Dieser Artikel erschien am 7.2.2000 in der 'International Herald Tribune' unter dem Titel 'Big Business, Small Democracy'
February 4, 2000


Corporations on Steroids

Yasir Arafat came to Davos this year, and there were two people he insisted on meeting with: Bill Clinton of the United States of America and Steve Case of America Online.

I never got to ask Mr. Arafat whether he thought Bill C. was more important than Steve C. After all, AOL-Time Warner has a market value exceeding the gross national product of most countries Mr. Arafat deals with. It's no wonder that when you ask White House officials what the President did in Davos, they say he had a few "bilaterals" -- meetings with other heads of state and business. When I asked the spokesperson for one of the giant technology firms what the company's C.E.O. was doing in Davos, the answer was: "He's holding bilaterals" with other heads of state and business. Every day the line between companies and countries blurs a bit more.

Get used to it. As the walls around the world disappear, companies can increasingly compete everywhere. And when you can compete everywhere, in many businesses you must compete everywhere. This is making companies bigger than ever, whether it is AOL-Time Warner, or Exxon-Mobil or Microsoft. World leaders, investors and the media are naturally dazzled by the sheer size and power that some of these companies are amassing.

But what happens to democracies when companies grow to size extra-extra-large, in order to compete globally, but democratic regulatory institutions -- like the antitrust division of the Justice Department -- remain a size small?

At a press lunch in Davos, Bill Gates was asked how Microsoft could have hired lobbying firms to try to defund the Justice Department's antitrust division, when it had a case pending before the antitrust division. Flashing anger, Mr. Gates said this was "an outrageous characterization -- it's untrue . . . The only thing that we ever spoke out on in terms of funding is p.r. funding." The Justice Department, Mr. Gates said, shouldn't be leaking or promoting "negative activities against U.S. companies overseas. I wasn't involved in any of the specifics of that, but to characterize that as defunding . . . is an outrageous thing."

This answer was disturbing on two levels. First, the notion that it was O.K. for Microsoft to engage lobbyists even just to reduce the public relations budget of the Justice Department's antitrust division -- while Microsoft had a case pending before it -- suggests a moral obtuseness that is, well, outrageous.

Second, the antitrust division of the Justice Department has no p.r. budget! It has one spokeswoman assigned to it from Justice's central office of public affairs, and her salary and related p.r. expenses are paid by public affairs, and they amount to roughly $100,000. Yet, according to The Washington Post, Microsoft's lobbyists, and several nonprofit foundations Microsoft brought to its headquarters on an all-expense-paid trip, tried to get the fiscal 2000 budget for the Justice Department's antitrust division slashed by $9 million -- from Justice's request of $114 million (a modest increase so it could hire more lawyers) down to $105 million (so it would have to cut back activities).

Microsoft wasn't trying to reduce the antitrust division's ability to engage in p.r.; Microsoft was trying to reduce its ability to engage in antitrust -- in a year when there had been a 30 percent increase in corporate mergers. As The Post noted, while corporate lobbying over policies is normal, it is rather unusual for a firm "to seek an across-the-board cut in a department's budget, especially in the middle of a major court battle."

Old problem -- dangerous new twist. America's antitrust laws were initially motivated by two concerns, argues the Harvard University political theorist Michael Sandel -- preventing big monopolies from overwhelming consumers and preventing big business from overwhelming democratic government. Those laws first arose when businesses grew beyond the control of state and local institutions, and therefore some federal power was needed to rein them in.

"Now business is growing to global dimensions, but governments are still national -- so government is again struggling to keep pace," observed Mr. Sandel. "In a world without walls, we are going to have to come up with new ways for government to rein in the power of global corporations, and prevent them from buying up democracy. Instead of just being dazzled by these mega-mergers, there should be a nagging voice in us all asking: Is democracy going to be bought up too?"

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