Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Corporations Framing the Debate

Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) used to be known as, "The supermarket to the world," thanks to its ads on political talk shows. But after an FBI investigation in the 1990s, ADM pleaded guilty to fixing international prices on citric acid and lysine, paid a $100 million fine, and saw three of its top executives convicted and sent to prison. You can read the Department of Justice indictment here.

At a 1992 meeting, when lysine was under 80 cents per pound, ADM Corn Processing Division President Terry Wilson proposed "friendly competition" to raise the price to 80 cents, then 95 cents, then $1.05 and then $1.20. As Wilson told the other lysine makers in a secret meeting recorded by Mark Whitacre, "You're my friend. I want to be closer to you than I am to any customer 'cause you can make us money." ADM president James Randall told the group, "We have a saying here in this company that penetrates the whole company. It's a saying that our competitors are our friends. Our customers are the enemy" (from the article, Price Fixer to the World)

The recently released Warner Brothers movie, The Informant dramatizes the incident, focusing on Mark Whitacre, the insider who blew the whistle on ADM. He is, to say the least, an interesting character.

ADM is today the world's largest corn processor and has the largest market share in two corn-based products: high-fructose corn syrup, a sweetener, and ethanol. ADM is a big booster of bio fuels. It remains one of the world's largest and most influential corporations.

I do not believe that ADM's misconduct over the years was the exception. In my view, corporate misconduct is pervasive and far more insidious than price fixing. What's interesting to me is that the public seems to accept this state of affairs far more readily than they accept government "interference" in attempting to correct it. This is a testament to the political clout and public relations savvy of corporations, not just in America, but around the globe.

Perhaps the very worst example of corruption and despoliation occurs in the oil industry and interestingly, the WSJ recently featured the review of a book by Peter Maass on the subject.

Industry and their corporations manipulate politicians and public perceptions regarding touchstone issues effecting the quality of our lives on everything from the air we breathe, the water we drink (like Coke's "Eco-Friendly" DaSani bottled water, which turns out to be tap water) and the [salmonella-tainted] food we eat, to the health care we receive to overcome the effects of what we breathe, eat and drink. In the absence of government regulation, corporate power and influence grow unchecked, becoming the real threat to democracy. Corporations frame the debate on health care, on energy policy and global warming, and on war and peace. Given public ignorance and/or apathy, they will determine the world in which we live.


badmomgoodmom said...

You've hit the nail right on the head.

I am appalled at the way we let industry PR hacks frame the debate, and even control the vocabulary. Heck, we even let industry lobbyists write the legislation.

As a mommy blogger, I get regular feelers and press released from corporate PR personnel. The email traffic sent to my mommy blog email address sure is different than the email sent to my work address as a government scientist. ;-)

They really do treat women like we are stupid and we can't tell a carbon dioxide from methane.

Let's keep up the good fight, and try to get the truth out there.

Richard Badalamente said...

Corporate influence is ubiquitous in our society, from product placement in movies, to lobbying in Washington. It infects every facet of communications and it is done very cleverly. I'm surprised to hear you say that lobbyists treat women as if they are stupid. My own sense is that women generally are more attuned to manipulation than men.