Dean Gus Speth on the Influence of lobbyists
James Gustave "Gus" Speth, is the Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. Dean of the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and Sara Shallenberger Brown Professor in the Practice of Environmental Policy
From 1993 to 1999, Dean Speth served as administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and chair of the UN Development Group. Prior to his service at the UN, he was founder and president of the World Resources Insti-tute; professor of law at Georgetown University; chairman of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality; and senior attorney and cofounder, Natural Resources Defense Council.
Throughout his career, Dean Speth has provided leadership and entrepreneurial initiatives to many task forces and committees whose roles have been to combat environmental degradation, including the President’s Task Force on Global Resources and Environment; the Western Hemisphere Dialogue on Environment and Development; and the National Commission on the Environment. Among his awards are the National Wildlife Federation’s Resources Defense Award, the Natural Resources Council of America’s Barbara Swain Award of Honor, a 1997 Special Recognition Award from the Society for International Development, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Environmental Law Institute, and the Blue Planet Prize. Publications include The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment; Worlds Apart: Globalization and the Environment; and articles in Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, Environmental Science and Technology, the Columbia Journal World of Business, and other journals and books.
Question: What will reduce the influence of lobbyists?
Gus Speth: Well I think, you know, the–- get this right. Last year, in Washington lobbyist spent $3 billion to get what they wanted out of the congress and out of the White House. We really have to focus on political reform. The reform of lobbying, the reform of our elections and–- but there's no way to do it I think unless we–- unless people are mobilized. I think we need a popular movement in the country to drive these changes. I think it involves effusion of those that are concerned about environment, those that are concerned about environment, those that are concerned about social justice, and those concerned about political form. And we need to bring these communities together and drive real change. We also need to-- you don't win without ideas. I think we learn that from what we-- you know, this conservative movement that eventually succeeded in part through the power of ideas. And I think we need ideas. And so I think we need to build a much bigger understanding and constituency for ideas that can change the fundamentals of the corporation. And there's a group working out of Boston called Corporation 20/20. And it's beginning that process of looking at this question of corporate design. It involves an examination of this shareholder primacy, and what could substitute for that. Another issue in the corporate area that's extremely important is this personhood of the corporation. In a remarkable feat, the Supreme Court of the United States in 1890s in the Santa Clara County case declared that corporations were people, and had all the protections of the Bill of Rights and the amendments to the constitution. And so, somehow these creatures that we charter, that we citizens create through government, the chartering of a corporation, somehow that morphed into a person. And today, you have-- they have, first amendments rights, so it's very difficult to regulate their advertising. It's very difficult to regulate their political behavior, and their spending in campaigns. We had a provision of McCain-Feingold struck down by the Supreme Court that was trying to regulate corporate political activity. So, this is a bit of nonsense that crept into our corporate law that needs to be looked at again. There are reviews that could be carried out of corporate charters. We could ask whether it should always be the case that the corporation have limited liability. Maybe there are times, particularly egregious behavior, when the owners of the corporation should be liable. That would certainly make people wake up, change their investment decisions, and pay a little more attention to what the corporations were actually doing. We need reform of corporate lobbying, and spending practices, at least we ought to get a lot more disclosure initially. So there's actually a long list of things that need to be developed, interesting ideas for thinking about the corporation of the future. And, you know, it may turn out that there a lot of corporate executives that aren't so hostile to these ideas. I suspect that they are-- often view themselves and quite properly as good people caught in a bad system.
Recorded on: 3/23/08
Corporate executives are sometimes good people caught in a bad system.
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