What We Can Learn from the Fight for COOL
By Gilles Stockton
The knock-down drag-out fight over implementation of Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) should cause us to reassess our assumptions about how politics operates in this country. Old allegiances, based on old political fracture lines, are rapidly becoming irrelevant. We can no longer assume that what we knew as right vs. left, conservative vs. liberal, Republican vs. Democrat has meaning in the politics at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
COOL should be a no-brainer. Ninety percent of livestock producers support labeling. Consumers, more and more concerned with the quality of food, think it is a good idea to have labels on packages of meat telling them the country of origin. Labeling doesn’t cost much (no matter what some say) and doesn’t interfere with how one does business. It simply gives people information, which they can choose to ignore.
Despite popular support, the Bush Administration, many in Congress, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) all remain adamantly opposed. This tells us a lot about the political forces now dominating America. The Bush Administration, on behalf of giant agribusiness, is taking Europe to the World Trade Organization (WTO) Tribunal because Europe, which requires country of origin labels for meat, will also require labels on any food containing genetically modified ingredients. President Bush and the corporations he is representing maintain that food labeling is a barrier to trade and logic dictates that we cannot allow labeling in our country while forcing European countries to abandon them.
Obviously the issue goes deeper and money is a factor. The beef packers and retailers are using imports to control the domestic market for livestock, which results in lower prices for livestock producers and more profits for processors and retailers. However, if consumers prefer beef born and raised in the USA, then beef prices could be increased, which would benefit the sellers of beef more than the producers of beef. So money cannot be the whole answer for the vehement opposition to COOL.
The meat packing cartel and the rapidly developing oligopoly in food retailing, are looking forward towards a seamless vertically integrated system of livestock production, processing, and retailing. Not satisfied with controlling just the meat market in the United States, the evidence is that these corporations are anticipating a world wide integrated system of control over food. This cartel cannot afford to let a rebellion over meat labeling get out of hand. Who knows what livestock producers and farmers might demand next – maybe the right to own their own land, make decisions without first consulting a corporate overseer, and sell what they produce in an open, competitive, public marketplace! Maintaining control and power over the cattle industry is an important reason for the strong opposition to COOL
This might read like conspiracy theory, but the facts are clear. There is a web of interlocking oligopolies bent on controlling the marketing of food. The corporations controlling meats and feed grains include Tyson, Cargill, Smithfield, ADM, and ConAgra and the dominant food retailers are Wal-Mart, Krogers, Safeway, and Albertsons. Some will argue that the formation of this cartel is the result of natural economic forces evolving towards the most efficient business model. However, the much more likely explanation is that this concentration of economic and market power has happened because the giant corporations have purchased the political system.
Many economists feel that an oligopoly cannot form under conditions of true market competition. Since today, many of our most important industries are dominated by very few corporations, it is clear that competition has been compromised. As we see in the case of the livestock industry, three corporations control 80% of the slaughter cattle. Furthermore since these oligopolies continue to amass power, we see that regulatory and antitrust enforcement is wanting. This is particularly true in the livestock industry. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) refuses to enforce the law against the beef packers even though two separate economic studies commissioned by USDA proved that beef packers use their market power to control the prices they pay livestock producers.
Clearly the feeling in corporate boardrooms and the top levels of government is that the domination by a small number of corporations of any particular industry is to be encouraged. And we should understand that not everyone in a conspiracy has to be on the inside making decisions or pulling strings. Most participants just see themselves as doing their jobs and following their own self-interest. But will unchecked self-interest benefit society in general, or will it result in a system of economic servitude and diminished democratic participation?
This then is the new political division: those who favor a hierarchical system controlled by dominant corporations and those who favor retaining a liberal economic system (this is “liberal” in the original sense of the word) within a society run through broad democratic participation.
There are still two political parties but they should more properly be named the Corporate Power Party and the Democratic Republic Party. Few politicians would want to be branded as being a member of the Corporate Power Party. However, that is where the money is concentrated and, therefore, that is where the majority of politicians are gathered.
Money is driving the agenda of the Corporate Power Party and its hired hands in government. What honest American, after reflecting about a future under corporate domination, would actually vote to abandon the economic system and democratic institutions that has served us so well in the past? Yet, this is exactly what we are doing.
Anti-trust and other laws protecting market competition are ignored. International trade treaties have resulted in the net loss of over 3,000,000 American jobs – and counting. Monthly we post a trade deficit of forty billion dollars while industry after industry disappears from this country. Even the high-tech and service industries that were touted as the American future, are flowing overseas. Our food supply is becoming dependent on imports. While we import almost everything, our ability to inspect these imports or secure our national boundaries has been gutted. This is the direct result of a government that represents big corporations instead of the people of the United States.
The issues listed above are failures in policy and regulation, but the actions that tip the balance from democracy to corporate dictatorship arise out of obscure clauses buried in the international trade treaties. These clauses, such as Chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), appear to be benign provision protecting corporations investing in other countries. The reality is these provisions grant corporations the right to overturn democratically conceived public policy, on any level of jurisdiction – local, state, or national – whenever they feel that public policy interferes with the companies right to make money.
The multinational corporations challenge laws and regulations through an international tribunal system where the hearings are secret and the rules are loaded in their favor. The trade treaties that the Clinton and Bush Administrations have railroaded through Congress have effectively nullified the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which gives the States the right to run their own affairs, on all matters not expressly reserved by the federal government. The states have, or had, jurisdiction over most things that touch our daily lives, including schools, police, courts, clean water, unpolluted air, fish, garbage collection, utilities, health care, insurance regulations, zoning, parks, and roads. Virtually anything that is decided through local democratic institutions can now be challenged and overruled by a far away tribunal, operating on behalf of a multi-national corporation.
The Corporate Power Party is not easily opposed but new alliances are forming. An example of such an alliance, of which those of us in the livestock business should be proud, is the Organization of Competitive Markets (OCM). This organization is a coalition of farmers, livestock producers, businessmen, economists, and legal experts, from the old right, left and center. These people have come together to defend the principle that democracy is best served with an economic system where private property prevails, markets are open and competitive, and most public policy is made on the local level. OCM is promoting the necessary conditions for a democratic republic.
Within the political divisions of the second half of the twentieth century, the argument was how to equitably divide the benefits of a free and democratic society operating under the principles of liberal economics. Although the debate was sometimes rancorous, both the right and the left firmly supported the same democratic principles and liberal economics base. These core principles have defined our country and society since its inception and they are under attack by the Corporate Power Party. As we see in the fight to implement COOL, the government is more responsive to the desires of multinational corporations than it is to the needs of citizens. This is why, we as citizens, cannot let old political habits blind us as to who is our friend and who is our enemy.
Gilles Stockton Grass Range, Montana (406) 428-2183 firstname.lastname@example.org