Puttin' Out the Bone

We Can Stop Corporate Extortion

Look, it's us against them. At the moment, they're eating our lunch, and they know it. They probably sit in their dark-wood board rooms and laugh at us. If they're not laughing, they're at least confident they can beat us anytime they want — because they're together and we're divided.

They're Convergys. They're Saks. They're the Kroger Co. They're the Cincinnati Reds. They're the Cincinnati Bengals. They're about to be Cincinnati Bell. One day they'll likely be Procter and Gamble.

All lined up with their hands out for the people's money. All using the threat that they'll leave us if we don't meet their demands.

Like pathetic victims of Mafia extortion, we cower. In the end, we give it up. Worse, our elected officials craft brainy documents to make it all look legitimate, or at least inevitable.

Surprised? C'mon. Those same elected officials get piles of campaign money from the corporate extortionists.

When will citizens finally stand up and tell these panhandlers no? I mean, wouldn't your jaw have dropped if nine members of Cincinnati City Council and Mayor Charlie Luken had called a news conference and announced that no public money would go to a free enterprise company to help it earn more profit?

It doesn't seem to matter how many times they demand money. We give it up. It doesn't matter how many times we get stung by the product. We give it up. The Bengals and the Reds both demanded new stadiums. We worried they'd blow town if we didn't cave. Both have rewarded us with teams that shame us.

A newspaper article last week said that Convergys' profits are down 27 percent this past quarter. Yet it didn't seem to matter.

Nothing mattered, because powerful companies have learned that as long as they keep the people divided they can win this game, get pretty much whatever they want. Even if some indebted government officials put on a show of tough negotiations, the companies still come out far ahead. The corporate extortionists know they really deserve nothing; for them, the game is all gain.

Free enterprise is not supposed to work this way. The words mean what they say. The freedom to respond to a perceived consumer need or want with a product or service enterprise. You take a great risk on the gamble that you'll make a great profit.

But then corporate extortionists learned that if you pit, say, Cincinnati government officials against, say, Covington officials against, say, Blue Ash officials, you can get stuff that free-enterprise theorists never promised: Money for your buildings, huge tax breaks, special parking lots or even huge stadiums.

So there's our problem. We the people, through our elected officials, are not organized. We're like skinny kids who shudder when we see frowns on the faces of the jocks as they walk our way on the playground. We've got our new pens or our lunch money out of our pockets before they reach us, ready to hand them over with hardly a discussion.

But what if leaders across America held a corporate extortionist summit? What if they all agreed — city council members, county commissioners, even township trustees — that none would give a corporate boss one more dime of public money?

Sure, everyone would agree to provide clean, safe streets, good public transportation, even quality schools for employees. But no public money would be given to businesses for their buildings, no tax breaks. Just a straight up business climate.

What if every community unified to stop the success of corporate extortion? Then a Convergys would not think to drop the name of a Northern Kentucky community or the state of Indiana to jar loose Cincinnati's lunch money.

Sure, we've heard all the arguments defending the big squeeze: "It's a competitive climate." ... "If we don't give in to them, they'll move far away." Here's the best one. "We'll become Detroit." But it all stops when no one gives in to them.

Every corporate boss reading this column knows what I'm saying is true. They drape their hustles in silk and bow ties and send off media letters about their philanthropy, but they know damn well their game's over the day the people all say no.

What's odd about this is that our collective national mindset is just the opposite when we deal with other bullies. We don't negotiate with hijackers, terrorists and kidnappers. The reason? Reward them and they'll line up to grab our celebrities, our politicians, even our family members. We have a well-known policy of saying no, and we have relatively few extortion plots. There's simply no pay off.

Get wise, people. The Brown family duped us. Now they mock us. Find me 10 people who think Mike Brown should continue to call the shots with the Cincinnati Bengals. Yet he maintains control. He has rewarded our naíve generosity with on-the-field losses and cost overruns.

Isn't this a silly world? We worry about a guy selling a Streetvibes on a corner. We want poor people to get a license to ask for a quarter. We threaten some people living under a highway overpass with arrest. But we spend weeks of time and thousands of public dollars to talk with teams of representatives from corporate extortionists to work out their shakedown.

I wrote last month that only when regular people stand up to the daunting power of the corporate oligarchy will we have the America of our dreams. Facing down corporate extortionists would be a good place to start.