A reader this week questioned my use of "corporate traitors" as a term of art for robber barons like Fred Eshelman and Art Pope who rule America these days. What’s traitorous, he asked, about taking advantage of Citizens United and using corporate money to shape the outcomes of elections? They’re not doing anything illegal, are they? Should we really call them traitors?
Traitor is a term no one should use lightly, but it is not a complicated term. The definition is simple and clear: A traitor is a person who betrays another, a cause, or any trust.
A trust betrayed
The grand experiment that is the United States of America has been a rough ride by any measure. Through it all, however, the resilience of our people, the integrity of our government, and our search for common ground have been bright threads of hope and prosperity. Each of those threads has been frayed to the breaking point by today’s corporate traitors.
CEO pay in 2009 more than doubled the CEO pay average for the decade of the 1990s, more than quadrupled the CEO pay average for the 1980s, and ran approximately eight times the CEO average for all the decades of the mid-20th century. American workers, by contrast, are taking home less in real weekly wages than they took home in the 1970s. Back in those years, precious few top executives made over 30 times what their workers made. In 2009, we calculate in the 17th annual Executive Excess, CEOs of major U.S. corporations averaged 263 times the average compensation of American workers. CEOs are clearly not hurting.
But they are, as we detail in these pages, causing others to needlessly hurt — by cutting jobs to feather their own already comfortable executive nests. In 2009, the CEOs who slashed their payrolls the deepest took home 42 percent more compensation than the year’s chief executive pay average for S&P 500 companies. Most careful analysts of the high-finance meltdown that ushered in the Great Recession have concluded that excessive executive compensation played a prime causal role. Outrageously high rewards gave executives an incentive to behave outrageously, to take the sorts of reckless risks that would eventually endanger our entire economy.
And then there's the matter of corporate incentives.
Eshelman's group, Real Jobs NC, is also slamming Democrats for supporting business incentives, including tax credits for movie companies that produce films in the state. Incentives are bad, giveaways to wealthy corporations that don't need them. The Real Jobs NC website uses a vote on an incentive bill as a litmus test for lawmakers.
Eshelman should know all about that. As a letter writer to the Wilmington Star-News pointed out this week, Eshelman's company PPD received $2.1 million dollars in incentives from the city and county when the company built its corporate headquarters in downtown Wilmington.
Business incentives are bad and lawmakers who support them should be thrown out of office-unless the incentives go to the company owned by the guy who funds the group that says incentives are bad.
This betrayal of America starts and ends with greed. How else to explain the relentless assault on government on one hand and the eagerness to profit from government contracts on the other? How else to explain the persistent patterns of lying, of skirting the intent of laws in favor of what they can get away with?
These men have power and money and they want more. Mr. Pope alone spends upwards of $15 million of his family’s money each year to influence public policy and subvert fair elections, just because he can. His organizations knowingly lie about the people he opposes, and when caught, refuse to make amends, refuse to set the record straight, refuse to behave with even a modicum of integrity and honor. It’s all a game to them.
I encourage you to walk into any one of Mr. Pope’s many retail stores. See what you can find for sale that was produced in America by American workers. Ask his employees what they’re getting paid. The answers will break your heart.
And then look at how Mr. Pope uses the money he makes on the backs of his employees: To fight against decent healthcare for their families. To isolate their children in high-poverty schools. To undermine environmental regulations that protect their drinking water. To rewrite history books so their kids can read about the glory of rich, old white men. To gut transit programs that make it possible for them to show up on time at their low-paying jobs.
Civitas and Americans for Prosperity
Two entities owned and operated by these traitors are especially offensive in their operating models: Civitas and Americans for Prosperity. Both routinely cross the boundaries imposed on nonprofit organizations by serving as partisan attack machines, exploiting their tax-advantaged status and betraying the public trust established by their corporate charters. It’s not right, they know it, but they don’t care. They get away with it because they can.
I’ve been told by people who know these men that they are nice guys with good hearts. That may be true in their personal lives, but in their public lives, they have betrayed a sacred trust. I don't say that because they disagree with me or anyone else, but because they use the power of their businesses to undermine the fundamental principles that define our democracy. The US Supreme Court says that Art Pope and Fred Eshelman can throw their corporate weight around without restraint, and they have gleefully stepped into the breach.
But just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done. There is more at work here than what the Supreme Court had to say. There is also common decency and basic principles of right and wrong. Buying elections is wrong, no matter who does it.