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Is corporate power pushing Americans over the edge?

 
 
 
 
 
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Americans are now more likely to die by their own hands than from a car accident or a murder-related incident, a grim statistic that shines a light on abusive corporate practices.

Judging by the latest data by the Center for Disease Control, something is driving Americans to become their own worst enemies: From 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among US citizens between the ages of 35 to 64 soared by about 30 per cent, to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people.

Suicide now ranks higher than death by automobile: in 2010, there were 33,687 deaths from motor vehicle crashes compared with 38,364 suicides.

Although suicide tends to be viewed as a problem inflicting teenagers and the elderly, the recent study shows a marked rise in the number of suicides among the Baby Boom generation (a demographic group born between the years 1946 and 1964, when the annual birthrate rose dramatically in the US).

Suicide rates soared across all four geographic areas and in 39 states. The state of Wyoming recorded the highest increase in suicides with a 78.8 per cent jump (31.1 per 100,000). Even the paradise state of Hawaii witnessed a 61.2 per cent increase (21.9 per 100,000).

Yet some believe even these shocking numbers are too low since many deaths are not treated as actual suicides.

“It’s vastly under-reported,” Julie Phillips, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University, told The New York Times. “We know we’re not counting all suicides.”

What’s going on here? What is suddenly pushing so many Americans to take their own lives?

The striking thing about the data is that the suicide rates really began to surge just as the Global Financial Crisis was making landfall in late 2008. While suicide rates increased slowly between 1999 and 2007, the rate of increase more than quadrupled from 2008 to 2010.

“There is a clear need to implement policies to promote mental health resilience during the ongoing recession,” said Aaron Reeves of Britain’s University of Cambridge, who submitted his findings to The Lancet medical journal.

Reeves went so far as to suggest that the Democrats and Republicans are partially to blame for failing to mention the issue during the latest presidential campaign.

“In the run-up to the US presidential election, President Obama and Mitt Romney are debating how best to spur economic recovery, [but] missing from this discussion is consideration of how to protect Americans’ health during these hard times,” Reeves warned.

Where’s the democracy?

So what else is responsible for driving up American suicide rates? Could it be the loss of democratic representation inside our corporate fortresses, those medieval-style fiefdoms that are now working overtime to control the US political process as well?

Thanks largely to the passage of the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission ruling (2010), transnational corporations are now entitled to donate unlimited amounts of hard cash to the political campaign of their choice without having to come clean on the expenditures. The ruling even applies to foreign corporations!

So great is the corporate footprint in the halls of power that I fear the day is close at hand when we will actually see a corporation make a run for political office. Why not? They have already been designated as bona fide individuals by our craven Supreme Court (In the book, “Unequal Protection,” Thom Hartmann persuasively explains how the 1886 US Supreme Court decision in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company case wrongfully granted corporations personhood).

“Businesses have won,” David Macaray, a labor columnist, wrote in his Huffington Post blog. “They’ve increased their production demands, they’ve extended employees’ work hours (after having-laid off a segment of the workforce), they’ve taken to issuing ultimatums, and they’ve done all of it while, simultaneously, having kept wages relatively stagnant.”

As for traditional benefits such as pensions, bonuses, sick leave and paid vacations, forget about it. Most of those have been abolished, Macaray added.

Did somebody mention a vacation? Despite all the hyped-up talk about freedom and liberty, American workers receive the stingiest vacation packages in the free – and oppressed – world. That is not because Americans have some sort of masochistic attachment to their desks, as some like to argue, but rather because we lack any sort of labor law that forces corporations to remove our chains more than once a year.

Incredibly, the United States is the only country in the world where corporations are under no legal obligation to provide their workers with a break from their jobs. Compare that sad statistic with any other country in the world, even the most totalitarian. This Scrooge mentality must change, or all of our boastful talk about democracy and freedom will be revealed as nothing more than a diversionary smokescreen to conceal what can only be described as an attack on human rights.

Why is it that other countries can readily afford to give their people a break from their jobs and still maintain high living standards?

“Germany is among more than two dozen industrialized countries from Australia to Slovenia to Japan – that require employers to offer four weeks or more of paid vacation to their workers, according to a 2009 study by the human resources consulting company Mercer,” reported CNN.

Still other countries, including Finland, Brazil and France, guarantee their workers up to six weeks off.

It seems fair to ask whether America’s lack of time away from the office is contributing to high stress levels and even sporadic episodes of domestic and workplace violence, up to and including suicide. Shouldn’t the world’s most heavily armed and medicated nation allow its people to hit the beach more than once a year?

This question brings us back to the issue of democratic representation in the workplace, which is presently missing in action.

Although organized labor is itself fraught with problems, it is nevertheless the last line of defense when it comes to protecting US workers against the insatiable greed of the corporate overlords. Thus, it should come as no surprise that US wages have been plummeting over the last 30 years at the very same time that unions are being decimated.

The total number of union workers fell by 400,000 last year, to 14.3 million, even though the nation’s overall employment rose by 2.4 million, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Just 11.3 per cent of the US workforce is enrolled in a union, the lowest recorded levels since 1916, when it was 11.2 percent, according to a study by two Rutgers economists, Leo Troy and Neil Sheflin, as reported in The New York Times.

What recovery?

Never before has the wealth divide been greater in the United States, a land that was built on the foundation of opportunity.

Between 2009 and 2011, the top 7 per cent of wealthy Americans saw their average net worth explode by 28 per cent, while the wealth of the remaining 93 per cent of the population steadily declined during the same period, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.

The average net worth of the country’s 8 million wealthiest households surged from an estimated $2.7 million to $3.2 million, the Pew study said. For the 111 million households that make up the bottom 93 per cent, average net worth plunged 4 per cent, from $140,000 to an estimated $134,000.

In 2010, the first supposed year of economic recovery, 93 per cent of all pre-tax income gains went to the top 1 per cent of the American population (that is, any household earning more than $358,000).

Meanwhile, the most affluent 7 per cent of households owned 63 per cent of the nation’s household wealth in 2011, up from 56 per cent in 2009.

These mind-numbing statistics are a mere reflection of millions of individual cases of pain and suffering wrought by the economic crisis, which seems to have only affected the middle and lower classes.

One consequence of the economic fallout is the record number of foreclosures on homes. Since 2007, almost 4 million homes have been lost in the foreclosure crisis, according to Forbes. At the same time, US home prices – except in the most affluent neighborhoods – remain essentially flat.

On top of this pummeling, Americans must digest the incredible news that many US corporations, some of which were rescued by taxpayer-funded bailout, are not paying any taxes on their earnings.

General Electric, for example, reported global profits of $14.2 billion for the year 2010, with $5.1 billion of the total deriving from its operations in the United States.

So how much did the granddaddy of US corporations pay in taxes to Uncle Sam? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. In fact, GE actually claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion.

How was GE able to pull off that disappearing act?

“Its extraordinary success is based on an aggressive strategy that mixes fierce lobbying for tax breaks and innovative accounting that enables it to concentrate its profits offshore,” tooted The New York Times.

Is the rash of suicides across a broad spectrum of the American population a direct result of the wealth hoarding by the top income earners – many of them US corporate ‘individuals’? Since it is clear that Monsters Inc. have all but hijacked the American dream, not to mention the US political process, the evidence seems to point in that dark direction.

Clearly it is time for the United States to tame the beast of corporate power, and as was the case with the separation of church and state, we must prohibit business from unduly influencing our political leaders.

Our government representation is a precious and limited resource. It cannot be allowed to be squandered on entities that are already enjoying great wealth and power as it is.

Robert Bridge is the author of the book, Midnight in the American Empire, which discusses the dangerous consequences of excessive corporate power in the United States.

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