Who’s behind the curtain?

Consumer advocate Jamie Court talks about his new book, Corporateering

Cor-po-ra-teer n. one who prioritizes commerce over culture v. to prioritize commerce over culture

When Jamie Court turned 21 and graduated college, he wanted to buy a car but couldn’t afford insurance.

Court had voted for Proposition 103 in California, which was aimed at making auto insurance premiums more affordable. Initially delighted at the bill’s passage, Court was soon shocked to find the insurance industry had begun to spend millions of dollars to challenge every provision in court. It was his “first taste of the real power of corporations,” he writes today, and Court has been fighting their abuses ever since—winning some noteworthy reform battles along the way in the HMO, energy and financial-services fields.

His latest book, Corporateering: How Corporate Power Steals Your Personal Freedom … And What You Can Do About It, offers a look at the hidden strategies and cultural power behind today’s behemoth corporations that have become bigger than many national governments. It features a foreword from best-selling author and fellow muckraker Michael Moore, who calls the book a “road map and battle plan” for taking back the cultural turf lost to corporations over the last two decades.

The CN&R spoke by phone with Court recently at his Santa Monica office, where he is executive director for the nonprofit Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (www.consumerwatchdog.org).

What is your proudest achievement as a consumer advocate?

I think we really put HMO reform on the map. The public’s eyes have been opened to why HMOs are dangerous—why corporations that are unregulated and unaccountable shouldn’t be entrusted with our health. We’ve clearly created some of the strongest laws in California, and the work has echoed back in Washington. Less than 50 percent [of people] in California now participate [in HMOs], and at one time that was well over 70 percent.

What advice would you give young people interested in becoming consumer advocates?

My advice is to find an issue that is important in your heart, something that needs to be changed, and start working on it. There are so few of us out here—people who dig in on an issue, educate, and really work for reform. I’m 36, and after doing this a short time, I quickly found myself in rooms with people like Ralph Nader who have been doing it forever. When you make a breakthrough in reform, it’s really a remarkable thing. But my most basic advice: Fighting for justice is a far more rewarding life than working for money.

How has your work gone with the media?

Our group has been successful because we don’t pull punches—and the media respond to that, frankly. On some issues, like media consolidation, it’s harder to get the message out, especially on TV, where the owners have an interest.

There’s no question that there are fewer resources available for reporting, there are fewer reporters, less news space, fewer TV stations, fewer voices. The media have been an effective ally for us—changing HMO abuses, insurance reforms—but it’s getting increasingly difficult to get their ears because they are shrinking. A lot of it is self-censorship; reporters are increasingly pressed for time, they have more stories to write, bigger beats. The inability to really get involved in a serious investigative story that could bring down a corporation because you don’t have time—that’s strangling media.

How do you view the upcoming FCC debate [the FCC is scheduled to decide next week whether to further deregulate media ownership]?

Well, there sure is a building movement to postpone the debate. If enough Senate Republicans get involved, there may be more pause for the FCC, but we’ll see.

MAN WITH THE PLAN Called a “tireless consumer advocate” by the Los Angeles Times and “notorious for his dramatic sharp-tongued attacks on the health care and auto insurance industries” or “any politician who takes their campaign cash” (Wall Street Journal), award-winning consumer advocate Jamie Court has appeared on all the major network news programs and frequently contributes to major California newspapers.

Photo By Tom Angel

Corporate power doesn’t have to be an issue that is progressive vs. conservative. If you’re a conservative and you want to conserve the free press, you will oppose rapid media consolidation. … But the free press is really the foundation of society. That’s why groups like the NRA are together with more progressive groups [on this issue], because there’s recognition that we all need the media.

We’ve had some debate in this paper’s letters section about Democrats blaming Greens for the Bush administration. How do you view differences between the parties?

We tend to think of the ability to limit corporate power as an electoral issue, and that’s really a muddy swamp. The energy people put into an election, if redirected toward fighting corporate power daily, could probably have even greater results. I think the success of the Greens has been about people who think voting is pointless unless they vote Green because Democrats don’t really challenge corporate power.

From my observation, it really depends on the issue. There are some issues where Democrats have been strong and many where they have not. If you want to work on issues and not elections, you have to look at how to further that issue.

For instance, HMO reform became a pet project of the Democrats, which is one reason we were able to move the issue. On the other hand, California Democrats have a terrible record on insurance reform because they take too much money from the insurance companies, so we have to go after them. I think the key is where you replace Democrats—which seats do you replace?

The most chilling aspect of your book for me was how corporations have compromised the judiciary branch.

How do you fight a power that’s willing to try to own the judiciary? The involvement of the Chamber of Commerce in judicial elections is a remarkable escalation in the means corporations have attempted at control of society. Taking out judges in elections who don’t side with you? Corporate power is now the equivalent of what King George’s once was—and we’re going to have to take a close look again at who we have to take independence from and who’s the closest threat, and it ain’t government anymore.

When the nation fights a war to protect corporate interests and there’s not much recognition of it—that’s a serious problem for a democracy.

What optimism do you hold for the future?

I think Sept. 11 started to change people’s view of their purpose in life. There’s more serious cultural exploration. And the crash of the markets has made people look a little more skeptically at big corporations, the Enrons, Tycos, Worldcoms. People see the greed, but the question is whether they will see beyond the economic abuse and see the cultural frustrations as a greater problem.

The problem seems so large, it’s hard to get at it. But that’s why seizing on certain rights that already exist—opting out of corporations sharing financial info, or asking to be on a do-not-call list—is so important. We just don’t use our negotiating right enough; we don’t read contracts. Our trust of corporations given their tremendous abuses is really remarkable. I’m constantly amazed.

Your current focus is a “three-strikes bill” for corporations [SB 335, authored by state Sen. Gloria Romero].

If an individual can go to jail for life for stealing a slice of pizza, a corporation should lose its license and charter for three criminal convictions. This gives a lot of power to prosecutors, and I think the votes on this issue are going to be a total indicator of who the corporateers in the Legislature are.

Corporations are far more dangerous than individuals, but they have so much less accountability. They spend a trillion dollars a year marketing to us, and there’s no flipside to that.

Ironically, opposition to the three-strikes bill has come only from the Chamber [of Commerce] and on the basis that individuals commit crimes, not corporations. … I don’t think this is the day and age to be soft on corporate crime if you want to be a politician, so we’re trying to create a standard. This bill would require companies to report criminal convictions to the secretary of state and make the info available online as well as publicize its strikes with an advertisement in California’s largest newspapers.

Word of mouth is what corporations want most and fear most—and it’s the one resource we own that we can use. One thing I have learned in doing this is that it takes only a small group of people to make a difference if they stick to it. We’re trying to spread the word and spread the energy.