November 2, 2018

The Power of Public Interest: Corporate Accountability in the 21st Century

Marissa Ditkowsky


On November 9, 2018, the American University Washington College of Law chapter of the American Constitution Society will be hosting a symposium on corporate accountability and consumer protection. Ralph Nader, who is a dedicated advocate for social change and consumer protection, will be delivering the keynote address.

Register here: https://www.wcl.american.edu/secle/registration

This event will focus on consumer protection and corporate accountability issues from the days in which Ralph Nader and the Nader Raiders did some of their most influential work, as well as the modern iterations of these issues. Next, the event will discuss the different careers law students might pursue in this field, whether that be working in a non-profit, running for office, working in corporate compliance, working in a state attorney general’s office, or otherwise.

Background on the need for corporate accountability and consumer protection

The following are just some of the infinite ways in which corporations have leveraged their positions for their own financial benefit without regard to employees, consumers, or individuals who share the communities in which these companies conduct business:

  • The top 1 percent owns about 40 percent of the country’s wealth, and those who run corporations are among the wealthiest individuals in the world.[1]
  • Despite inflation, wages have remained largely stagnant for the last 40 years.[2]
  • Corporations are committing abuses and human rights violations that destroy our environment despite the devastating impacts.[3]
  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has assisted citizens facing predatory lending practices following the 2008 market crash, is under attack.[4]
  • Corporate tax cuts are exacerbating income inequality.[5]
  • Students cannot afford the debt they are left with after pursuing their education.[6]
  • The health care industry continues to profit from its exorbitant prices, leaving Americans unable to afford vital health care.[7]
  • Private prisons are turning a profit from incarceration and recidivism rates.[8]
  • Companies are violating our privacy by selling our information.[9]

Many of these topics uniquely affect people of color, individuals in poverty, and other marginalized communities to a greater degree. Despite these blatant issues and their effects on marginalized communities, the fight for consumer protection and corporate accountability has been one of diminished focus among the public interest community in recent years.

Although I can only speculate as to why, I believe the reason is because the issue seems so daunting and complex that we focus on the temporary fixes—the issues that we can fix personally. The media, legal community, and society alike may find the issue difficult to frame because it is so sweeping, or they may find it uninteresting because it is so commonplace and expected.

However, in failing to emphasize corporate accountability, we fail to address the root of so many of this country’s problems and perpetuate a status quo that prevents the success and equality of all Americans. We are all just doing patchwork and remain distracted from the larger problem—the common denominator in all of our woes.

It is my hope that we can break down these issues to demonstrate how we can fix them while simultaneously exhibiting their expansive reach. My chapter would like to reinvigorate a passion for these issues by highlighting their importance in our lives and the lives of our present, former, or future clients. Although not every corporation is a bad actor, it is important that we work together to hold them accountable when they do abuse their power.

We look forward to this discussion, as well as learning how we can continue to hold corporations accountable.

[1] Christopher Ingraham, The Richest 1 Percent Now Owns More of the Country’s Wealth than at Any Time in the Past 50 Years, Wash. Post (Dec. 6, 2017); Matt Rocheleau, 8 Rich people Own as Much Wealth as Half the World, Boston Globe (Jan. 18, 2017), https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/01/18/rich-people-own-much-money-half-world-report-says/y6az3Wtasd5TIf9Q6k3I4K/story.html.

[2] Drew Desilver, For Most U.S. Workers, Real Wages Have Barely Budged for Decades, Pew Research Ctr. (Aug. 7, 2018), http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/08/07/for-most-us-workers-real-wages-have-barely-budged-for-decades/.

[3] See generally Greenpeace Int’l: Justice for People and Planet: Ending the Age of Corporate Capture, Collusion and Impunity (2018).

[4] Brianne Gorod, Mick Mulvaney’s Assault on Consumer Finances and the CFPB is Illegal as Well as Wrong, USA Today (Apri.11, 2018, 6:00 AM), https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2018/04/11/not-only-mulvaney-illegally-serving-cfpb-director-hes-tearing-bureau-apart-column/503761002/.

[5] Suresh Nallareddy et. al., Corporate Tax Cuts Increase Income Inequality, (Harv. Bus. Sch., Working Paper No. 18-101, 2018), https://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/18-101%20Rouen%20Corporate%20Tax%20Cuts_0a4626be-774c-4b9a-8f96-d27e5f317aad.pdf

[6] Annie Nova, Despite the Economic Recovery, Student Debtors’ ‘Monster in the Closet’ Has Only Worsened, CNBC (Sept. 27, 2018, 3:12 PM), https://www.cnbc.com/2018/09/21/the-student-loan-bubble.html.

[7] Amanda Michelle Gomez, Half of Sick Americans Either Don’t Have or Can’t Afford Health Coverage, Think Progress (Aug. 20, 2018, 11:39 AM), https://thinkprogress.org/americans-uninsured-affordability-problems-health-coverage-5e357e236f19/.

[8] In the Public Interest, How Private Prison Companies Increase Recidivism 2 (2016), https://www.inthepublicinterest.org/wp-content/uploads/ITPI-Recidivism-ResearchBrief-June2016.pdf.

[9] Ed Lavandera & Jason Morris, Why Big Companies Buy, Sell Your Data, CNN (Aug. 23, 2012, 3:52 PM), https://www.cnn.com/2012/08/23/tech/web/big-data-acxiom/index.html.