Corporations

Good News About Smart Giving

IT’S EASY to lose heart when tackling the painful challenges we live with—poverty, racism, violence, sex trafficking. We volunteer and donate our time and money, but do those efforts really make a difference?

Nicholas D. Kristof, a New York Times columnist, and Sheryl WuDunn, a former Times reporter who works in finance, had the same question; A Path Appears is the result of their investigation. The husband-and-wife team canvassed the giving world, interviewing socially minded people working as individuals or in community with nonprofits, corporations, for-profit organizations, and everything in between. Turns out millions of lives are being transformed next door and across the globe—including our own.

Bernard Glassman, for example, is an aeronautical engineer who wanted to do something about homelessness. After researching the issue for six months, he decided jobs were the most urgent need and started Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, N.Y., a for-profit company whose mission is to employ homeless men and women.

Danone, a large food company that includes brands such as Dannon and Stonyfield, worked with Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus to develop a yogurt that would reduce malnutrition among Bangladeshi children. The endeavor also provided jobs for women who sold the yogurt. The project experienced multiple setbacks but also successes—because all the players sought creative solutions to malnutrition and were willing to test them.

This latter point reflects a growing trend Kristof and WuDunn see among charities and nonprofits—relying on evidence rather than intuition for what works and what doesn’t. “Every aid group in the history of the world has claimed that its interventions are cost effective,” they write, but those evaluations are often “as rigorous as those of grandparents evaluating their grandchildren.”

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Have Corporations Become Modern-day Golems?

In Jewish folklore, a golem is an anthropomorphic entity created from inanimate matter. Creative Commons image Matthias Ripp.

Corporations are not people — no matter what five Supreme Court justices and a failed presidential candidate may say.

I take that position on the basis of my religious faith, the very test that the justices applied in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

My tradition tells me to ask essential questions.

So here is where I start: May a golem be counted in a minyan? A minyan is a quorum required for certain Jewish prayers, and a golem is a mythological creature created from clay and animated by a sacred incantation.

The golem’s “sculptor” controls its actions; it has no real will of its own.

The Biblical Case for Limiting Money in Politics

Sean Locke Photography & Svetlana Lukienko/Shutterstock.com
Sean Locke Photography & Svetlana Lukienko/Shutterstock.com

While there are no biblical texts speaking directly to the issue of money in politics, biblical principles are still relevant, and people of faith have an important role to play in the emerging debate about the future of our democracy. Before exploring those principles, however, it is important to understand the serious issues of inequality currently present in our system, and the correlation between inequality and the money flooding our political system.

The richest 1 percent own more of the nation’s wealth than the bottom 90 percent. The richest one-tenth of one percent have as much pre-tax income as the bottom 120 million Americans.

In Affluence and Influence, political scientist Martin Gilens concludes that, “The preferences of the vast majority of Americans appear to have essentially no impact on which politics the government does or does not adapt.” He details the data throughout his book that clearly demonstrates policy makers are only listening to the wealthy donor class. This situation has been made even worse by the Supreme Court’sCitizens United in 2010, which allowed a huge influx of money to flood our political system after declaring the personhood of corporations. 

The Court’s more recent decision in McCutcheon v FEC made matters even worse. Before McCutcheon, one person was able to contribute up to $123,000 to political candidates and parties. In striking down this aggregate limit, the Court paved the way for individuals to contribute more than $3.5 million directly to candidates and party committees. In a report detailing the potential impact of McCutcheon, Demos predicts the decision could result in more than $1 billion in additional campaign contributions by 2020.

VIDEO: An Interview with Queen Quet of the Gullah/Geechee

“A lot of people don’t know that we exist,” says Queen Quet, referring to her people, the Gullah/Geehee Nation, an indigenous group that spans the coastline from North Carolina to Jacksonville, Fla.

In 2006, Congress passed the Gullah/Geechee Heritage Act to help preserve the living culture of this “nation within a nation.” The Gullah/Geechee, however, continue to fight for their heritage as they battle against environmental racism and climate change. Read more in “‘We Are Not an Island’” (Sojourners, August 2014).

Watch this video as Onleilove Alston, a Sojourners board member, sits down with Queen Quet to discuss the environmental rights of the Gullah/Geechee people.

Gullah Geechee Nation Environmental Rights: Video creator, Nailah Robinson (A Black Tribe); editor, Kendria Smith.

 

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'We Are Not an Island'

MARQUETTA L. GOODWINE, a computer scientist, mathematician, and community organizer, grew up on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. On July 2, 2000, Goodwine was “enstooled,” in a traditional African ceremony, as “Queen Quet,” political and spiritual leader of the Gullah/Geechee Nation that extends from coastal North Carolina to Jacksonville, Fla.

“A lot of people don’t know that we exist,” she told Sojourners. “People are unaware that there is a subgroup of the African-American community that’s an ethnic group unto itself, with nationhood status for itself.”

Queen Quet, and the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition she founded, are actively engaged in battling environmental racism and climate change. As a cultural leader of an Indigenous community, she works to preserve her people’s heritage in the land and stop corporate encroachment. As a spiritual leader of a people who practice a unique form of faith that adheres to Christian doctrine while being distinctly African, she nurtures her people’s tradition of communal prayer, song, and dance, as well as their connection to Praise Houses, the small places of worship built on plantations during slavery.

Sojourners contributing writer Onleilove Alston, lead organizer in Brooklyn for Faith in New York, a member of the PICO National Network, sat down with Queen Quet on St. Helena Island in Beaufort County, South Carolina, to learn more about the Gullah/Geechee people, their spirit, and their struggle for justice. —The Editors

THE GULLAH/GEECHEE PEOPLE are the descendants of African people that were enslaved on the Sea Islands. We are descendants of Igbo, Yoruba, Mende, Mandinka, Malinke, Gola, Ife, and other ethnic groups from the Windward Coast of Africa, as well as Angola and Madagascar.

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Net Neutrality: The Final Battle?

FOR SEVERAL years now, a debate has raged over the issue of “net neutrality,” pitting media reformers, digital libertarians, and “content” companies such as Amazon and Netflix against old-school telecommunication giants such as AT&T and Comcast, with the Federal Communications Commission serving as an erratic referee.

Sometime early this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia may settle the question when it decides the case of Verizon vs. the FCC. If the court decides in favor of Verizon, big telecom companies will have won the right to decide what digital content we can receive, especially when it comes to video and other bandwidth-intense media.

Simply put, the issue in the Verizon case is whether broadband internet will follow the “common carrier” precedent applied to telephone lines and the electricity grid or the model of cable TV. The common carrier principle guarantees equal access to necessary public utilities. Applied to the internet, this has meant that service providers simply supply the fiber-optic cable or wireless spectrum, give equal access to all content providers, and charge the final recipient of the data (you and me) a fee that covers the cost of maintaining an adequate network.

In the cable TV business model, the provider controls the network of fiber optic cable and the content that goes over it. The cable company decides which channels are included in the basic package, which (like HBO) are purchased separately, and which will be unavailable at any price. If you want Al Jazeera instead of Fox News, too bad—it’s a take it or leave it package.

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Elsewhere Around the World...

IN FRANCE, about 70 percent of water services are privatized. French corporations continue to vie for control of the global water supply. But in 2010, Paris, in a case of “remunicipalization,” exited contracts with Paris-based Veolia and Suez Environnement, the world’s two largest water service companies.

Veolia is also the largest waste-water corporation in the world. Subsidiary Veolia Water North America is the largest private operator of U.S. municipal water and waste-water systems and controls the water service of about 14 million people.

The city of Jakarta, Indonesia, was recently confronted with a clean-water crisis as supplies run dry and a leaky system loses about 40 percent of its water. The city, with 10.9 million people, decided to buy back control of its water system in June from Suez Environnement.

In the Philippines, there is mounting public opposition to the private companies that control Manila’s water systems. In July, the Water for All Refund Movement, a civil society group, asked the nation’s supreme court to nullify water privatization deals and to declare them “unconstitutional and immoral.” Since privatization in 1997, water rates have increased by amounts from 547 percent to 850 percent, while the private companies have seen ever-escalating profits.

Average water rates in Jakarta and Manila are among the highest of major cities in Asia.

In a world where 18 percent of the population lives on less than $1 a day, high water prices pose a real threat to human health, and privatization has escalated that threat around the globe.

                                                                                                                                                                                 - MB and WH

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The Great American Water Crisis

Corporate raider T. Boone Pickens made billions as a Texas oil baron, but he’s betting that the real money will come from mining “blue gold”—water. Pickens owns more water than anyone in the U.S.—he’s already bought up the rights to drain 65 billion gallons a year from the Ogallala Aquifer, which holds the groundwater for much of the Great Plains. Almost all the Ogallala water—95 percent—is used for agriculture, but Pickens plans to pipe it down to Dallas, cashing in on the hotter-and-drier weather from climate change. (The result, according to an Agriculture Department spokesperson: “The Ogallala supply is going to run out and the Plains will become uneconomical to farm.”)

Pickens isn’t alone in his new role as a water baron. Multinationals such as Nestlé are buying up water rights, siphoning lakes, and selling our most precious resource to the highest bidder. Slick advertising has seduced many Americans into the mistaken belief that (expensive) bottled water is “purer” or “healthier” than tap water—and led to the annual consumption of 9.67 billion gallons of bottled water, with underserved Latinos and African Americans having the highest rates of bottled water use. And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warns that by 2030 nearly half of the world’s population will inhabit areas with severe water stress.

As our authors explain, cities and towns across the country are in the midst of an epic fight to keep water as a public trust. Communities of faith have joined what they see as a battle for basic justice: Protecting the right of everyone, rich and poor alike, to the crucial stuff of life, water. —The Editors

THE UNITED STATES has one of the best public water supply systems in the world.

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More Bullish Than You Think

HISTORICALLY, MOST ECONOMIC systems revolve around who owns the wealth. As an economist and historian, this is the question I bring to any discussion about our current economic crisis and any future “new economy” we might imagine.

While income distribution is important, wealth distribution is much more unevenly allocated in American society, and it gets very little attention. Let’s quickly look at the numbers.  

The richest 400 people in the U.S. own more wealth than the bottom 60 percent of the population. That’s more wealth (stocks, bonds, and businesses, but also houses and cars) than the bottom 150 million Americans. And the top 1 percent owns almost 50 percent of the society’s productive investment assets (corporate stocks, bonds, and privately held businesses, excluding cars and houses).

When you ask who owns the productive assets of the society, then you’re asking who owns American capitalism. The answer is: The top 1 percent owns just under half of it.

With this kind of wealth distribution, what we have is literally a medieval structure. I don’t mean that figuratively. It is a feudalistic structure of extreme power and wealth. And it is anathema to democracy to have that kind of concentration. This distribution of wealth—and the the fact that the top 1 percent has, over the last 30 years, increased its share of income from about 9 percent to about 20 percent—tells you something about the political/economic power harnessed to achieve that end.

The “new economy movement” that is building momentum around the country asserts that you can’t have a democratic society unless you democratize the ownership of wealth as well.

Here are six examples of where that’s happening right now:

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A 'Bizarre and Peculiar' Ruling

IF THE FIRST decade of the 21st century began with the Supreme Court’s Bush vs. Gore ruling that selected a U.S. president, it ended with another decision that was also conspicuous as a departure from long democratic precedent. And like Bush vs. Gore, it was a case of judicial activism tilting the electoral system toward conservative interests and outcomes.

The Court’s 5 to 4 decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission on Jan. 21, 2010, allowed the use of corporate and union money in unlimited sums to influence election campaigns. Citizens United was, all at once, a truly remarkable piece of judicial activism, a precedent-shattering evisceration of a century-long tradition of limiting corporate power in American politics, a break with the republican tradition’s well-founded fear of political corruption, and a direct interference with the electoral rules in a way that favored those who had put the conservative justices in a position to make the ruling in the first place.

The case arose when Citizens United, a conservative group, brought suit arguing that it should be exempt from the restrictions of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law for a movie it made that was sharply critical of Hillary Clinton, at the time a presidential candidate. The organization argued that, as a First Amendment matter, it should not be required by law to disclose who financed the film.

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