A Culture of Impunity -- for Whom?

Conversations at the Clinton Global Initiative tend towards the congratulatory -- the set piece events around which CGI revolves are the announcement of a major new partnership "commitment" between a philanthropy or business and a development charity, accompanied by progress reports on, typically, the most successful partnerships from previous years. Fireworks are rare.

So former President Clinton was visibly startled at this year's opening plenary. Clinton had asked African mobile phone mogul Mo Ibrahim, sitting next to Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, "What can technology companies do for Africa?" Ibrahim fired back, "Well, pay their taxes for a start." Global anti-poverty activist Bono then piled on, calling out CGI sponsors Exxon and Chevron to use their influence to reverse the campaign by the American Petroleum Institute (which they effectively control) against the foreign investment transparency rules embedded in Dodd-Frank. These rules required U.S. resource extraction companies to disclose the terms of their energy, timber or mining concessions overseas, shining a spotlight on kleptocrats who siphon off huge parts of the payments. Bono argued that until API intervened, the U.S. was playing a major positive role in combating corruption in Africa, Asia and Latin America, but that the API lawsuit had undone enormously beneficial rules. "We know corruption is killing more kids than TB, AIDS, and malaria put together. There is a vaccine and it's called transparency," said Bono.

Ibrahim agreed, saying, "Look, there are countries in Africa where the Finance Minister doesn't know how much money the oil companies are paying to drill. We all know what's that's about and who is getting the money."

Clinton, with a gentle assist from IMF President Christine Lagarde, tried to deflect the spotlight from its focus on the corporate sector, arguing that cooperative action by corporations and governments was needed, but as Bono pointed out, when the US Congress did its bit with Dodd-Frank, big oil simply went to court to undo it.

This wasn't the only opportunity last week to watch how what human rights activists call "the culture of impunity," typically associated with vicious dictators like Liberia's Charles Taylor, is extended globally, often with virtually no debate, to the world's richest corporations. The Republican leadership in the House of Representatives decided that, in addition to holding the good faith and credit of the US government hostage to the repeal of Obamacare, they would also hand out a fistful of get out of jail free cards. The House bill suspends clean water standards for the coal companies and utilities that have dumped coal ash along America's rivers, safety rules for the Canadian sponsors of the Keystone XCEL pipeline, and environmental reviews for oil and gas companies operating on public lands. All of these wealthy players would, in the Republican play-book, be exempted from environmental regulation and enforcement -- a proposal given an ironic twist by the reality that if the federal government does shut down, the national parks will be closed to visitors, but oil and gas extraction will continue -- there just won't be as much oversight to make sure it is done properly.

There is an underlying cultural lunacy to this kind of special favoritism: We cheerfully allow domineering corporations, which are not in fact living human beings, the kind of bailout that outrages us when we reward flesh-and-blood tyrants with the same privilege -- impunity for the damages they cause to others.

Such lunacy, Paul Krugman argued intriguingly on Saturday, is intrinsically associated with fantastic inequality. The outsized financial rewards of our richest plutocrats, he suggests, has made them sociopaths, creating a sense that they are entitled not only to riches but to popular adulation and a status above the law. What they really have come to expect, he maintains, is not free markets, but the aristocratic privileges of the ancient regime. Krugman doesn't connect this attitude of plutocratic narcissism to the corporate structures which generate the inequality -- but if you look at the self-confidence with which companies from Apple to Exxon duck their taxes, pay-off government leaders, and insist on being allowed to destroy public property and common resources without consequence, the two phenomena resonate eerily.

Real live kleptocrats, sometimes, don't get away scot free. This week Charles Taylor's 50-year sentence for human rights abuses was confirmed by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which rejected his defense that he didn't personally direct the atrocities -- the same defense corporate CEOs normally use.

No multinational corporation has ever faced anything like that level of accountability -- even though it was timber and diamond companies that funded Taylor's rule of terror while looting both Liberia and Sierra Leone. It took UN sanctions against the illegal timber trade in Liberia to eventually bring him to justice. Taylor went to jail for life. Timber and mining companies just had to find another country to rape.

So far corporate criminality lacks a serious forum holding its masterminds accountable. Even simple transparency or modest regulations are too much for API and the oil industry. And the idea of paying taxes where he made his money was more that Steve Jobs could accept -- after all, other companies were ducking, so it became his duty to do so. In that simple, but utterly everyday logic, the sociopathy of today's corporate culture comes through.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope spent the last 18 years of his career at the Sierra Club as CEO and chairman. He's now the principal advisor at Inside Straight Strategies, looking for the underlying economics that link sustainability and economic development. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber --of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."

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