When I was in the White House I arranged a meeting between President Carter and progressive activist Tom Hayden (and one-time husband of Jane Fonda). The meeting in the Oval Office started with the usual pleasantries. Hayden then launched into an attack on the power of international corporations and the damage their greed inflicted on ordinary American’s. He urged Carter to make them more accountable. Carter responded by saying that he did not particularly disagree with Hayden’s analysis but added “You do not understand how little power I actually have. I may be President of the United States but what I can do to reign in corporate abuse is really very limited. They are very powerful.” Hayden was quite taken-aback and I too was stunned both that Carter would admit this and also by the truth of his statement.
I often thought back about this discussion over the years but the recent BP oil spill in off the Gulf coast brought it vividly back to mind. President Obama has been fiercely criticized for not doing enough to solve the problem and for failing to hold BP sufficiently accountable. In fact he has extracted a great deal from BP, but he like Carter is relatively powerless when confronted by a global corporate giant. BP generates enough income in a year to make it financially more powerful than many nation states. While nominally based in the UK its operations and its reach are global, making it immune to any real regulatory control. In addition the scale of their income allows them to buy regulators and legislators whenever they stand in the way of their profit making. I am sure they view elected officials who are here today and gone tomorrow with a considerable degree of contempt. In the long run, for them, an oil spill is a minor inconvenience, causing at worst an undesired PR problem. Being forced to face a Congressional hearing or a White House dressing down is just a minor bump in the road as far as their long-term profits and power are concerned.
We talk about the security threat from “non-state” actors by which we are usually referring to Islamic activist groups we do not like. Actually global corporate entities like BP with their almost unlimited economic power pose a far greater threat to the US.