Dear Reader: We are not alone

In these hard times, when the immediate demands and stresses of our society seem to be closing in on us, it's useful, occasionally, to stop and peer over the horizon at what's happening out there in the big wide world. At the very least it offers some perspective to our problems;  for one thing, you invariably find they're not unique. Even more consoling: you'll find there are thousands of good people out there fighting the same battles that we thought were uniquely, oppressively our own.

Which is why, every now and again, I go online to catch up on what gives at Public Citizen, the Washington-based consumer-rights advocacy group established by Ralph Nader in 1971. Yes, that old anti-capitalist, sex-crazed nutcase (General Motors paid good money to create that public profile of him -- to no avail -- but it remains memorable) that we must thank for almost single-handedly ensured that today we all drive motorcars that are 100% safer than they might have been. And a good deal more. I don't know if the current president of Public Citizen, Robert Weissman, is sex-crazed and/or a nutcase – echoes of Julian Assange? – but he is a star Harvard Law School graduate, member of the Ohio bar, public interest attorney at the Centre for Study of Responsive Law and also the editor of Multinational Monitor, a magazine that tracks corporate actions worldwide.

He has written extensively on corporate accountability, access to medicines, corporate influence over the political process, the World Trade Organization and regulation of the financial markets. He has campaigned for lower pharmacy prices for AIDS victims, health care reform, financial regulation and campaign finance reform. And keeping jobs for the workers of his country.

All the things that are also top of the agenda in South Africa today.  So this month I thought I'd share the experience with you by quoting extracts from some of Weissman's recent campaign emails:

3 July 2012

If you’re looking forward to grilling up some hamburgers and hot dogs, think about this: where does the food you’re eating come from?

That simple question is going to be a lot harder to answer after a ruling from the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which recently decreed that such basic consumer information as country-of-origin labels on meat are “unfair trade barriers” to multinational corporate profits.

If you don’t eat meat, know that the WTO ruling could be extended to country-of-origin labels for potato salad and corn on the cob, too.

If you’ll excuse a mixed metaphor, mystery meat (and lettuce) is not my cup of tea.

But it’s standard operating practice for the WTO. It recently proclaimed that US “dolphin-safe” tuna labels and a US ban on clove-, candy- and cola-flavoured cigarettes both violate WTO trade rules.

Unlike other international institutions, the WTO packs a punch. The US will have to abandon some hard-won labelling rules or pay to maintain them in the form of fines or sanctions.

Two decades ago, Public Citizen warned that the day would come when giant corporations would use the agreements to block important consumer, environmental and worker protections. Now it’s reality.

If you think the US government is working to cure this problem, you’re wrong. Today the US is negotiating a new “free trade” agreement with countries in Asia and the Americas – the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership – with terms that are considerably worse than those in the WTO. – Robert Weissman

8 May 2012

Today, in Dallas, Texas, a throng of corporate lobbyists are gathered behind closed doors to begin what they’ve branded “trade” negotiations.

In reality, the Trans Pacific Partnership they’re negotiating is a stunning backdoor corporate attack. The public, the US Congress and the press have been locked out. Yet over 600 official corporate “advisors” have access to draft texts of TPP – a deal that would create a system of corporate rule designed to crush our most basic rights. It’s a deal that won’t survive public scrutiny.

Leaked texts show how TPP would roll back Wall Street re-regulation and increase medicine prices. It would ban “Buy American” and green procurement preferences and undermine food safety protections. Worst of all, it would empower corporations to attack our health and environmental laws before foreign tribunals –with corporate lawyers as arbiters – and demand taxpayer compensation for alleged lost future profits.

Get the facts on the TPP. Then sign our petition to demand that the draft TPP texts be made public. – Robert Weissman

30 May 2012

Recently, Public Citizen ran a campaign on the internet, pointing out that the bill before the US congress, titled “Keeping Politics Out of Federal Contracting Act” (KPOFCA) – won’t do anything of the sort.

Backed by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), whose top campaign contributor is General Dynamics (a military contractor that makes fighter jets) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) whose top contributor is Northrop Grumman (another military contractor), KPOFCA would prevent the government from requiring companies that bid for government contracts to disclose money they’re spending to influence elections.

Proponents of the bill say that keeping political spending by government contractors secret, somehow protects the integrity of the contracting process. If this information is not public – so their logic goes – then politicians won’t know if a corporation receiving government funds for contracts helped get them elected.

Of course, in the real world, if a government contractor’s CEO pours millions into the election fund of a candidate the CEO thinks will reward his company with government contracts, then the CEO will make sure the candidate knows about it.

All KPOFCA does is keep the public, not politicians, in the dark. – Robert Weissman

Before reading the next email from Public Citizen, a bit about the villain of the piece, Karl Rove. He started out in the direct mailing business, became, first, political consultant and strategist for the Republican Party and associated right-wing causes, then senior advisor and deputy chief of staff to President George W Bush. He subsequently established American Crossroads, an “alternative” fundraiser for those Republican candidates and causes he favours. He has been described as “one of the shrewdest navigators of the political climate after the Supreme Court’s ‘Citizens United’ decision which exempted political broadcasts funded by corporations and unions from campaign finance limits.

The mere mention of his name lends fuel to the fire of Public Citizen’s campaign for laws requiring public disclosure of corporate funding of election campaigns.

14 July 2012

Karl Rove: I know – you don’t want to hear his name any more than I want to say it – but stick with me.

Karl Rove’s front groups will spend $300 million meddling in elections this year. And it’s only the tip of a political spending iceberg. All told, we could see $8 billion or more spent on elections come September. Far, far too much of that will be dark money from anonymous corporations and super-wealthy individuals concerned solely with their own, not the public’s, interest.

This is where you come in. We can fight back. – Robert Weissman

(Public Citizen was looking to raise $500,000 from supporters to fund its shoe-string counter-campaign.)

♦ Of course, we South Africans recognise the issues at once – thanks to the good citizens who have established organisations in South Africa such as Right2Know, Freedom Under Law, TAC, Section 27 and New ERA – and the seminars and debates on political party funding and disclosure run by the Open Society Foundation.

Not to forget, a vigorous free press.

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