Enabling Greed Makes U.S. Sick

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At the end of a week that reminds us to be ever vigilant about the dangers of government overreaching its authority, whether by the long arm of the IRS or the Justice Department, we should pause to think about another threat — from too much private power obnoxiously intruding into public life.

All too often, instead of acting as a brake on runaway corporate power and greed, government becomes their enabler, undermining the very rules and regulations intended to keep us safe.

Think of inadequate inspections of food and the food-related infections which kill 3,000 Americans each year and make 48 million sick. A new study from Johns Hopkins shows elevated levels of arsenic — known to increase a person’s risk of cancer — in chicken meat. According to the university’s Center for a Livable Future, “Arsenic-based drugs have been used for decades to make poultry grow faster and improve the pigmentation of the meat. The drugs are also approved to treat and prevent parasites in poultry… Currently in the U.S., there is no federal law prohibiting the sale or use of arsenic-based drugs in poultry feed.”

And here’s a story in The Washington Post about toxic, bacteria-killing chemicals used in poultry plants to clean more chickens more quickly to meet increased demand and make more money. According to Amanda Hitt, director of the Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign, “They are mixing chemicals together in these plants, and it’s making people sick. Does it work better at killing off pathogens? Yes, but it also can send someone into respiratory arrest.”

As long as there are insufficient checks and balances on big business and its powerful lobbies, we are at their mercy.
So far, the government has done next to nothing. No research into the possible side effects, no comprehensive record-keeping on illnesses. “Instead,” the Post reports, “they review data provided by chemical manufacturers.” What’s more, the Department of Agriculture is about to allow the production lines to move even faster, by as much as 25 percent, which means more chemicals, more exposure, more sickness.

Think of that and think of the 85,000 industrial chemicals available today – only a handful have been tested for safety. Ian Urbina writes in The New York Times, “Hazardous chemicals have become so ubiquitous that scientists now talk about babies being born pre-polluted, sometimes with hundred s of synthetic chemicals showing up in their blood.”

Think, too, of that horrific explosion of ammonium nitrate in the Texas fertilizer plant. Fifteen people were killed and their little town devastated. The magazine Mother Jones noted, “Inspections are virtually non-existent; regulatory agencies don’t talk to each other; and there’s no such thing as a buffer zone when it comes to constructing plants and storage facilities in populated areas.” For years, the Fertilizer Institute, described as “the nation’s leading lobbying organization of the chemical and agricultural industries,” resisted regulation and legislators went along. People can lose their lives when federal or state government winks at bad corporate practices — 4,500 workplace deaths annually at a cost to America of nearly half a trillion dollars.

Plant Explosion Investigation

An investigator looks over a destroyed fertilizer plant in West, Texas, Thursday, May 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Pool/ LM Otero, Pool)

As Salon’s columnist and author David Sirota observes, “If all this data was about a terrorist threat, the reaction would be swift — negligent federal agencies would be roundly criticized and the specific state’s lax attitude toward security would be lambasted. Yet, after the fertilizer plant explosion, there has been no proactive reaction at all, other than Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry boasting about his state’s ‘comfort with the amount of oversight’ that already exists.”

Finally, consider this story from ProPublica’s investigative reporter Abrahm Lustgarten about a uranium company that wanted a mining project in Texas that threatened to pollute drinking water. The EPA resisted — until the company hired as its lobbyist the Democratic fundraiser and fixer Heather Podesta, a favorite of the White House. Her firm was paid $400,000, she pulled the strings, and presto, the EPA changed its mind and said yes, go ahead and do your dirty work. In fact, ProPublica found that “the agency has used a little-known provision in the federal Safe Drinking Water Act to issue more than 1,500 exemptions allowing energy and mining companies to pollute aquifers, including many in the driest parts of the country.”

Of course, in a free society we’ll always be debating the role of government and its agencies. What are the limits, when is government oversight necessary and when is it best deterred? But it’s not only government that can go too far. As long as there are insufficient checks and balances on big business and its powerful lobbies, we are at their mercy. Their ability to buy off public officials is an assault on democracy and a threat to our lives and health. When an entire political system persists in producing such gross injustice, it is making inevitable wholesale defiance.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/MKarnakz Gina de Miranda

    We began to regulate because companies couldn’t control their own destructive impulses. That has not changed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/KathryneReelectObamaFacerReynolds Kathryne Facer Reynolds

    That being because profit is more important than safety.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=621836715 Kevin Schmidt

    I don’t agree with that cynicism.

  • ecovortx

    Potential energy ($) is derived from dynamic (human) energy! And potential energy is now important than dynamic energy. A piece of paper, a pot of gold is worth more than you and I. 1and1is1

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  • mona

    just as any
    civilization grows and relys on less and less diversity, so too I feel we are
    going that same direction. the powers that be come across as relegating the
    average citizen to the consume and recycle bin. GMOs in our food (we all need
    to eat). GMO is spliced in DNA that produces the insecticide from the corn
    plant itself – (Craig Childs writes that the corn fields of the mid-west are
    silent for lack of insects). Fracking to extract natural gas and the associated
    toxic chemicals. banks raking in profits. Hedges brings up the point – just as
    they tested societies willingness to adapt in airforce housing, the powers that
    be are testing to see what they can get away with. it is a selfish, very
    selfish world. just as my public health masters instructors directed us to go
    to the Mn. state government proceedings to observe how the legislature worked
    we should all observe how the powers that be are directing change that benefits
    them and relegates the average citizen to the expendible bin. i have become a
    union steward and am getting incredible resistance, they do not even
    acknowledge the rights of workers to point out the rules in the union contract
    they are not following. i am observing first hand how they are testing how far
    they can go.

  • Anonymous

    Revolving door employment between corporations and the government agencies charged with oversight, especially as it pertains to consumer safety, is interrelated with campaign finance, and may be more pernicious. Campaign contributions assures lobbyists access and may result in favorable legislation, but rewarding donors by appointing bureaucrats with corporate ties effects regulations, enforcement and policy. A pro-biotech, pro-Monsanto former Iowa governor, Tom Vilsack, was named to head the USDA. Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto lobbyist, was appointed senior FDA food safety adviser. Roger Beachy, long-time president of the Danforth Plant Science Center (Monsanto’s nonprofit arm) was named chief of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, steering the direction of the USDA’s agricultural research. Rajiv Shah, USAID director, was the agricultural programs director for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation responsible for helping Monsanto infiltrate markets in poor African countries by fraudulently claiming that GMOs can feed the world and reduce rural poverty with high-priced genetically modified seed varieties that supposedly, but in fact do not, increase yields, resist drought, and improve nutrition.

    These are just a few examples of one corporation’s incestuous relationship with government. The revolving door goes the other way with government officials aware that favorable decisions may pave the way to lucrative later employment with effected corporations. The bias can even be subtle — policy-makers likely continue friendships and social connections with those they used to work with. The only solution is a moratorium of enough years between government and private sector employ to discourage influence-peddling. Until then, government service will continue to be a lucrative method of furthering business, often at the expense of public welfare and safety.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pat.elgee.5 Pat Elgee

    Large corporations have out bid We the People and have bought our Congress. Only the voter, can reverse this blight on our country by voting out those on the take. We need lists of congressmen and list of those corporations that made donations with amounts. These secret groups designed to hide the source of the money should also be listed as “hidden” source donations. I would know what to think.

    Of course, not everyone would. Sometimes it appalls me who some of the voters will elect. Too often it is crooked, thieving, rich business men who stole millions, but somehow the public thinks that once this rich businessman is in office, he will fix the economics of the country.
    Instead it is just putting another fox in control of the hen house.
    There is a difference between someone who steals money and someone with business ethics who makes money honestly.
    “You will never go wrong if you underestimate the intelligence of the public.”

  • Dick Dreier

    I am a retired member of a pulp and paper union on the west coast and I am a seventy year old union activist. I am involved in the ILWU’s struggle against the absolute domination of the docks by corporations that employ over thirty thousand people. I am involved in the campaign to picket the local Wal-Mart stores. I am active in local democratic politics as an active advocate for all
    unions that have locals here. I know full well the incredible resistance that the union steward above talks about. My heart aches for those current union members that are carrying on the fight. This is a proud union state, and this is a proud union town. Never in my seventy years did I think that this state would become a right to work state and that danger is here now..
    But in spite of the current dire situation, we must not forget the positives. I worked for a family run public corporation that employed over fiveteen hundred people and had at the peak twelve paper machines. I believe at one time we were the largest paper mill in the world. When we became listed on the New York Stock Exchange we all felt the pride in that event. When other mills curtailed, we were putting craft rolls in the yards in preparation for the upturn we all knew was coming. When our new union was formed the AWPPW, we became a dominent force in the West Coast paper industry. We eventually became a shining example of union-management co-operation. But it wasn’t an easy road to that point. We had strikes, including a six month strike where people lost their homes, in sacifice for a cause they belived in.

  • Craig

    110 years ago Theodore Roosevelt targeted the trusts in steel, oil and transportation. He didn’t exactly “bust” them, but cooled their power. Meanwhile Sinclair Lewis exposed the meatpacking industry in “The Jungle”. Ida Tarbell wrote “the History of Standard Oil”. Each influencing far reaching changes. Ironically, the breakup of Standard Oil made it’s owners, and particularly Mr. Rockefeller in the wealthiest “retirees” in history.

    Meanwhile, Carnegie funded Roosevelt’s African Safari, etc.

    The best hope, the most effective tool is writers to inform the public. But with so much mainstream media owner by a few corporate giants, beholden to advertisers and complicit in the “Corporatocracy” of Government and Business. How can we reach out and make people pay attention?

    I am pessimistic about our nation’s future. Self interest, greed and antagonism. America seems to have lost it’s soul. Every man for himself. It’s pretty discouraging.

  • Dick Dreier

    I agree with Keven.

    I am a capitalist, and capitalism has been very good to me. It provided a good living for me and my wife, and it provided us with a good retirement. It provided an opportunity to provide our only daughter with a good liberal arts education.

    But something has gone wrong. We are seeing good moral companies being eaten up by massive corporations who could care less about their people, and it is time to pass the Free Employee Employment act, which realistically has little chance of happening.

    It was a privledge to work for Longview Fibre. It was a privledge to work for the Wollenburg family. And it was a particular privledge to work for RP “dick” Wollenburg, the CEO of Longview Fibre Company.

  • Dan Nowman Niswander

    Bill…here is a great story… I think an interview with him would be absolutely amazing! I love your work and thank you for doing what you do! https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=585438754811640&set=a.480857285269788.109717.307551552600363&type=1&theater

  • Susan

    But if that were not so,safety problems wouldn’t be happening to this extent…..

  • http://www.toxicjustice.com/ Swan

    US environmental and chemical diasters will continue because US courts routinely engage in cover-ups of toxic injuries and environmental damage by allowing confidentiality and silence agreements to be inserted into settlement contracts.

    In exchange for too often inadequate compensation, injured parties are extorted into recanting the evidence against the chemical companies and into silence, threatened with jail, fines, or a lawsuit if they tell anyone about the injury, damage, or settlement confidentiality agreement.

    I refused to sign, forgoing the puny settlement, but the worse was the judge’s role. I was threatened by the judge with contempt of court for refusing to agree to the contract. The story is mine as well as piece of mind.
    Nancy Swan
    Dir. Children’s Environmental Protection Alliance

  • nicc

    Why don’t you tell us specifically which companies are poisoning our food and polluting our water? How do you expect the public to act when you make such blanket statements? If the media actually wants to empower people, they’d tell the FULL story.

  • Michael J

    Well, you can start with Monsanto and Dow. Does that help?

  • nicc

    Yes it does Michael, because with that knowledge (verified) we can choose to boycott Monsanto and Dow. We can also choose to publicly advertise against them. You can’t take action against nameless companies. In fact, when we lack information, we likely contribute to corporate corruption unknowingly with our purchases… that’s what they want. Our greatest weapon is our buying power, and buying power’s greatest strength is knowledge. The media needs to be held accountable for giving us that knowledge in full.

  • Anonymous

    Nothing wrong with capitalism on its own, predatory capitalism as we’re seeing throughout the world today is the root of all evil which seeks to enslave for profit. Those who cannot afford or are deemed ‘unworthy’ are left without.

  • Anonymous

    I got mine so there ! good for you Dick , now how about the majority of its victims ?

  • Rishcash

    You many not agree with the cynicism but what she says is often true as been demonstrated time and time again.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/William-Leavenworth/1096143582 William Leavenworth

    Arsenic-based pesticides were first widely used in agriculture shortly after the Civil War. Consider how much As must be in some agricultural fields, and how much has run down our watersheds into our estuaries, and how much has seeped into our water tables.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/William-Leavenworth/1096143582 William Leavenworth

    Of course, the biggest difference between the current political parties and a whore is this: if you pay a whore, you’ll get the satisfaction she promised you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pat.elgee.5 Pat Elgee

    As a little girl, I lived on a chicken farm in Appleton, ME. It took 9 months from when the chicks were dropped off until they were picked up. Now, guess how long it take? Would you believe 6 weeks! I have gone vegan.

  • Joust

    You can add Bayer to that list.

  • Big Money

    Does it help to know that all the food in your supermarket is produced by just 4 company’s! And they are all in cahoots! Not to mention that the health care industry makes billions from the diseases we manifest from eating this corporate poison. As you said “our greatest weapon is our buying power”. Support the General Strike on July 4 2013, bring the corporate beast down! Make no payments for loans or credit cards, run the credit card debt up and kill the corporations, fire our current “leaders”, all of them, everyone of them and replace them with citizens who care about the country and the people! Rise Up!!!!!!!!!!!

  • In a Pickle

    Talk about Greed! I am going to posit this theory: Computers are programmed to maximize profits for all of these mega-corporations! There is no room for the human element because of avarice being programmed into computers.
    We are headed down a dangerous path with computers being the “unmanned” train going down the track!
    I am not a religious man but my mother opined that the computers are “The Beast” that is talked about in many charismatic and evangelical communities!

  • http://www.facebook.com/wayne.clark.718 Wayne Clark

    Golden Rule or Ruled by Gold ?

  • Bizniock

    Computers enable the underdog and the visionary to go places they never could 70 years ago. Your fear might have some basis in automatic stock trading…but be careful not to get caught in the paranoid fringe. It’s like the claim that vaccination and not over-diagnosis is the cause for the ‘autism epidemic’: for any limiting, damaging, and in some cases unfounded negative effects that computers have, the risk:benefit for them puts them ridiculously farther toward the side of “beneficial to humanity.’ Just like vaccines.

    tl;dr, computers and programming are your friend.

  • Michael J

    I agree with you fully. (sorry, I didn’t get the notice until just now) It should be somewhat obvious, by now, which corporations are of high quality and therefore of benefit to society and which ones are leeching off the public. Wal-mart is another horrible corporation, but because of economic reasons, not food corruption. The reason for my initial post was to get people moving on issues they’re already aware of. But, perhaps, most people aren’t aware of which companies aren’t doing their fair share.

  • nicc

    Yes, we need to stay aware, then we need to act on the awareness with selective purchasing. Basically, we need to put “Michael J’s” peanut butter into “Big Money’s” chocolate! Unfortunately, most people right now either don’t care, or don’t want to know the social and environmental impact from what they buy. That will change, one way or the other… nature doesn’t allow ignorance comfort for too long.

  • nicc

    You have the right idea… rally the people who think like you, create a database, trade exclusively with each other and grow the lifestyle. This takes a lot of organization though. The main thing that keeps the powerful in power, is that they are extremely organized.