Battle in Seattle, against Banks and for Democracy

Ten years ago this week I marched with labor activists and environmentalists (dubbed “Teamsters and Turtles”) and indigenous people from across the world against the corporate policies of the World Trade Organization.

The famed “Battle in Seattle” that shut down the meetings wasn’t at its core about the police vs. demonstrators or even about free vs. fair trade. It was about the power and rights of people and their elected representatives to set labor, consumer, environmental and commercial laws vs. the power of transnational corporations to abolish those laws and prevent new ones from being enacted.

The WTO’s agenda of trade liberalization and deregulation (i.e. fancy words for abolishing democratically-enacted laws passed by nations, states and regions) includes not only cars, toys, clothing and other stuff manufactured in one nation and shipped to another. Very relevant to today, it also includes a Treaty enacted under the WTO called the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), which has gutted banking, financial, and insurance rules across the planet over the past decade.

Virtually unpublicized in the corporate press, WTO’s financial deregulation provisions under GATS locked in domestically, and exported internationally, the model of extreme financial service deregulation that most analysts consider a prime cause of the current global economic crisis.

Worse still, the final statement from the recent G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh called for completion of the next round of WTO negotiations (the Doha Round) that would further financial deregulation at the same time that the G-20 nations called for financial reregulation.

What further deregulation would transnational financial corporations like to see under the next round of WTO negotiations? According to Public Citizen, they include:
– No limits on size of financial firms or operations
– Reduced controls on risky new products and services from foreign financial firms – such as any next generation of credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations that fueled the financial crisis.
– A standstill on reregulating financial sectors
– Difficulty in regulated financial transactions from corporations in tax haven offshore nations
– Eliminating differences in regulations between local, state and federal governments
– Reducing accounting regulations of banks and financial corporations
– Issuance of a list of 70 grounds to challenge any new banking and financial laws passed by governments.

At the very time when governments around the world are responding to more than a decade worth of banking and financial liberalization and deregulation, the World Trade Organization and its corporate globalization agenda wants to cut regulations further, giving banking and financial institutions more power and rights.

Ten years after the “Battle in Seattle” is the battle in Congress – to press our elected representatives to push for an exit from the WTO and all other misnamed “free trade” agreements that serve corporate interests at the expense of people, the planet, and self-governance.

6 Ways Corporations Profit from War

The Obama administration will soon decide on sending tens of thousands of additional troops into Afghanistan
— further expanding a war and occupation with no end in sight.

Why the US engages in war after war, decade after decade is due to no single reason.

A major reason is profit earned by various business corporations that influence government policies – corporations that benefit both abroad and at home from war during every step of the process. The same is true for other nations as well.

There are 6 major ways business corporations profit from war.

1. Control of strategic resources. Gold, silver and slaves (defined as property not persons) used to be the preferred resources of pillagers. Today oil, natural gas, and other physical resources (water in the future) are the aim of business corporations to either control or gain access to. US- and UK-based transnational energy corporations initiated the drive for war in Iraq for oil and in Afghanistan for natural gas. It’s hardly surprising that Exxon-Mobil, Chevron and other energy corporations have enjoyed record profits over the last several years.

2. Building weapons. Plans, tanks, guns, bullets, food, and bases are among the many items supplied to governments by Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics and other military contractors to wage wars and indefinitely occupy foreign countries. Military contractors benefit from “cost-plus” contracts – contracts that guarantee a certain percentage profit. The more expensive the military item, the greater the profit.

3. Waging wars. No longer are government-paid troops the only soldiers waging wars and occupying cities and villages. The Iraq war saw an explosion of business corporations receiving US government contracts to hire soldiers. Paid mercenaries provide an ever-increasing role in fighting “enemies” and protecting people and property.

4. Reconstruction. After corporate-made bombs blow up buildings, governments pay other corporations, such as Bechtel corporation, to rebuild buildings. Sometimes it’s the same corporations (i.e. Halliburton corporation). This cycle is akin to those who criticized some New Deal depression-era programs of paying people to dig holes and then to fill them back in. The military economic prime-pump equivalent, however, is no myth but is much more lethal and expensive.

These are the more obvious ways business corporations profit from wars and occupations. There are 2 other paths to profits that are not as widely acknowledged – but at least as devastating economically and democratically to nation-states.

5. Debt. Waging wars costs more money that what governments have in their treasuries. This requires taking out loans. This takes the form of selling government bonds that are purchased by central banks (the Federal Reserve in the case of the US) and private banks. The government allows banks to literally create money out of thin air to purchase US Treasury notes. Governments are on the hook for not only the principle of the loans but interest. Thus, banks profit from receiving interest payments and whatever principle may be repaid for money they never had to begin with. This is profit of glorious proportions to banking corporations. Wars, thus, create government dependency to banks – which explains why throughout history banks have encouraged Kings and other royalty to war with each other. Governments lose sovereignty when they lose their ability to shape their own budgets. More of our federal budget goes to debt service each and every year. Not all of US debt is war-incurred – the trillions for bank bailouts is another major cause. But the truth remains the more money set aside for war that can’t be paid for yields more debt…and bank profits. This was the reason President Lincoln scorned British and US banks and created interest free US money, called Greenbacks, to pay for the Civil War – saving billions in interest payments that would have been paid to banking corporations.

6. Privatization/corporatization of domestic public assets. Greater public debt eventually leads to an inability to fund domestic needs. Governments are left with two choices – raise taxes or sell off public assets to fill budgetary holes. If debts soar due to further war spending and too-big-to-fail bank bailouts, we can expect to see a massive sell off of public assets to business corporations – with massive corporate profits and loss of public control. The drive to “privatize” social security and Medicare are likely to intensify as our federal debt explodes. Financial corporations eager to invest our retirement savings in the market and insurance corporations more that willing to set up private health savings accounts would be huge winners.

Wars are costly in many ways to most of us here and abroad – but oh so profitable for a very few.

Spokane Considers Community Bill of Rights

While this initiative unfortunately failed, the process of bringing people together across issues to affirm the rights of people to decide their own quality of life over the rights of corporations was very impressive. Other initiatives like this will surely follow.

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Published on Thursday, November 5, 2009 by YES! Magazine
Spokane Considers Community Bill of Rights
Thousands of people voted to protect nine basic rights, ranging from the right of the environment to exist and flourish to the rights of residents to have a locally based economy and to determine the future of their neighborhoods.

by Mari Margil

Of all the candidates, bills, and proposals on ballots around the country yesterday, one of the most exciting is a proposition that didn’t pass.

In Spokane, Washington, despite intense opposition from business interests, a coalition of residents succeeded in bringing an innovative “Community Bill of Rights” to the ballot. Proposition 4 would have amended the city’s Home Rule Charter (akin to a local constitution) to recognize nine basic rights, ranging from the right of the environment to exist and flourish to the rights of residents to have a locally based economy and to determine the future of their neighborhoods.

A coalition of the city’s residents drafted the amendments after finding that they didn’t have the legal authority to make decisions about their own neighborhoods; the amendments were debated and fine-tuned in town hall meetings.

Although the proposition failed to pass, it garnered approximately 25 percent of the vote–despite the fact that opponents of the proposal (developers, the local Chamber of Commerce, and the Spokane Homebuilders) outspent supporters by more than four to one. In particular, they targeted the Sixth Amendment, which would have given residents the ability, for the very first time, to make legally binding, enforceable decisions about what development would be appropriate for their own neighborhood. If a developer sought to build a big-box store, for example, it would need to conform to the neighborhood’s plans.

Nor is development the only issue in which resident would have gained a voice. The drafters and supporters of Proposition 4 sought to build a “healthy, sustainable, and democratic Spokane” by expanding and creating rights for neighborhoods, residents, workers, and the natural environment.
Legal Rights for Communities

Patty Norton, a longtime neighborhood advocate who lives in the Peaceful Valley neighborhood of Spokane, and her neighbors spent years fighting a proposed condominium development that would loom 200 feet high, casting a literal shadow over Peaceful Valley’s historic homes.

Proposition 4 would ensure that “decisions about our neighborhoods are made by the people living there, not big developers,” Patty said.

For years, she and her neighbors have participated in protests, spoke at City Council hearings, attended meetings, and educated their neighbors. But, as with other neighborhoods in Spokane who’ve come together to fight off Wal-Mart stores and other unwanted developments, the residents of Peaceful Valley found that they didn’t seem to have the legal authority to make a decision about something that would have a significant impact on their neighborhood.

Then, in 2007, Patty and several of her neighbors went to a Democracy School in Spokane. Democracy Schools–run by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund–are weekend workshops in which communities examine why the structure of law often gives corporations more power to make decisions than the communities in which they seek to do business. Participants look at why our system of government seems to hamper our efforts to protect the places where we live, rather than to help us protect them.

Because the U.S. Constitution legalized slavery, abolitionists had to change existing law in order to end it. Democracy School students study this and other examples of people’s movements fighting unjust laws, recognizing that sometimes legal changes are the only way to protect their communities and the environment.

Patty and other Spokane graduates of Democracy School began talking with one another about how they might address their concerns about the future of their neighborhoods, the health of the local economy, the heavily polluted Spokane River, and a host of other issues.
A Community Bill of Rights

In the spring of 2008, grassroots organizations, labor unions, neighborhood councils, and other groups across the city began meeting together as part of a coalition they called Envision Spokane. Over the spring and summer, they drafted a series of ideas for addressing the needs of residents, workers, neighborhoods, and the environment. These ideas formed a draft “Community Bill of Rights” for the city.

During the winter, Envision Spokane held a series of 12 Town Halls across the city to engage the community in a conversation about the proposed Bill of Rights.

Taking the community’s feedback, the board of Envision Spokane revised the Bill of Rights and, in March of 2009, began to collect signatures. Despite opposition from the Spokane City Council and a concerted effort by business interests to block the Bill of Rights from reaching the ballot, Envision Spokane collected over 5,000 signatures from voters, successfully qualifying the Community Bill of Rights for the November ballot.

The Community Bill of Rights proposed nine amendments, written to address some very real needs in Spokane, to the city’s Home Rule Charter. By recognizing broad rights instead of proposing specific legislation, the amendments were written to change the fundamental structure of Spokane’s legal system so that it would prioritize the protection of the local environment, economy, neighborhoods and residents.

* First. Residents have the right to a locally-based economy. Recognizes the rights of residents to protect their local economy by denying permits to big-box and chain stores.
* Second. Residents have the right to affordable preventive health care. Creates a fee-for-service program for the thousands of Spokane residents who lack health insurance and currently rely on the emergency room for health care.
* Third. Residents have the right to affordable housing. In response to the loss of thousands of units of affordable housing in Spokane over the past few years, the city would have been obliged, through incentives or other measures, to ensure that an adequate supply of affordable housing is available for those most in need.
* Fourth. Residents have the right to affordable and renewable energy. Requires the city and local utilities to make renewable energy accessible to residents.
* Fifth. The natural environment has the right to exist and flourish. Under current law, nature has no legal standing–to prove environmental damage, a person has to prove that he or she has been harmed. The Fifth Amendment would have protected the Spokane River, one of the most polluted in the nation following years of mining and toxic dumping, would have been protected under the Bill of Rights.
* Sixth. Residents have the right to determine the future of their neighborhoods. Patty Norton and her neighbors–and other residents of Spokane–would have been able to enforce their decisions about what’s best for them. (The condominium complex hasn’t been built yet, but it is approved. The Sixth Amendment would have done what years of protesting haven’t been able to: allow the residents to say, “No.”)
* Seventh. Workers have the right to be paid the prevailing wage and to work as apprentices on certain construction projects. As skilled labor leaves Spokane, the Bill of Rights would have protected workers’ right to competitive wages and created apprenticeship opportunities so that young people could learn a trade and stay in the city.
* Eighth. Workers have the right to employer neutrality when unionizing, and the right to constitutional protections within the workplace. Workers would have been free from interference by employers when seeking to form a labor union, as well as from having to attend “captive audience” meetings.
* Ninth. Residents, workers, neighborhoods, neighborhood councils, and the city of Spokane shall have the right to enforce the Community Bill of Rights. For the first time, residents would have the legal authority to enforce their own decisions.

While Spokane is the largest city to attempt these legal changes, and the first whose adoption would have meant a change to a city constitution, other communities have already succeeded in securing similar rights. Towns in Maine, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Virginia have passed ordinances recognizing the rights of nature, prohibiting corporate mining and water extraction, and stripping corporations of constitutional protections and the right to contribute to political campaigns.

The board of directors of Envision Spokane recognizes that fundamental change doesn’t come easily or quickly, and will be meeting in the next few weeks to discuss how to continue the work that they’ve started. Other communities are now reaching out to learn from Spokane about how they might do something similar.

Mari Margil wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Mari, the first associate director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), teaches Democracy Schools across the country. She also advised Ecuador’s Constituent Assembly in its decision to recognize the “rights of nature” in the nation’s new constitution.