history, and pride in the organization as it once was remains deeply rooted. Meanwhile, the lives of hundreds of millions have become ever more tightly circumscribed by the tentacles of the rotten leviathan.
If you haven't already guessed, the corporation I'm talking about is the United States government.
Is it accurate to call a government a corporation? Conventional language puts them into two separate categories. But the term "corporation" was once commonly used to refer to certain governing entities. The colonies of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut were chartered as corporations.(5) And while such usage may be unfamiliar today, the reality is that large, modern governments have come to function very much like large, modern corporations.
Like corporations, governments are human-created entities which have acquired perpetual life, limited liability, and legal "rights" equal to those of human beings (greater in many cases), without having any limits placed on their growth. Like corporations, they sell securities based on the value of their assets, hold patents and copyrights, maintain public relations departments, conduct market research, advertise their products and services, and generally operate with the aim of expanding their operations and bringing in as much money as possible. Many of their businesses, such as state lotteries and tobacco(6) sales, reap handsome profits at the expense of the poorest members of society.
The critical difference between corporations and governments is this: The power at the disposal of governments is infinitely greater. Unlike other corporations, governments have the power not only to make money for those who invest in them, but to invade virtually every aspect of the lives of those under their control.
Although calling them corporations highlights the self-serving nature of big governments, the term hardly seems sufficient to describe the scope of their power and greed. Therefore I propose a new word: supercorporations.
Is this unfair tinkering with the language? I don't think so. Current terminology gives government a much more benign image than it deserves.
For instance, corporations with business interests in more than one country are often referred to as "multinationals," but there is no similarly ominous term for huge governments that control territory spanning many time zones and make their influence felt on distant continents.
The term "corporate polluter" is fairly well known (586 results on the Google search engine), but if one went by how often one heard the term "government polluter," (20 results on Google) one would never guess that the worst pollution and environmental destruction in the world has been wrought by governments. In the United States, the top polluter is the U.S. military.(7)
Corporations are also accused of pushing "globalization," a vague term meant to play on the fears of people with legitimate concerns about things like the loss of cultural identity. But when it comes to globalization, it is the supercorporations which are paving the way. The largest-scale mergers of normal corporations pale in comparison to the gradual ongoing merger of many European governments into the single economic and political entity which ought to be called Europe Inc. A major reason this is being done is in order to secure trade advantages - in a word, profit. Of course for common Europeans this means being exploited to pay for all the new regulation and bureaucracy that has accompanied the growth of power in Brussels, as well as the loss of long-standing cultural distinctions.
Sadly, it is often the individuals most mistrustful of corporations who blindly put their faith in Europe Inc. - or USA Inc. How many people who would recoil in horror at someone who called himself a "Microsoftian," pledged allegiance to Microsoft, and defined his place in society around his allegiance to the company, still proudly call themselves "Americans" and see the world in terms of "us" (the United States, as represented by USA Inc.) and "them" (everyone else)?
Increasing the power of government to keep corporations in check is like giving Al Qaeda money to fight terrorism. Those who defend the status quo of powerful supercorporations usually acknowledge having little or no influence or control over the actions of "their" government. Yet a desperate belief that they somehow possess some kind of meaningful ownership persists. This belief is encouraged by politicians, who appeal to the mythical authority of the people en masse while letting individual people be ground up and spit out by the system as convenience dictates.
USA Inc. management employs a clever strategy. They tell us, the supercorporation's tax slaves, that we are the owners, and that they are just doing our bidding. Many of USA Inc.'s operations are called "public," creating the false impression that an ordinary person has more control over them than they would over the use of "private" facilities. In reality, you as a parent or student have more control over what happens at a "private" school than at a "public" school; you'll get better service at a "private" medical office than at a "public" health clinic.
The notion of "public service" is similarly used to reinforce the idea that powerful supercorporations are in the interest of ordinary people, and that their executives and paid employees are serving us. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are serving themselves and their special interest friends.
The myth that working in "the public sector" is noble, altruistic work conducted by civic-minded people of good intentions is just that - a myth designed to perpetuate supercorporate control. Government leaders are just as greedy, cruel, and self-serving as corporate executives. Many are worse, because they believe they know how to run your life better than you do, which allows them to rationalize their power addictions as being in the public interest. Had Adolph Hitler been a mere corporate executive trying to make big money, it is unlikely he would have sent millions of people to be incinerated in ovens and asphyxiated in gas chambers, even if it had somehow been in his power to do so. I believe it took the institution of big government, which sets chancellors and presidents up as shepherds with a righteous duty to lead their flock, to bring out that much arrogance and sheer evil in the man.
The worst corporate "sweatshop" cannot begin to measure up to the vast slave labor camps operated by the supercorporations. If you work for a normal corporation like Microsoft or McDonald's, you're usually free to quit any time after giving a couple weeks notice. In USA Inc. - the United States government, with its partially-owned state and local subsidiaries - you have no such rights. The "employment" system is based on forced labor. Most workers are not formally classified as employees, and receive no salary or direct benefits. Instead, they are called "citizens" or "residents" and are treated as independent contractors. Any person born within the large swath of the North American continent which serves as U.S. Inc.'s "company town" is involuntarily forced to participate in this scheme, and any work performed by such an independent contractor is subject to a commission or gate fee called the "income tax." Most of these commissions are paid by other employers in exchange for being allowed to hire USA Inc.'s indentured workers, rather than by the workers themselves. This "withholding" arrangement is designed to make it easy for people to forget they are working for USA Inc. against their will. In fact however, the average "independent contractor" spends over a third of his year working to pay USA Inc.'s employment commission. (8)
The most common type of direct government employment is in the military. USA Inc. military work is usually boring, and occasionally very dangerous. The pay is low, and it offers few opportunities for career-enhancing skills. Full-time military personnel in the United States are "on call" 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They are forced to submit to a mountain of indignities, from random drug testing to saluting and addressing as "sir" or "ma'am" those higher up in the organization (called their "superiors"). They are not allowed to question "orders" given by those superiors. That an order may be illogical, whimsical, arbitrary, or demeaning is not considered an excuse to disobey. Simply quitting the job is usually not an option. That's during peacetime - in a wartime situation, conditions are often much worse. Unsurprisingly, a large number of military veterans have wound up among the ranks of America's homeless and mentally ill. It is a work environment where bigotry is not merely tolerated - it's company policy. Employees found to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual are fired and denied normal severance benefits. Such conditions of employment are unheard of at most ordinary corporations, and are in fact illegal in many places.
The last time USA Inc. was involved in a major hostile take-over (the "Gulf War" in 1991), thousands of its employees were forced to work in a hazardous chemical environment without proper protection, so that many now suffer from medical conditions related to "Gulf War Syndrome," which the government is eventually getting around to recognizing as a legitimate ailment. As a former military employee myself, I was skeptical of "Gulf War Syndrome" until I met a fellow soldier who had served in the Gulf and developed a visible recurring skin condition.
This is the way government cares for the people it uses. Consequently, work quality is typically so bad in government that people are shocked when large projects come in on schedule or meet their budgets. I'm sure you've heard the expression "close enough for government work." How many low-level government employees have you met who seem truly happy in their jobs? Surly and disgruntled seems to be the norm. Several shooting sprees committed by unhappy U.S. Postal Service employees has added another new term to the vocabulary: "going postal."
USA Inc. enjoys a number of lucrative economic monopolies. Within its 1,940,011,400 acre "company town" known as the United States of America, it controls mail delivery, the money supply, all major airports, primary education, most energy used by households and businesses, etc. It owns nearly half of all the land. (9) Above all, U.S. Inc. jealously guards its monopoly on the use of force, in order to command adherence to company policy ("the law").
Persons found guilty of certain violations of company rules ("felonies") have their voting shares of company stock (right to vote in elections) taken away. USA Inc. also engages in blatant age discrimination. Every person born in the United States is said to be a part-owner of the corporation, but owners are denied the right to participate in shareholder meetings ("elections") until age 18. Even this semi-appearance of empowered workers is a sham, because the rules of U.S. Inc. shareholder meetings have gradually been modified to prevent any significant changes to management from occurring.
Over time, the management of USA Inc. has become entrenched and wealthy. The CEOs ("presidents"), members of the board of directors ("Congress"), and corporate vice-presidents ("state governors") of USA Inc. are typically millionaires.(9) The current CEO of USA Inc., George W. Bush, doesn't make quite as much money as many other corporate chiefs. But he has unparalleled perks -- free travel and security protection anywhere he wants to go whether by limo or private jet, free accommodation in posh government housing with private tennis courts, putting green, movie theater, billiard room, swimming pool, manicured estate, etc. -- and a fantastic benefits package when he retires.(10) And so respected and feared is USA Inc. that it doesn't have to alienate the public by paying multi-million dollar salaries to its top officers. They know that when they leave, they will be able to get the multi-million dollar jobs in other corporations only too happy to buy a little USA Inc. goodwill by offering the golden parachutes. (11)
Top USA Inc. executives have not been the only ones to profit handsomely. A myriad of special interest groups, from the management of other large corporations, to union bosses, racial and environmental demagogues, trial lawyers, bankers, and others constitute a well-organized professional class. They are the company's real shareholders, who reap the "dividends" that result from its coercive and anti-competitive business practices. In some cases USA Inc.'s management has effectively set up legal cartels to make a particular group, such as the American Medical Association or the American Bar Association can limit competition and increase their members' profits at the expense of the public.
Last year an executive at Fannie Mae, the USA Inc.-sponsored company that allegedly exists to help low-income families with housing loans, pocketed a salary of over $20 million.(12) The stated beneficiaries of corporate (government) programs are usually not the ones who benefit most.
Take bond measures allegedly designed to pay for affordable housing or better schools. "Interest costs alone usually exceed the amount of proceeds generated by the sale of the bonds," notes an Orange County Register editorial. "This helps explain why the bond industry - underwriters, lawyers, investors - contributes heavily to the passage of these proposals." (13)
Similarly, USA Inc. programs claiming to help needy farmers have transferred millions of dollars to Fortune 500 companies, government universities and farms, and even state prisons. (14)
USA Inc.'s monopolies are typically disguised as non-profit operations. Education camps designed to teach the ideas and values necessary to ensure continued domination by corporate government are presented as "public schools" where children can be educated. No "profits" are declared. But someone is profiting, and it's not the children or their parents.
This is why USA Inc. has "compulsory education" rules - people can only be kept in the system by force. Even though they could technically educate their children elsewhere, most parents, after having their independent contractor fees (taxes) garnished, cannot afford to get out of the system because those who leave are still required to help subsidize the corporate training camps they're no longer using, along with everyone else in the company town.
Over the 200-year-plus history of its charter, USA Inc. and its subsidiaries have become more and more profitable for members of the political class, largely as a result of mandatory corporate subsidies taken from members of the public (taxes). At the same time, many smaller companies, family-owned businesses, partnerships, and individual entrepreneurs have been driven out of business by the government's anti-competitive practices. Consumers have been hurt both economically by higher food, transportation and housing costs (farm subsidies, public transit, rent control, etc.), and physically, with many thousands dying prematurely because they were denied the ability to purchase medicine that did not conform to corporate (FDA) rules.(15)
But by the standards of supercorporations this is small-scale suffering. Horrible atrocities have been committed by new startups trying to break into the market. Infamous examples include USSR Inc., which was launched amid much bloodshed in 1917 and went downhill from there. The "business plans" of new regimes and up-and-coming government executives often consist of mass killings of employees and customers. Unfortunately, misguided infusions of venture capital ("foreign aid") from USA Inc. and other supercorporations allowed USSR Inc. to stave off total bankruptcy until 1989. Other survival methods included the predatory practice of invading neighboring countries and operating the world's largest sweatshop in Siberia. Once the USSR was an established business, the cartel that the supercorporations have organized to protect their various monopolies ("the United Nations") rewarded its business practices by giving it veto power over the cartel's actions (as a member of the "Security Council").
One must wonder how long working people will continue to be enslaved and killed for power and profit, before anti-corporate activists acknowledge the reality of government greed? Will the fact that the United States government has become the supercorporation USA Inc. enter the popular consciousness of people living under its rule? Or will well-intentioned people continue to labor under the rulers' useful fiction of "corporations bad, government good?"
(1) Figures are from Fortune magazine's list of the 500 largest corporations in the world, ranked by revenue: Click Here.
(2) Estimates vary, but the United States government is widely reported to have military forces in between 100 and 200 countries. An MSNBC story at this link documents the global span of its power.
(4) "The budgeting practices of almost all governments preserve legal fictions," assert University of Texas accounting professors Michael H. Granof and Stephen A. Zeff. For example a state may treat transactions with an agency over which it has economic and political control as though that agency was an outside entity. Other ways in which government books are cooked, include advancing the due date on taxes, licenses and other charges from one fiscal year to the prior year, and delaying the date on which the state makes its own payments to suppliers, contractors and welfare recipients. "President Bush warned American corporations recently that the days of 'cooking the books' and 'shading the truth' are over," the professors write in the August 18, 2002 Los Angeles Times. "Now he should deliver the same message to the country's governors and mayors - even to members of his own administration." Click Here for link
(6) "Federal, state and local governments have a virtual monopoly on tobacco profits. The government makes more money from the sale of cigarettes than anyone else, including manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers. In fact, the government profit per pack of cigarettes sold in the U.S. was $1.54, or 47 percent of the cost of the average pack. This represents more than 15 times the profit for the government than the 10 cents per pack profit for Reynolds Tobacco." Click Here for link
(7) By government's own estimates, the U.S. military is the top polluter in the United States. Click Here for link.
(8) Tax Freedom Day is the day each year on which the average person is no longer working to pay his or her tax bill, and is free to keep what he/she earns for the rest of the year. It varies from country to country. In 2002, Tax Freedom Day in the United States fell on April 27. Click here for link
(9) According to the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, no one knows exactly how much land is owned by federal, state, and local governments in the United States, because there are over 85,000 distinct government entities, and there has never been a census to determine all their land holdings. What is clear, according to the CDFE, is that the total is at least 40 percent, perhaps over half, and growing constantly. Click here for link
(11) Because USA Inc.'s business model is based on aggression and coercion, its executives are less accountable than those of normal corporations. One can economically boycott General Electric or stage a shareholder revolt against its management without fear of ending up in jail or dead. It's easier for stockholders to clean house and dismiss the management of a corporation they own stock in than it is for citizens to do the same with their governments. As a stockholder, you have at least some assurance that the management is representing your concerns as reflected in the price of the stock, as opposed to the "managers" of government who may be totally bought and paid for by special interests and lobbyists working for other corporations in which you the real owner have no stake.
(13) California's Proposition 47, passed at the November 5, 2002 state shareholder's meeting ("election"), promised $12.5 billion in bonds for school construction. But the Register notes that "the state's own experts" calculate interest costs at $13 billion. Thus the real cost to workers is more than twice the advertised cost, and almost 50 cents of every dollar will go to banks and bond holders instead of to schools. Click here for link.
(14) "At least 20 Fortune 500 companies and more than 1,200 universities and government farms, including state prisons, received checks from federal programs touted by politicians as a way to prop up needy farmers. Subsidies also went to real estate developers and absentee landowners in big cities from Chicago to New York." Click here for link.
(15) "Conservative estimates of needless deaths to the "drug lag" are tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of innocent Americans every year. Many more people die from the FDA's delay than are saved by waiting to see if people from other countries experience side effects from new drugs. Click here for link
sStarchild is a graduate of the SF State journalism department and
has been a Libertarian Party candidate for California State Assembly and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
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