Think back to the days before satellites, cable TV and the Internet. The precursors to our contemporary entertainment and information-dissemination industry were what we retronymically call terrestrial radio and television. AM, and later FM radio that you tuned with an analog dial, and twelve channels of black-and-white television.
Back then, one of the limits that the broadcast industry faced was the finite radio-frequency spectrum. Since everything was sent over-the-air, and the spectrum was shared with other users such as police, aircraft, taxicabs, and ham radio operators, the government regulated (and still does) the allocation of frequencies to various users.
The radio-frequency spectrum is a public asset. So in return for being granted a license to use part of the spectrum, radio and television companies were required to devote part of their offerings to public service. Most broadcast stations fulfilled this obligation by providing programming in news and public affairs, the cost of which was subsidized by their other profit-making offerings.
Fast forward to the 21st century. We now have thousands of corporations using public assets - our roads, air traffic control systems, ports, and other government-subsidized infrastructure elements. Yet, these corporations are not required to operate in the public interest as the nascent broadcast industry did almost a century ago. Instead, their main requirement is to provide financial return to their shareholders.
In today’s world, corporate power and influence have usurped the democratic principles upon which this country was founded. The Citizens United decision in the Supreme Court, where corporations are afforded the rights but not the responsibilities of people, has the potential for being the final nail in the coffin of democracy. While the Republican Tea Party is almost entirely under the thumb of corporate influence, most Democrats are not far behind. Corporate lobbyists, not ordinary citizens, are driving the legislative and executive agendas. Privatization of essential government services, moving them to a taxpayer-subsidized for-profit model, is about to explode under today’s business-friendly, consumer-hostile political climate.
It’s time to rethink this paradigm. We need to take another look at the broadcasting model institutionalized in the Communications Act of 1934, where those corporations were required to “serve the public interest, convenience and necessity” as a condition for being able to use the public infrastructure. This needs to be extended to other industries. Corporations operating in the United States should still be accountable to their shareholders for turning a profit, but this should not be the sole operating criterion for their existence. There needs to be an ancillary obligation for corporations to demonstrate that they are operating in the public interest, whether it is investing in green production techniques, providing pro bono community services that leverage their expertise, or simply returning a generous portion of their profits to secular non-political community charitable organizations.
Some will say that this places too much burden on corporations’ profit-at-any-cost paradigm. This has some elements of truth. But requiring all corporations to operate, at least in part, in the public interest, the burden is spread out and the playing field is even.
Can this be done in today’s environment of corporate control of Congress? It won’t be easy. The public needs to be educated on the danger that the status quo places on our democratic system of government that is theoretically, but not really, answerable to the electorate. It won’t happen overnight. The common-sense regulation of the tobacco industry battled entrenched special interests, powerful politicians, and hundreds of millions of dollars of pro-smoking advertising falsehoods. It took at least two generations to mitigate the harmful effects of this profit-making addictive habit, but in the end the nation is much better off for it. If our system of government is to survive, we need responsible for-profit corporations to innovate and to produce the goods and services that fuel the American economy. But part of that responsibility needs to be to the people who support these corporations with America’s resources and infrastructure, and not solely the shareholders who reap the profits that these corporations generate.
Every American person who is able should consider doing some sort of public service to help those less fortunate or to just make our nation a better place to live. So should corporations.