BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company…
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: I would like to know if Apple’s lobbyists had anything to do creating the loopholes and rules they’re now benefiting from.
BILL MOYERS: And…
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Civil disobedience is always a criticism of the existing power structure. And it’s always been that way. That’s the role of civil disobedience; it’s a role of dissent.
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Where to begin? There’s been so much news this week of giant corporations gaming the system, it makes your head swim. And perhaps that’s the problem, we’re overwhelmed. Just look at some of the headlines: "Apple executives face Senate grilling," "Apple is shifting its tax burden," "Apple’s Web of Tax Shelters Saved It Billions..."
That New York Times story, by the way, went on to report how Apple, America’s most profitable technology company, avoided those taxes “…through a web of subsidiaries so complex it spanned continents and went beyond anything most experts had ever seen…”
Just consider this item from the Financial Times. By setting up a subsidiary in Ireland, “…Apple Sales International, paid virtually no taxes on sales of $74 billion between 2009 and 2012.” Furthermore, “In 2011, it paid $10 million in taxes on $22 billion in profits, or a rate of 0.05 per cent…”
As that great newspaper The Onion observed, tongue firmly in cheek, “That must be how they keep their prices so low.”
Now look at these headlines: "Deja Vu on the Hill: Wall Street Lobbyists Roll Back Finance Reform, Again,” “Derivatives Reform on the Ropes,” “Banks Win Big as Regulators Refuse to Rein in $700 Trillion Derivatives Market.”
And on, and on. The banking industry’s all-out campaign to gut the reforms enacted just three years ago to put an end to the financial chicanery that almost destroyed us in 2008.
Which brings us to another finalist for this week’s honor roll of questionable accountability, JPMorgan Chase, the largest bank in the United States. Despite the bank's year of embarrassing behavior, shareholders re-elected their entire board of directors and voted that Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon could hold onto both his highfalutin job titles.
Back to this table comes someone who keeps a sharp eye on the “animal spirits” of the corporate world, Gretchen Morgenson, one of the foremost business journalists in the country. Pulitzer Prize-winner and assistant editor at The New York Times, where her column appears every Sunday. Her most recent book is Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Created the Worst Financial Crisis of Our Time. It’s a must-read.
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: Thanks, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: So why should anyone watching this right now care whether Jamie Dimon wears two hats at the head of JPMorgan?
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: Well, of course, JPMorgan, as you know, going back, stepping back, was the bank that did not go to the precipice, did not require a bail out, it made it through the financial crisis of 2008 in fairly good stead. And so that presented for Mr. Dimon a sort of bragging right, as it were. I led my bank through this terrible crisis with very little in the way of trouble. So why would you want me to change anything about how I operate this bank? Well, as you know, the problems that came up over the past year involving the trading losses, the $6 billion trading losses that their—
BILL MOYERS: The London Whale.
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: --their Chief Investment Office is what got people a little bit alarmed. Is this bank as well managed as Mr. Dimon says it is? And so the idea among some shareholders was, you really ought to have a check and balance here on this chief executive. We don't want the imperial CEO who also is the Chairman of the Board. Because there was some risk management issues that we really need addressed.
There obviously was not adequate oversight of the Chief Investment Office if you're going to have $6 billion in losses. And yet the shareholders that turned down that proposal to separate the chief executive office from the chairman title, and so Mr. Dimon continues on as both.
BILL MOYERS: Since he wears both hats, does this mean that Jamie Dimon, Chairman of the Board, gets to decide whether Jamie Dimon, CEO is doing a good job?
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: Pretty much. I mean, he is essentially overseeing his own performance. Which, you know, is a conflict of interest. So it's, generally speaking, ideal to have someone overseeing the C.E.O. or a strong board that can oversee and rein in a CEO. Well, this is a board that had people on the risk committee who were obviously not monitoring the risks that were being taken on in the company. And the fact that they were reelected by a majority of shareholders, I think is quite indicative of a very big problem that we have in America today.
And that is that many, many large institutional shareholders who represent you and me, mutual funds, pension funds, the like, vote with management on many of these important issues. And so they're not necessarily voting your opinion or mine.
BILL MOYERS: He's also ultimately responsible for over $2.3 trillion in assets and 256,000 employees. I mean, is it possible for one man to prevent all that happened at JPMorgan Chase last year?
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: This is where we get into the problem of institutions that are too big to manage. And ultimately then, too big to be allowed to fail. Which is the single most, the single largest peril that we have not addressed after the 2008 financial Armageddon. Dodd-Frank was supposed to address that issue, was supposed to eliminate too big to fail, but it hasn't.
And because there's the implicit guarantee by the taxpayer, we are always going to be at peril for some sort of a problem like this. Now the $6 billion loss didn't turn out to be a death knell for the company, it absorbed it.
It was able to do so without any kind of a hiccup financially. But, you know, that was one example. The company has enormous derivatives exposure. Enormous exposures around the world with counterparties. So you really do feel that it's too big to manage. And so therefore, we really must cut these banks down to a smaller size.
BILL MOYERS: You wrote recently about the bill introduced in the Senate by a bipartisan team of Sherrod Brown, Democrat from Ohio and David Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana. And you call that a "smart” bill. What appeals to you about it?
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: Well, what that bill basically does is it requires a far greater capital cushion for these banks, a far greater sort of rainy-day fund for these banks to have on hand in case they get into trouble. In 2008, the capital requirements were far too thin. So the cushion was this big when it should've been this big. And it wasn't liquid. It didn't consist of, you know, cash or treasury securities that you could sell immediately. It was, you know, one of these complex situations set up by this committee in Basel, Switzerland. And, you know, very, you know, Byzantine.
And it wasn't readily available capital. There wasn't enough of it and it wasn't liquid. And so the Sherrod Brown and David Vitter bill is an idea of how to have that pile of cash available, ready if there's a problem. Well, banks don't like this because they want to deploy that cash. They want to earn money on that cash. They want to, you know, take risks with that cash. And so of course they object to that idea.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think there's any chance that an intelligent-sounding, seeming bill, like the Sherrod Brown and David Vitter proposal has a chance of competing against the army of lobbyists that Jamie Dimon and others can send down to Washington?
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: It is a formidable, formidable army. I grant you that. I just hope that people on Main Street will rise up and support this idea, support this bill. Otherwise, we are simply going to have another crisis far sooner than we would otherwise. I mean--
BILL MOYERS: Why?
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: --these banks are not getting smaller. They're getting larger. There are now more too-big-to-fail institutions than there were prior to the 2008 crisis--
BILL MOYERS: Dodd-Frank was supposed to prevent that from happening.
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: Dodd-Frank set up a system that is supposed to be in place to unwind troubled institutions when they become troubled. But again, it requires regulators taking a really firm stand against large, politically-interconnected, and powerful companies. And it is extremely, I don't see why if they wouldn't do that in 2008 why they're going to do it the next time around.
I just think it's too easy to put the taxpayer on the hook and bail these people out. And there's just been no penalty for failure in the 2008 crisis. So of course the response from these people is going to be, I'll just do it bigger next time, taxpayer will be there to bail me out, and we'll go on our merry way.
BILL MOYERS: Bloomberg Businessweek had a cover story recently, “Dimon Is Forever: Why Jamie Dimon is Wall Street's Indispensable Man.” Couldn't they have said that about Henry VIII or Louis XVI?
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: Well, you could've said it about John Gutfreund, who was the head of Salomon Brothers before he was made to take leave after the scandal in 1991 where they were found to have rigged the treasury market. I mean, if I were Jamie Dimon, I'd be worried about being called the king of the heap, because when that happens there is often a comeuppance. It hasn't happened to him yet. But, so here is a man that has succeeded because he hasn't failed.
I think that's really what we're talking about here. So the bar is quite low, wouldn't you say? I mean, by comparison to the banks that did require huge bailouts, Bank of America, CitiBank, you know, Wells Fargo, to a lesser degree, perhaps. This was the bank that was better than the rest. And so he gets all of these accolades because of it. Well, maybe that's, some of it is perhaps justified. But I think it's really a little bit much in putting him on a little bit of a pedestal.
BILL MOYERS: Has Wall Street as an institution, has Wall Street as a system of being in the world, learned anything in the last four years?
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: Absolutely not. Learned nothing.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: You know, I was shocked, Bill, when after the crisis, Wall Street and the large banks continued their lobbying efforts unstopped, right? They didn't even hide in their trenches for one minute after pushing the nation's economy to the brink. And that to me was, it seemed like evidence of, there was just no shame. No shame at all in, among these people that had really created this problem and this crisis.
And they were given slack. They were, you know, allowed to stay in their jobs. They weren't removed. They weren't jailed. They weren't penalized. And so that's the disconnect that I think we really, I was shocked by.
BILL MOYERS: Speaking of putting the taxpayer on the hook. Now, you know, I like my Apple products and I'm sure everybody listening has something kind to say about how technology and Apple in particular has helped their own situation.
However, when I watched those hearings this week, I thought, when Apple is avoiding all the taxes they're paying on all those profits overseas, doesn't it put a burden on the rest of us? And doesn't it, as in fact the Senate Committee says, create a more unjust tax system?
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: Well, I think it does, Bill. Because these are obviously extremely successful companies building a product, as you say, that many, many people enjoy. This is not like Wall Street creating, you know, products that no one needs and that only wind up hurting people, as we saw in the crisis. But it is a cost to the system if you don't have adequate tax rolls coming in from these immensely successful companies. And this is not illegal. Apple has not been accused of doing anything illegal.
It's, you know, being shrewd. It's being smart about the tax code, which is a giant mess, because it has been manipulated to gain these kinds of loopholes.
BILL MOYERS: Let's take a look at an excerpt from the Senate hearings earlier this week. Senator Levin is questioning Apple's CEO, Tim Cook.
SENATOR CARL LEVIN (FROM SENATE HEARING): You point out, and accurately so, Mr. Cook, that 95 percent of the creativity that goes into those products is in California. But two-thirds of the profits are in Ireland. And you've made a decision, which you have a right to do, not to bring that money home.
TIM COOK (FROM SENATE HEARING): Senator, we're proud that all of our R&D, or the vast majority of it is in the United States.
SENATOR CARL LEVIN (FROM SENATE HEARING): I know. But the profits that result from it are sitting in Ireland in corporations that you control that don't pay taxes.
TIM COOK (FROM SENATE HEARING): All of--
SENATOR CARL LEVIN (FROM SENATE HEARING): You ought to be proud--
TIM COOK (FROM SENATE HEARING): All of the profits from all of the products we sell in the United States--
SENATOR CARL LEVIN (FROM SENATE HEARING): I know that.
TIM COOK (FROM SENATE HEARING): --pay taxes in the United States.
SENATOR CARL LEVIN (FROM SENATE HEARING): Oh I know that.
BILL MOYERS: So what is wrong with all of that money sitting in Ireland?
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: If we're not receiving the tax revenues that this company, you know, hypothetically should be paying, then that's an opportunity loss for the government.
BILL MOYERS: It could be the roads and bridges that the--
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: Could be.
BILL MOYERS: --employees of Apple out in Cupertino--
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: --use every day to get to and from home and work.
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: Yes, it could be, you know, the municipal police departments, firefighters. It could be any one of those things. So it really is a matter of fairness, I think. And that's what, it doesn't pass that test. Is it fair that individuals pay, you know, whatever 39 percent, 40 percent of their taxes, have very few, you know, tricks and games to be able to play to get, you know, away from that.
Is that fair when you have massively, you know, rich American corporations paying far, far less? I think also what's interesting about this particular situation is that it's, Apple says it's based in California. But it's stateless. You know, it's one of these kind of, it doesn't really exist in any of these other places. And that, there's something really, really strange about that.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you think the corporate income tax is so easy to evade?
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: Because lobbyists have spent many, many years making sure that these loopholes are put into the tax code. I mean, this is the job of many, many people in Washington on K Street to manipulate the tax code for a particular client or industry. And so we see that just constantly. It's constantly being fiddled with.
BILL MOYERS: So does Cook's argument that Apple is simply playing by the rules of a broken tax system, hold water?
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: Well, it does. It is a broken tax system. And they are, apparently, playing by the rules. But I would like to know if Apple's lobbyists had anything to do with creating the loopholes and rules that they're now benefiting from. It really is a situation where we have large corporations with so much power in Washington able to change legislation, roll it back, as you point out with Dodd-Frank, able to change the tax code to their benefit. I mean, this is really about, this is really about the power and the money in Washington that comes from these behemoth corporations.
BILL MOYERS: You make me realize anew that there is this collusion, I didn't say conspiracy, collusion between the financial elites and the political elites that has widened the gap between everyday citizens, taxpayers, out there.
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: Uh-huh.
BILL MOYERS: Isn't that a crisis for democracy?
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: Yes. It's a crisis for democracy. It's also widened the gap, Bill, between small community banks that didn't create the problem. Okay, so they're now operating at an extreme disadvantage to the large behemoths because the large behemoths have the implied taxpayer guarantee, which gives them a lower funding cost, they, you know, when they go out to raise capital, they don't have to pay as much because the investors understand they're going to get bailed out if they get into a problem.
So, community banks don't have those benefits. So not only has this, you know, widened the gulf between Main Street and these, you know, powerful institutions, it's also widened the gap between, you know, smaller institutions that provide a service to, you know, small-town America or medium-sized-town America. And I think that's also troubling, because they're not going to be able to compete and they can't compete.
BILL MOYERS: You ever get frustrated?
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: I get frustrated. I get upset. I think that we're going in the wrong direction. Many times I feel that I'm stuck in this groove of scandal after scandal after scandal. They're coming more and more frequently, they're larger in size, they devastate more people. And I don't see an adequate response from our government. So it's a, it is a very frustrating time, I think. The disconnect I think between Main Street and Washington and the connections that Wall Street and corporate America, I think that disconnect is growing bigger, larger, and more pernicious.
BILL MOYERS: Gretchen Morgenson, thank you very much.
GRETCHEN MORGENSON: Thanks, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: So if we now have representative government in name only, and are governed instead by corporations and their lobbyists, what’s to be done? Tim DeChristopher wrestled with that reality and decided what he would do.
As a result, he spent almost two years in prison. He’s out now, and you can learn the whole story in the new documentary, Bidder 70.
In December 2008, as the Bush administration was coming to an end, this environmental activist, then 27 years old, went to an auction of gas and oil drilling rights on more than 150,000 acres of Utah wilderness, all of it public land. It was a sale DeChristopher believed to be illegal.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER in BIDDER 70: Instead of getting dragged out they said “Hi. Are you here for the auction?”
And I said, “Yes, I am.” And they said, “Are you here to be a bidder?” And I said, “Well, yes, I am”.
AUCTIONEER in BIDDER 70: I have two and a quarter in the back and now to two and a half…
TIM DECHRISTOPHER in BIDDER 70: I saw right away with that bid card they’d given me, I could really disrupt this process. I had all these visions of my future and all the catastrophic effects of climate change, but if I start to bid on this there’s a decent chance I could go to prison. Could I live with that? And I thought, well, yeah. It’d suck, but I could live with it.
AUCTIONEER in BIDDER 70: Three fifths and four and five...
TIM DECHRISTOPHER in BIDDER 70: And I finally took that step, and jumped all the way in and started winning parcels. I started winning all the parcels.
AUCTIONEER in BIDDER 70: And five, are you all in? Are you all done? At fifty dollars, sold fifty dollars to Bidder number 70, Bidder 70[…]
REPORTER 1 in BIDDER 70: An environmentalist threw a controversial oil and gas lease auction into turmoil today.
REPORTER 2 in BIDDER 70: Well Tim DeChristopher says he’s willing to go to jail, and it’s possible that’s where he’ll wind up.
REPORTER 3 in BIDDER 70: A college student may face federal criminal charges for disrupting that auction with bogus bids.
BILL MOYERS: The federal government indicted Tim DeChristopher on two felony counts, even though the oil and gas auction had been quickly declared null and void by the new Obama administration and its Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
KEN SALAZAR in BIDDER 70: Because of the need to review these parcels, and because of their proximity to landscapes of national significance, I have directed the Bureau of Land Management not to accept the bids on the 77 parcels.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER in BIDDER 70: To see this land and this view, there’s no way that I could ever regret what I did. To see that the land looks like this, that it’s this beautiful, and to know it’s going to keep looking like this, it’s still going to look this way, and there’s not going to be an oil rig in the way. There’s not going to be a road cut right through the middle of it. That’s really reaffirming, and I think really justifies my actions.
BILL MOYERS: The legal process dragged on. Tim DeChristopher held out for a trial by jury, despite government attempts to make a deal.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER in BIDDER 70: I’ve been offered a couple informal plea bargains. The one formal one was for as little as thirty days in jail. My lawyers said they do really want you to serve some time to set an example that discourages other people from doing this and I said that’s exactly why I’m not going to take this deal, because I have the opposite motivation, and it’s really rubbed me the wrong way about any kind of solution that doesn’t involve a jury.
BILL MOYERS: The jury was instructed by the judge to rule only on the strict letter of the law and not to make any moral judgments. They found Tim DeChristopher guilty and he was sentenced to two years in federal prison.
Outside the courtroom, activists from Peaceful Uprising, the grassroots environmental group DeChristopher co-founded, protested the verdict. Twenty-six were arrested.
Now Tim DeChristopher is free and contemplating both his own future and that of the climate change movement in the name of which he said he picked up that bidder card with the number 70.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Thanks for having me.
BILL MOYERS: You are free. Five years have passed, two of them in prison. Was it worth that much of your time?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah, absolutely. I mean I think more so than I anticipated. You know, when I went into this, I was pretty focused on the direct impacts of my actions, keeping that oil in the ground under those parcels and stopping this particular auction. And that was mostly effective. That goal was met. And I think the impacts on myself and on the climate movement over the past few years and on the community of people that has grown up around that action, the group Peaceful Uprising that I helped start I think those impacts turned out to be much more important than just keeping that oil in the ground.
BILL MOYERS: So when did you know for sure that you were going to be convicted?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: During the jury selection of the trial. That was what really did it. There was a moment during the jury selection we had this huge jury pool because it was a high profile case. And there was a moment where the prosecution and the judge found out that most of that jury pool had gotten a pamphlet before they came in on the first day from the Fully Informed Jurors Association. And it was a pamphlet that didn't say anything about my case, but it talked about jury's rights. It talked about why we have juries. And it, you know, quoted the founders of the country on juries being the conscience of the community. And the prosecution flipped out over this. It was the only time I saw the prosecutor completely lose his cool during the whole process. And we went into the judge's chambers and the prosecutor was screaming and saying, "We should have a mistrial here." And wanted to just throw the whole thing out.
BILL MOYERS: Because of this pamphlet that were—
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Right. Right. I mean, the prosecutor was almost spitting when he was reading from this and saying, "This notion of voting your conscience it’s out in space." And he was terrified. He was, he was really scared of what was on that pamphlet. And then rather than get rid of the whole jury pool, the judge called the jurors in one at a time to his chambers. And I was—
BILL MOYERS: Each one individually?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Privately?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah. And my legal team and I were on one side of the table. The prosecution was on the other side. The judge was at the head of the table and there was one juror at a time at the other end. And the judge would say, "You understand it's not your job to decide what's right or wrong here. Your job is to listen to what I say the law says, and you have to enforce it, even if you think it's morally wrong. Can you do that? Can you follow my instructions, even if you think they're morally wrong?"
And unless they said yes, they weren't on the jury. And I was sitting in the seat closest to the juror. And I watched one person after another say, “Yes, your Honor, I'll do whatever you tell me to do, even if I think it's morally wrong." And they meant it. And that's when I knew that I was going to be convicted.
BILL MOYERS: Because they were going to decide if the law had been broken, not if it was a good law?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah. Yeah. And the judge would define for them what the boundaries of that law was. And, you know, so basically it was if he committed this action, then he's guilty and you have to convict him.
BILL MOYERS: Had you thought about whether it's the duty of a jury to decide that an act is morally right or wrong, or to decide in fact if in the law has been broken?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Not before I started the legal process. You know, leading up to my trial I was reading up about jury rights and jury nullification and the history of juries. And why the founding fathers thought it was so important to have jury trials.
Because, you know, they saw this system where if the government was passing law that were out of line with the conscience of most of our society, people would refuse to follow that law. Take their case before a jury of their peers, who would decide whether or not that law was you know, in accordance with their shared values and the conscience of our community.
BILL MOYERS: You talked a good bit about that in your in the statement you made at your sentencing hearing. You quoted the Founding Fathers. So I did a little research before I came here and came across John Adams.
Quote, "It is not only the juror's right, but his duty, to find the verdict according to his own best understanding, judgment and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court." But that was over 200 years ago.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: And that's been part of the evolution of our legal system over the past 200 years, as we've evolved from a people who set up a government afraid of the power of government, afraid of the concentration of power and wanting to keep power in the hands of people. And now we have a government that wants to concentrate as much power as they can and is afraid of the people.
You know, that's been the huge shift that we've had over that over the course of those centuries. And we've seen an extreme minimization of the role of the jury and a restriction on the right to a jury. You know, we have hardly any jury trials anymore. Hardly any of the people that I was locked up with in prison had gone through jury trials, because they're pressured into plea bargains. And it's just taken for granted by everyone in our legal system that defense attorneys, judges, prosecutors, that defendants will be punished if they exercise their right to a jury trial.
You know, the first thing a public defender will tell one of their defendants is, "You know, if you try to take this to trial, you'll get 30 years. You'll get 40. You know, you need to make a plea bargain so you just get ten or 15." And that's, you know, considered a good deal. And if you're punished for exercising a right, then it's not a right. So essentially the right to a jury trial no longer exists.
BILL MOYERS: So you're saying that the jury that convicted you and sent you to prison failed to act as "The conscience of the community"?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Well, and there was a tremendous amount of pressure on them to do that. You know, I mean, these are people who have no experience who have, you know, probably never been on jury duty before because it's a rare thing. Even though we're locking up unprecedented numbers of people, we have very few jury trials. So they don't have that kind of experience.
And they come into this huge courthouse, go through two different metal detectors and security screenings, come into this, you know, majestic courtroom, with the judge sitting up above them, speaking to them in this very patriarchal kind of way. And with all this authority behind them and saying, "It's not your job to do what's right or wrong." And people believed that. And, you know, watching that happen, it, I'd say it was the first time I really understood how some of the great atrocities in history could happen, where you'd have an entire population that, you know, plays out the plans of a tyrannical dictator, how things like genocide could happen when people are willing to let go of their own moral agency and say, "Well, it's not my job to decide what's right or wrong."
BILL MOYERS: But in a country as large and diverse as this, how can we know that 12 people, much less one person, represent the conscience of the community.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Well—
BILL MOYERS: A big community, a lot of different opinions, beliefs, moral values, religious convictions.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: And you're certainly not going to get the same kind of answer every time. And that's why, you know, civil disobedience is always a risky thing. It does always involve that risk of taking your case before a jury of 12 random people. And it should. You know, to break an existing law, you should have to feel that strongly about it.
You should have to be that confident that this law's out of line with the values of our community. And be that willing to make that sacrifice. You know, I don't think it should be an easy or convenient thing. There should be that kind of risk involved in civil disobedience. But by the same token, those citizens, those 12 citizens on the jury, should be empowered and fully informed to make whatever kind of ruling they see is appropriate.
BILL MOYERS: Do you see any irony in the sentence you received, up to two years in prison, compared to what happened to BP when that oil spill killed 11 workers, injured 17 and wreaked havoc with the environment along the Gulf Coast. Yet no one from the company went to jail. They paid a big fine, but no one went to jail.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah, I mean, there's certainly irony there, but I also think that the law is the tool of those in power. And you know, it's corporations like BP that are in power right now. I mean Glenn Greenwald wrote a great book called “With Liberty and Justice for Some” about how we have a two-tiered justice system in this country.
We don't really have a rule of law, we have two justice systems. And the division is not necessarily strictly between rich people and poor people. The division is between those that promote the concentration of power in the hands of the elite versus those that threaten to distribute that power or take away some of that power. And I think part of the mistake that a lot of people make is thinking that the law or words like legal are synonymous with moral or just. And that's not the case, I mean most of our great examples of morality throughout history are people who broke the law.
BILL MOYERS: That remind me of a scene from the film. Take a look.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER in BIDDER 70: There’s been a lot of historical influences from civil disobedience that have influenced me, and you know, most of them were preaching non-violence and this idea of non-violence not meaning being soft. Kind of a strong peaceful resistance, and that power that comes through love.
JOHN SCHUCHARDT in BIDDER 70: It doesn’t start so much as with a movement of thinking as a movement of the heart. The young people who saw segregated lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960, those four students ignited a movement that ultimately involved hundreds and thousands of people, because that movement of the heart, touched the hearts of others.
DAVID HARRIS in BIDDER 70: The initial preface of that revolution has to be a simple one.
The civil rights movement kind of introduced the whole notion of the possibility of making social change happen.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER in BIDDER 70: I think that’s part of what my generation lacks, is that we haven’t had these tangible examples of what it looks like when people take power and are committed to changing the system.
JOHN SCHUCHART in BIDDER 70: Dr. King said if I can get five percent, I can change the situation. I only need five percent. It’s never a matter of the majority. It’s always a matter of conscience, and conscience only operates through an individual.
BILL MOYERS: I was impressed with the statement you made in your hearing, your sentencing hearing. You said, "I say this," what you just talked about, the conscience of the community and why you were doing what you were doing. "I say this not because I want your mercy, but because I want you to join me." Is there evidence that people are signing up in sufficient numbers for similar acts of civil disobedience to reach some kind of critical mass?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah. I think the numbers that it takes for civil disobedience, if people are actually committed to it, are not overwhelming majority numbers. I mean, you know, for years there have been all these polls that say, you know, only half of Americans are, you know, believe climate change is happening or, you know, only a third of them actually understand what climate change really is. Those sort of polls happen all the time.
And, you know, they're generally presented in a kind of discouraging way. And I look at that and I say, "Well, that's plenty. You know, that's more than enough." That you know, a third of Americans who might understand this issue. That's 100 million people. That's more than enough to create change in this country if those people are willing to actually act like they believe it. If you know these are the people that understand that our children's future is on the line right now.
If they're willing to act like that, then we can create the change that we need to.
BILL MOYERS: Did you see that cover of The Nation magazine recently? "It's Not Warming, It's Dying," referring to the earth. Do you agree with that, that it's more than global warming? It's actually an existential threat to the planet?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Not really. I mean, I think it's an existential threat to our industrial civilization. It's a threat to the kind of planet that we have evolved on, the kind of planet that we've always lived on. But I think both the planet and human beings are resilient. And I think there will be some kind of survival. The thing that scares me is what we will have to do in order to survive.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Whether we'll turn against each other. You know, I mean, I don't think seven billion people can survive in a climate constricted world. And it's that process of contraction where things can get really ugly. And, you know, I don't think it's even to the direct impacts of it that is the scariest. I think the scariest is, you know, who's making the decisions during that time of chaos. And what kind of drastic measures are we going to be willing to resort to. And again, that's where, you know, a lot of our historic atrocities happen. You know, if we look at places like Darfur, it's not the direct impacts of the water crisis and the water shortage that they that, you know, is why Darfur is such a humanitarian crisis. It's because of what people were willing to do in the face of that crisis and the way that they turned against each other. That's where things got really ugly.
And I think those are those are the challenges that we now face as a climate movement as it's in all likelihood too late for any amount of emissions reductions to stop runaway climate change which means that we are on this path of rapid change. We know we're going down this path of unprecedented change. And so it's really important who is calling the shots during that time. The collapse of industrial civilization with an ignorant, apathetic citizenry that's afraid of their own government and feels like they have to accept what corporations want to do, that's really scary. That really ugly. And that's, I think, the big challenge that we face now.
BILL MOYERS: You were quoted somewhere saying, quote, "The climate justice movement is not looking for Walmart to be a friendlier corporate master. They want to overthrow Walmart." Can you help us understand what this means?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: We don't want Walmart to be a greener, corporate citizen. We want Walmart to be subservient to human interests. We don't think corporations should be masters of men. And you know, that's really, that's the difference between the climate justice movement and the environmental movement, in my opinion.
Or the big green side of the environmental movement. That we're not looking for a cleaner, greener version of the world that we have now. We're looking for a genuinely healthy and just world.
BILL MOYERS: I mean, people are driving hybrids and they are urging businesses to go green. And they're trying to save energy here and there. But yet, there's a recent poll that shows people do not think about the environment in the terms they did the day after Earth Day back in 1971. They're not as concerned about it.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah. And, you know, I think one of the weaknesses of the environmental movement and parts of the climate movement is that it's always encouraged people to think as consumers, to think about what they can do in their consumer purchases to drive in a hybrid of, you know, buy the right light bulbs and that sort of thing.
And I think that's understandable because we have so many reminders of our role as a consumer. You know, we see, like, 3,000 advertisements a day that all remind us you're a consumer. That's who you are. And we don't have nearly as many reminders that we're also citizens of what was once the greatest democracy in the world.
We're also human beings and community members who can connect with one another and inspire one another. And these are also ways that we can be powerful. You know and these are also the ways that we need to engage. And I think I think there's more of that now. I think in the past few years, especially for the younger generation, there's been more of the reminders that we are citizens. That we can shape our society. And there's been this resurgence of people power which I think will have big reverberations.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER in BIDDER 70: The way the environmental movement has been for the past thirty years, it’s like a football game. And there are some players on the field that are fighting it out, but most of the people in the stadium are up in the stands. Most of them just paid their money at the door, and now they’re just yelling and screaming, and it’s not working. Our team is getting slaughtered. The refs have been paid off, and the other side is playing with dirty tricks. And so it’s no longer acceptable for us to stay in the stands. It’s time to rush the field, and it’s time to stop the game
ASHLEY ANDERSON in BIDDER 70: When you’re occupying the Department of the Interior saying, “You’re perpetuating climate change, destroying lives around the world. We’re not going to take that anymore, and we’re going to risk arrest.”
CORI REDSTONE in BIDDER 70: Much of what prepared me to be arrested in D.C. was the background and training I received through Peaceful Uprising, and I was ready. I was ready to get arrested.
JOAN GREGORY in BIDDER 70: In all my fifty-eight years I have never taken that bold a stand. Tim has helped me to find my own strengths.
BILL MOYERS: I have a hunch that most people listening to us now, watching us now agree that our government has been captured by big money, big business, corporate America. But they don't know how, what to do about it. And unlike you, many of them married, have children, have obligations, own homes. Two years in prison would totally disrupt their life and their commitments to others, their obligation to others. What do you say to those people?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Well, not everyone has to do what I did. Not everyone can, not everyone should. I think we need a diverse movement. You know, if we look at social movement history, the ones that have been most successful and most powerful are the ones that have used a variety of tactics and a variety of strategies.
And I think, you know, not everyone has to go to prison. But I think everyone has to feel empowered to take strong actions. And, you know, no one can say, "This is the kind of action that we need right now "because nobody knows. Nobody has the answers. You know, nobody has ever stopped a climate crisis before.
You know, so nobody can say, "This is what's definitely going to work." And, you know, that's what's limited us in the past in the movement, is when we've had one element that said, "You know, listen, we know how change happens in Washington. We know how to do things. You know, this is what's politically feasible and you have to do it our way." You know, up until 2009 with the Waxman-Markey Bill, that really held back the movement.
BILL MOYERS: And that bill did what?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: That was the cap and trade bill that, you know, was a big corporate handout bill written in collusion between the biggest green groups and some of our biggest corporate polluters, like Shell and DuPont.
BILL MOYERS: You say it was a dividing line in the story?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah. Yeah. I think that that bill was really the turning point for the climate movement because up until that point, the groups with so much money and access in Washington, you know, held everybody unchecked basically. Their rhetoric about, "This is what's politically feasible," that held sway with so many other folks in the movement who said, "Okay, well, I guess we'll do it your way even though this bill doesn't really make sense and doesn't seem to do anything worthwhile. We'll do it your way.”
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: But they failed even to pass that bill. It turns out they didn't even know what was politically feasible. And so then, you know, the rest of the movement afterwards said, "Well, we tried it your way and it didn't work. And now rather than start from what's politically feasible, we're going to start from what we know is necessary.
"And rather than working from, you know, what corporations tell us they'll accept, we're going to work for what we actually want, something that's actually in line with our vision for society." And so there's been this huge resurgence of the climate justice side of the movement and the real grassroots side of the climate movement over the past few years. And that's both moved past the mainstream of the big green groups and also swayed some of those big green groups.
BILL MOYERS: Well I think you know that the president of the Sierra Club Michael Brune got himself arrested recently in a protest outside the White House over the Keystone pipeline.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: The change in the Sierra Club has been a tremendous shift over the past few years. You know, when we look at the challenge that we have right now of creating that drastic shift from where we are right now where, you know, we have one party that doesn't believe in climate change and one party that provides empty rhetoric and no action, that's a dramatic shift that we need to get to actual appropriate response to the climate crisis. You know, to get us to that point it's going to take really confrontational actions.
I don't look at the political spectrum as this straight line between left and right. And I think it's more like a really steep pyramid. And I found that a lot of people on the bottom have far more in common with each other regardless of whether they're on the left and the right than they do with anybody at the top of that pyramid.
BILL MOYERS: Let me double back to something you said a moment ago I let slip by because it scares people to hear you and anybody else talk this way. You said we have to overthrow the corporations. What do you mean when you say overthrow corporate power?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: I mean get corporations into an economical rather than a political role. You know, corporations do have a role to play in our economy, but they don't have a role to play in our government that…
BILL MOYERS: They have a stake in policy.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: But they, corporations don't have a conscience. And so they're not appropriate for being part of our political system.
And when I say overthrow I mean ending corporate personhood, I mean kicking them out of our government. And that will take a constitutional amendment to get that to happen. And I think that'll be a dramatic shift. And I think it'll it's a huge battle. They're not going to easily give that up.
BILL MOYERS: So you're not talking about using force to overthrow anybody?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: No.
BILL MOYERS: But you are calling for a radical overhaul of how our society functions?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah, yeah. But I think that's an overhaul to bring us in alignment with our values, you know, which is why I think that this is a challenge that we can actually rise up to. I don't think it's an impossible challenge because it's not primarily about changing people's values.
I think most people regardless of where they are politically, if you get them in an honest moment to really talk about what they value they're not going to talk about that they value their SUV or they value, you know, the extra few thousand square footage on their home.
They're going to talk about human relationships. Almost everyone is going to be talking about their friends and their family and their communities as the things that they truly value. And you know, when we're talking about that radical shift it's about aligning our world with those values, not so much about changing them which is why I think this is possible.
BILL MOYERS: So now that you're a free man, are you a danger to society? There are people who say you are.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: I, you know, I'm a danger to a certain part of society. I'm--
BILL MOYERS: Which part?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: I'm a danger to the, to that part of the power structure that wants to concentrate power in the hands of the few. You know, I don't think I'm a danger to the rest of society.
BILL MOYERS: Don't you think the power structure in every age, in every time, in every place always sees civil disobedience as a threat?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah. I mean, civil disobedience is always a criticism of the existing power structure. And it's always been that way. That's the role of civil disobedience. That's the role of dissent.
BILL MOYERS: What's next for you?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: In the fall I'll be going to Harvard Divinity School to study to become a Unitarian minister.
BILL MOYERS: Not law school with your concern about juries and the founding fathers and civil disobedience.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: No, because I think a lot of what we're facing is really spiritual struggles. I mean, you know, as I was saying I think we have enough people onboard, but not enough people who really have faith in their own power to make a difference. And that to me is an internal struggle, something that's more on a spiritual level. And…
BILL MOYERS: Take me a little further.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: --and the point, well, the--
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean a spiritual?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: You know, the point where I full decided it's something that I've been considering for a while, but the point that I fully decided that I was going to become a minister or go to divinity school was the same point that I mentioned earlier was when I knew that I was going to be convicted. That point when I watched one juror after another say yes, I'll do whatever you tell me to do even if I think it's morally wrong that to me was a huge turning point. Because I saw two things in that situation where the was telling people they had to let go of their own moral authority. I saw how willing people were to let go of their moral authority. But at the same time I saw the vulnerability of the prosecutor.
And you know, he was a US attorney, he was the United States attorney, he represents the United States of America, he's got the whole power of the United States government behind him and he was terrified. He felt vulnerable to the notion of citizens using their conscience in exercising their civic duties.
BILL MOYERS: In fairness to him I read his statement. He said, he said respect for the law is the bedrock of the civilized society.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Yeah, but the bedrock of the rule of law is the conscience of the community and the values of our citizenry. And I think that that's where he missed it, you know. Because at the same time he said the rule of law's the bedrock of our society, not acts of civil disobedience. He failed to understand that acts of civil disobedience are what have shaped the rule of law in this country and how it's been acts of civil disobedience that have made the rule of law line up with the values of our people.
BILL MOYERS: So what are the spiritual needs you think you would like to attempt to address?
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Well, I think part of it is the empowerment that comes through connecting with the community. And I think that's part of why churches and religious institutions have played such an important role in so many social movements throughout our history because there's so much alienation, especially right now in our society and so much that encourages people to view themselves as an isolated individual.
And as an isolated individual people are weak and they look at the problems that we face, and even if they understand these issues they look at it and say, "You know, I'm just one person. What can I do against these corporations or this government? They're so big and so powerful." And that's true. And you know, honestly as an, an isolated individual can't make a difference in any of these issues. But people are not isolated individuals, they're connected to something much bigger than themselves.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER in BIDDER 70:They tried to convince me that I was like a little finger out there on my own that could easily be broken. And all of you out here were the reminder for all of us that I wasn’t just a finger all alone in there, but that I was connected to a hand with many fingers that could unite as one fist, and that that fist could not be broken by the power that they have in there. That fist is not a symbol of violence. That fist is a symbol that we will not be misled into thinking we are alone. We will not be lied to and told we are weak. We will not be divided and we will not back down. That fist is a symbol that we are connected and that we are powerful. It’s a symbol that we hold true to our vision of a healthy and just world, and we are building the self-empowering movement to make it happen.
BILL MOYERS: Tim DeChristopher, I've truly enjoyed this conversation and I wish you well.
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: At our website, BillMoyers.com, there’s a slide show of some of the other wilderness landscapes that have been threatened by the energy industry’s mines and drills. That’s all at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.