Carole Owens: A long history led to Kinder Morgan battle


STOCKBRIDGE — About Kinder Morgan. Some say the solution is inherent in the problem, meaning that if you ask the right question, the answer becomes obvious.

In the early years of the 21st century, we may have asked the wrong question. It was not are some banks too big to fail, but rather, are some corporations too big to be governed?

For 150 years, there has been a civil war in America: the government versus the corporations. The public hears the rhetoric daily and witnesses a skirmish occasionally. Most recently, it was Apple v. the FBI. Locally it is the commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Kinder Morgan.

Apple and the FBI stood toe to toe. The FBI blinked. The attorney general of Massachusetts warned Kinder Morgan to honor the Constitution.

Could either battle be reframed as: the welfare of US citizens v. the welfare of the corporation; the lives of citizens v. the assets of a business; law enforcement v. privacy, clean air v. market share, or all of the above? Perhaps, but this is more interesting.

Apple fashioned itself as a representative of its clients. Like the US government, Apple said it was protecting its people not its corporate interests.

Was there a difference between the two populations; was there a difference between the interests of American citizens and Apple clients? The answer to both is yes, and therein hangs the tale.

Apple's clients are international. Apple's interests go beyond our borders; Apple, like other huge corporations, is a multi-national. Further corporations run, not walk, to the nearest exit to place their corporate headquarters and factories outside the US in countries that are most advantageous to them financially. Corporations want to be where labor is cheap, and where health and safety regulations are not onerous. Even as corporate earnings increased and corporate taxes decreased, they moved to avoid all US taxes.

Throughout the 19th century, United States history was punctuated with battles between corporations and government. However, there was a marked difference. Nineteenth century corporations were American corporations, situated in the US, employing US citizens, and primarily serving US consumers.

The battles of the 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in laws that limited corporate growth by limiting monopolies; limited profit centers by preventing, for example, banks becoming investment houses or insurance companies; limited corporate size and profit margin by instituting regulations, taxation, and laws that protected workers and consumers.

Yet that does not seem to be where we are today. That is because this is the 21st century; the 20th century intervened. Like March, the 20th century came in like a lion and went out like a lamb.

In the first half of the 20th century, laws were enacted to control corporations and protect workers,consumers, and citizens. In the second half, laws were struck down or not enforced. Economists and political commentators call the result a "corporatocracy".

Like an oligarchy, another form of government that serves the few, a corporatocracy is an economic and political system that serves corporations and corporate interests. The theory is that the United States became a corporatocracy because special interests, corporate money was the single largest financier of elections, and globalization tilted power toward multinational corporations and away from US voters.

Corporate interests and national interests no longer coincide. Some believe the concentration of wealth and political influence makes corporations a threat to democracy; others disagree, but all are certain the war goes on.

Corporations fight in the courts, in the legislatures, and in the political arena. They want absolute control of their resources and of the hearts and minds of the American public. Their arguments haven't changed much in 150 years.

You hear it every day. As in all wars, first corporations vilify the enemy: government is bad — over-reaching, inefficient, bleeding hearts and wasteful. Then you enhance your image: unfettered corporate expansion is good; a rising tide lifts all ships, and corporate growth is the beating heart of the American way. All the arguments are tailored to insure corporations keep control of its assets and make decisions for the health of the bottom line without reference to a greater good or communal responsibility.

So Kinder Morgan: The corporate preferred outcome is the most profit for the least investment and the ability to pass the costs of doing business on to the government or the consumer.

What are the right questions: how do you make Kinder Morgan obey the law; if Kinder Morgan does not honor our laws, what is the consequence? What does it mean if Kinder Morgan, like Apple, stands pat and the commonwealth of Massachusetts blinks?

A Berkshire writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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