Corporations rule Cincinnati. No shocker there. But would you let a business control your child's education? How about the way you vote? What about the efforts of the charitable causes you support?
Well, that's exactly what they do, according to a new study recently released by Dan La Botz, a college professor and community activist.
"Who Rules Cincinnati?" looks at the economic power structure of the Queen City — and it's a rather disturbing summary.
"Those corporations play the dominant role in our economics, in the politics of the city and in our city's social and cultural life," La Botz says. "The great majority of ordinary working people — people who would describe themselves as middle-class or working class or the poor — are people who are marginalized and have little influence over the most important decisions made in our society."
Using the backdrop of the United States as a whole, with more than 57 percent of our wealth in the hands of five percent of the population, the report characterizes Cincinnati as a microcosm of that reality.
Seven companies "guide all important civic, cultural and social organizations" in the city, the report says.
No surprise as to who they are: 1. Procter & Gamble, 2. Kroger, 3. Macy's/Federated Department Stores, 4. Fifth Third Bancorp, 5. Western-Southern Financial, 6. American Financial Corp. and 7. E.W. Scripps.
The number of non-profit boards — social services, educational, artistic and others — whose members are employees of these large corporations is startling — and yet not. Given the dismantling of traditional government programs designed to help those in need, private institutions have had to step in. The sums donated by the corporations are paltry compared to annual profits but it's support that non-profits can ill afford to give up. And the companies know this.
The enormity of Lindner power
The University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati Public Schools, the YWCA and the National Underground Freedom Center, among many others, happily promote their board leadership. With the exception of the YWCA, all are predominantly male and all are populated with business people.
"There is an understanding and an expectation — sometimes implicit and (sometimes) explicit — that top managers and middle managers will carry company policies into the community," La Botz says. "When you see all the different boards that they sit on, all of the different institutions that they influence, when you see the money from those corporations to politics, it's quite shocking."
Cincinnati corporations haven't stopped with dominating existing boards. They've also created their own.
"To achieve their goals, Cincinnati corporations have created a series of private organizations — CBC, DCI, 3CDC — which have usurped democratic control from the city council, from city agencies and from the public ... to promote their economic development plan," the report says.
The interests that guide the accumulation of more profits often do not translate into sound social or public policy.
"Many of the largest corporations, such as Procter & Gamble, do have a certain commitment to what they call diversity, because they are national corporations that have to deal with all the different ethnic and religious groups in the country and because they're multinational corporations that have to sell their products abroad and they have plants that produce those products abroad," La Botz says. "And they're committed to a certain degree of civility in their company, but this hasn't necessarily transferred to policies that would end the terrible racism which continues to exist in our city."
An argument can be made for P&G's support for the repeal of Article 12 of the city charter, which legalized discrimination against anyone who wasn't heterosexual. But that fails to note that when the same law was passed, P&G sat back and did nothing. If corporations have the power to help repeal a law, then they must have the influence to create laws, right?
La Botz says they do.
"I knew Carl Lindner and American Financial Group played a big role in conservative politics, but I just never grasped the enormity of that until I did the research," he says. "The Democrats and Republicans function as one political party here in Hamilton County as we saw with the board (of county commissioners) election coming up." (See "The Race Is On," issue of Jan. 23).
Economic power to the people
"Who Runs Cincinnati?" details the political spending of corporations and wealthy families, among other actors, as a way to show the level of influence they wield.
"When these corporations are so huge and so influential they are really the political power; and the political parties and the candidates may come and go, and different campaign slogans and issues may come and go, but they're the ones who continue to make the decisions ... no matter which party or individual is in power," La Botz says.
In spite of all this, La Botz doesn't believe the situation is hopeless. As a historian, he turns to a time in our history to compare the economic and social structure many people thought would never change.
"There was an era in which in the South an institution called the slave plantation dominated the economic, social and cultural life of the South," he says. "Those plantations were the center of the southern economy. The people who owned those plantations sat in Congress. They sat in the Senate. They were in the Supreme Court. Some of them became president. Nobody would have ever thought that a time would come when the plantation — and the slavery on which it was based — would be swept away.
"I have a long-term view of these things. There's a tremendous anti-corporate sentiment now. That is a sense that corporate power in this country is too great, it's gone too far. It has to be at least restrained, at least regulated and controlled by the people of this country."
Fast-forward to 2007, and he provides another example that shows the status quo doesn't have to remain unchanged: the defeat of the jail tax last fall.
Referring to a coalition of small groups that collected a few thousand dollars compared to the "hundreds of thousands of dollars" spent by corporations and special interest groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and both the Republican and Democratic parties, La Botz says the thing that trumped all that cash was an idea.
"It had to do with getting ideas out there, getting people to talk, to be critical," he says. "That's the reason for publishing this paper, to get into people's hands another way of looking at their city. People do have political power if people do become involved in this city and can create an alternative kind of political power here, something outside of ... the Democrats and Republicans.
"If people have political power and we start to organize and focus, we might be able to elect some people. It can be very important to have one person on city council, one person on the school board, one person on the county commission — someone who will speak honestly to the public about what's happening, who can provide inside information from the debates taking place in those councils and boards.
"And of course people have a lot of economic power that they don't use. We have in this city hundreds of thousands of working people, and they have a lot of economic power. They could use that economic power to push the employers for whom they work, the governments for whom they work. That idea has been almost lost from American society — that workers can use their power. It was a big idea in the '30s and '40s."
More than a fancy talker, La Botz lives his conviction as the co-founder of Cincinnati Progressive Action, an active participant in the immigrant rights movement and a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.
Learning lessons from the past and using the data of the present, La Botz wants people consider the influence of big business and not see it a forgone conclusion.
"I would like readers to begin to question who runs their city," he says. "The most important thing people can ask people to do in an intellectual, political debate is to ask people to doubt. I'd like people to doubt and question, 'Who runs this city — and is that right? If they agree with me, that these corporations do exert the dominant control, to then begin to say, 'How do we change things?' "
To get a copy of "Who Rules Cincinnati?" visit www.cincinnatistudies.org.