Jim Hightower

Targeting the Wealth Primary

We’ve yet to cast a single vote in the 2008 elections, but winners are already being picked. Unfortunately, you’re probably not one of the pickers. This is an exclusive, anti-democratic process controlled by corporate executives, lobbyists, and rich people making high-dollar campaign contributions. Less than 1 percent of the American people participate in this “wealth primary,” yet they have a greater say in our political choices than the other 99 percent of us. Indeed, candidates spend most of their time dialing for dollars and schmoozing with the rich, not discussing issues and talking to the folks.

Those elites benefiting from this plutocratic system say the Supreme Court has ruled that giving a ton of campaign funds is an exercise in “free” speech, so there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.

Not so fast, slick. Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and a hardy group of democracy fighters have come up with the Fair Elections Now Act, which sets up an alternative election fund for candidates who voluntarily agree not to take private-interest money. The funds would be available to all qualified congressional candidates in primaries and general elections.

Modeled on successful “clean elections” programs established in seven states and two cities, the federal law would make ordinary voters count again, encourage regular people to run for office, and free officeholders from the grip of big money. Because it’s voluntary, the fair elections system is constitutional. To achieve America’s democratic ideals, we must refocus our politics on people, not on money. This vital bill makes that possible.

Anonymous Food

Where do those steaks, veggies, and other foods you buy at the supermarket come from? Most consumers assume that since the United States is the world’s greatest food producer, these staples come from here. But chances are they come from China, Eastern Europe, or other countries where U.S. processors and supermarkets can get food on the cheap. Particularly after recent exposés of contaminated food from China, shouldn’t there be a law requiring labels on meats and produce to tell shoppers where the food is from?

There is. It’s called country-of-origin labeling, and it became law five years ago. Don’t bother checking your supermarket labels, though. Corporate lobbyists and the Bushites have quietly prevented the implementation of “COOL.”

Lobby groups like the American Meat Institute don’t want consumers knowing that much of the meat its members sell is not American. Corporate food processors and giant retailers like Wal-Mart don’t want us to know they’re filling packages and shelves with stuff from places with little food-safety regulation. So corporate food interests have pumped campaign money into the pockets of Congress critters to get them to stall the law. For example, former Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla of San Antonio, who was key to sidetracking COOL, took more than $368,000 from the meat industry.

Food importers also stacked Bush’s Agriculture Department with their own lackeys. One beef industry trade group put three former executives into top department slots-including the deputy undersecretary, who would have overseen the labeling program.

Sweatshop Solution?

If you want to do something about some of the worst abuses of corporate globalization, check out a quickly spreading grassroots movement called SweatFree Communities.

Its concept is simple: Maybe one shopper can’t make a dent in the ethics of global manufacturers, but each of us can have an impact if we harness the purchasing power of our city and county governments, getting them to reject products made with sweatshop labor. We often forget that the biggest consumer in most places is local government, which buys huge quantities of uniforms, computers, office furniture, and such. We can say to these vendors: No public dollars for sweatshop goods.

SweatFree Communities was founded in 2003 and is supported by churches, student organizations, unions, advocacy groups, and community leaders. The notion is that there is power in numbers-with each community that signs on, new strength is added to change industry practices.

The Austin City Council recently voted unanimously to join about 170 other localities in the SweatFree network. These cities, school districts, and other public entities have committed to buy only from contractors and subcontractors that don’t engage in abuses such as child labor, poverty wages, and toxic workplaces.

To enforce the commitment, the consortium sends independent monitors to factories for periodic, unannounced reviews of labor conditions. The cost for members is minimal-Austin’s share, for example, is about $17,000 a year.

For more information on Jim Hightower’s work-and to subscribe to his award-winning monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown-visit www.jimhightower.com.

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Published at 12:00 am CST