CORPORATE POWER AND A BIT OF ACCOUNTABILITY

Large corporations wield enormous power in our economy with little accountability. There’s a little good news on the accountability front and more evidence, both in general and in specific examples, of their power in creating “inflation.”

(Note: If you find my posts too much to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making.)

First, the good news. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is proposing a registry of finance companies whose violations of consumer protection laws are the subjects of criminal or other legal action. The registry would allow consumers, both individuals and small businesses, to check on the performance of finance companies before engaging in business with them, such as obtaining mortgages or other loans. It would help the CFPB track and oversee corporations that repeatedly break consumer protection laws. The registry would also help CFPB more effectively share information with other regulators and law enforcement agencies. [1]

Then, there’s the bad news. It’s become crystal clear that consumers are suffering from substantial increases in the cost of living because big corporations are increasing prices to increase their profits. Although costs for corporations have increased, they have increased their prices to more than cover their costs. As a result, their profits have soared to their highest levels in 70 years. In 2020 and 2021, increased profits were responsible for over 53% of the increase in prices. [2] Workers’ wages have increased somewhat, but not enough to keep up with the increases in the costs of food, baby formula, cars, gasoline, housing, drugs (including insulin), and other essential needs. [3]

Big corporations have the power to increase prices more than their costs have increased because 40 years of deregulation, consolidation, and lax antitrust enforcement have resulted in mega-corporations with monopolistic economic power. This hyper-capitalism creates great economic inequality and threatens our democracy. (See previous posts here and here about the threat to democracy; here, here, and here about how this has shifted our economy and political system toward oligarchy; and here about the effects of deregulation and consolidation.)

Here’s the really bad news. As corporations’ costs are starting to decline and supply chain delays are easing, they have no intentions of reducing prices – they just plan to increase their profits even more. The Groundwork Collaborative has documented hundreds of examples of corporate CEOs telling investors that they have used Covid-related reasons to jack up prices and profits and, furthermore, that they have no intentions of reducing prices as costs come down. This means they will further increase profits beyond their already record levels! Corporate executives from corporations ranging from the Kroger supermarket super chain, to toy-maker Mattel, to food-makers Hostess, Hormel, J.M. Smucker, and Kraft Heinz, to Proctor and Gamble, to Autozone, to paint and chemical giant company PPG have all boasted to investors about their increased profitability and their plans to increase profits even more – while consumers and workers struggle to survive high “inflation” due to corporations’ price gouging.

Because corporate power and profits are the main drivers of “inflation” (exacerbated and facilitated by pandemic-related supply chain problems and the war in Ukraine), Federal Reserve interest rate increases aren’t likely to be very effective in reducing inflation. They will, however, hurt workers by increasing unemployment, hurt home buyers by increasing mortgage rates, and hurt small businesses and home builders by increasing the interest costs for their loans.

Three strategies that would be more effective in addressing the current brand of “inflation” than increasing interest rates are:

  • A windfall profits tax,
  • Closing loopholes in antitrust laws to prevent corporations from colluding to increase prices (i.e., engaging in price fixing), and
  • Better enforcement of antitrust laws to reduce the monopolistic power of mega-corporations over for the longer-term.

There are bills in Congress that would institute a windfall profits tax. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has introduced legislation that would put such a tax on a broad range of companies, while other bills have focused on the oil and gas industry. [4] Eighty percent (80%) of U.S. voters support a windfall profits tax. (See this previous post for more details.) [5]

A bill to prohibit price gouging during market disruptions such as the current pandemic, the Price Gouging Prevention Act of 2022, has been introduced by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), along with Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL). It would empower the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and state attorneys general to enforce a ban on excessive price increases. It would require public companies to report and explain price increases in their quarterly filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. (See this previous post for more details.) [6]

The Competitive Prices Act, which would close antitrust loopholes that have allowed blatant price fixing and collusion to go unpunished, has been introduced by Representative Katie Porter (D-CA). For example, the three dominant makers of insulin have for years increased their prices in lock step. [7] Porter’s bill would make this illegal. [8]

I urge you to contact President Biden and your U.S. Representative and Senators to ask them to support the CFPB’s proposed corporate criminal registry and to take steps, including a windfall profits tax, to reduce corporate price gouging and price fixing. You can email President Biden at http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments or you can call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111 or the switchboard at 202-456-1414. You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Conley, J., 12/13/22, “CFPB applauded for proposing ‘public rap sheet’ for corporate criminals,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/12/13/cfpb-applauded-proposing-public-rap-sheet-corporate-criminals)

[2]      Bivens, J., 4/21/22, “Corporate profits have contributed disproportionately to inflation. How should policy makers respond?” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/blog/corporate-profits-have-contributed-disproportionately-to-inflation-how-should-policymakers-respond/)

[3]      Becker, C., 12/19/22, “Understanding corporate power and inflation,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2022/12/16/understanding-corporate-power-and-inflation)

[4]      Corbett, J., 7/29/22, “Price gouging at the pump results in 235% profit jump for big oil: Analysis,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/07/29/price-gouging-pump-results-235-profit-jump-big-oil-analysis)

[5]      Johnson, J., 6/15/22, “With US consumers ‘getting fleeced,’ Democrats demand windfall profits tax on big oil,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/06/15/us-consumers-getting-fleeced-democrats-demand-windfall-profits-tax-big-oil)j

[6]      Johnson, J., 5/12/22, “New Warren bill would empower feds to crack down on corporate price gouging,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/05/12/new-warren-bill-would-empower-feds-crack-down-corporate-price-gouging)

[7]      Pflanzer, L. R., 9/16/16, “A 93-year-old drug that can cost more than a mortgage payment tells us everything that’s wrong with America’s healthcare,” Business Insider https://www.businessinsider.com/insulin-prices-increase-2016-9

[8]      Owens, L, 10/30/22, “Who’s really to blame for inflation,” The Boston Globe

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