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We have no Theodore Roosevelt to face down today’s greedy corporations

The three opening installments of the latest Ken Burns documentary on PBS, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” offers a timely tutorial about an era when the greed and excessive power of corporations had distorted the American economy and created a huge gap in wealth between the rich and everyone else.

Sound uncomfortably familiar?

When Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, tycoons had grown fabulously wealthy through monopolistic manipulations of industry, and the economic deck was stacked against the common man and woman. T.R., the scion of a prominent New York family, was no stranger to wealth, but he was also raised with the conviction that those who came into life with great advantages had a moral responsibility to improve the condition of the disadvantaged. Believing that America could not thrive unless all Americans had a chance to thrive, Roosevelt used his epic energy, intellect and reformist zeal to confront the rapacious robber barons and offer the rest of the citizenry a “Square Deal” that promised the federal government would be a fair arbiter that would not favor the rich over everyone else.

Back then, most members of the House and Senate were quite literally bought and paid for by business interests, but Roosevelt steamrolled over congressional opposition by appealing directly to the people. Having risen from the vice presidency with the assassination of President McKinley, Roosevelt won election to a full term by a landslide in 1904, and his efforts to improve conditions for workers, clean up the environment, preserve the nation’s natural wonders and break up the monopolies became even more unstoppable.

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It is easy to make the case that T.R. was our greatest peacetime president, but how would he do today confronting domestic challenges that are so similar? How would he deal with politicians whose campaign funds come from shadowy political action committees that are overwhelmingly funded by corporate dollars; politicians whose years in office are, more often than not, a mere prelude to lucrative careers as lobbyists for corporate interests? And how would he take the fight to financiers and CEOs who are far more sophisticated in their economic and political machinations than J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller ever were?

Citing just one example of current corporate avarice that is damaging the country, how would Roosevelt counter the loss of billions of tax dollars because major corporations are avoiding payment by moving enormous profits to foreign tax havens? Apple, Microsoft, General Electric, Pfizer, Caterpillar, Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil, Wal-Mart and numerous other highly profitable companies are forsaking the United States and using legal loopholes to funnel massive amounts of money through ghost entities located in tax havens such as Ireland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. With U.S. taxes evaded, they then use accounting tricks to slip the money into Manhattan banks, make investments and make even more profits.

A scathing report in Rolling Stone – well worth reading if one feels like being outraged --notes that the bogus “foreign” earnings among American firms in the Russell 1000 Index skyrocketed from $1.1 trillion in 2008 to more than $2.1 trillion in 2013. This kind of tax avoidance has cut the rich corporations’ contribution to federal revenues from a third in the Eisenhower years to a mere 10% in the Obama years.

The situation has gotten so scandalous that even some Republicans are appalled. Neither party, though, has proposed any legislation that would put much more than a shallow dent in the problem. President Obama, who came into office with a call for “ending tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas,” gave up the fight early on after encountering stiff opposition from corporate lobbyists. It is extremely doubtful he now has the clout to champion the cause again with any chance of success.

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Could a modern-day Roosevelt do any better? There are significant changes in our political system that have made the task of opposing corporate power even harder than it was a century ago, but Roosevelt would bring two significant attributes to the debate: his phenomenal skill at employing the bully pulpit to raise an issue to the top of public consciousness, and a sense of right and wrong that would compel him to take up the fight, no matter the political cost.

The sad fact of our political times, however, is that we have no one in our political class who looks as if he or she could be a new Roosevelt. This time, it looks like the robber barons win.


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