Something weird occurred on my TV when I happened to catch a few minutes of the Madrid Tennis Open on Sunday. Whatever technology these stadiums use to provide constantly changing television advertisements along the sides of the court wasn't working too well. Some of the furniture on the clay itself seemed to be dissociating on an atomic level. A chair looked as if it was disappearing in a shimmering blue cloud. It was like that moment in the movie The Matrix when the reality of the unreality becomes apparent to Neo -- a house cat vanishes for a split second, then reappears.
The technical snafu made the match pretty hard to watch, so I reverted to the New York Times, where columnist Thomas Friedman happened to be expressing astonishment at the profound influence of corporate marketing values on American society. Few have written more enthusiastically about the spread of capitalism worldwide than Friedman, so it was surprising to hear him say he "had no idea" that famous authors, revered sports players and even public institutions have all bartered their identities for corporate cash.
Just then, Roger Federer won the match. "Watch this," my wife said in a moment. "He's going to reach into his gym bag and pull out an expensive watch, so he's wearing it when he gets the award." Sure enough, with a bemused grin -- I took it to be a guilty "OK, I have to do this" sort of look -- Federer theatrically slipped his sweaty hand into the bag and slowly pulled out a gleaming Rolex, which he then slid onto his wrist.
I'm no slouch when it comes to tracking the commodification of our culture -- a Ralph Nader spin-off, Commercial Alert, has been quietly raising the issue for years -- but I'd never witnessed someone of Federer's stature actually engage in a corporate sponsorship ritual, one which happens to be well known to tennis fans.
The impact of celebrity endorsements and the promotion of products in TV shows and films is more than just an idle curiosity. For many years, Americans were urged to close the gap between the lifestyle they aspired to -- as displayed in the entertainment media -- and the economic reality of their lives by borrowing on their homes and credit cards. This masked a gaping and painfully growing chasm that is now the topic of conversation only because Wall Street flushed the toilet on our economy a few years back. Where once you too might have been able to pull a beautiful watch out of your duffel courtesy of a JP Morgan Chase credit card, that's no longer possible for many.
Even more insidious than dictating our personal dreams and values is the corporate capture of our political identities. In that sense, the United States Supreme Court's infamous decision in Citizens United symbolically acknowledges what had long ago become the Golden Rule of American democracy: those who have the gold, rule. By bestowing human rights upon corporate entities, and equating spending money to buy elections with freedom of speech, Citizens United locked in a system of legalized bribery that locks most Americans out of the electoral process that is our birthright.
Sure, we still have the right to vote. But the choices we are offered are usually determined by a political establishment mostly dominated by corporate money and a vast apparatus of election consultants, public relations hacks and lobbyists.
Every corporate dollar spent on candidates and elections pays an enormous return on the investment. The Money Industry gave $5 billion to federal officials in the ten years leading up to the 2008 financial debacle, as we documented in 2009 (PDF). The result: "bipartisan" decisions by lawmakers and the executive branch stripping away decades of legislation designed to protect America against lunatic speculation. Liberated, Wall Street gambled till it lost everything. Cost to American taxpayers: hundreds of trillions of dollars in bailouts, lost jobs, battered businesses, devastated communities -- a depression. Heads they win, tales you lose.
A recent study by academics at the University of Kansas examined how a particular federal tax break for multinational corporations became law, and what happened after that. They calculated that for every $1 spent on lobbying in favor of the tax break, the companies were spared $220 in taxes -- a return of 22,000%.
Last week's revelation that JP Morgan Chase had lost $2 billion through trading practices that are supposed to be illegal under the financial reform law passed by Congress in 2010 begged the question: how did they get away with it? Answer: JP Morgan Chase spent millions on lobbyists whose job was to weaken the law, and delay its implementation. The current draft of the federal regulations required to enforce a key provision of the law is a 298-page monstrosity; thanks to JP Morgan's lawyers, it's loaded with political booby traps and sabotaging IEDs that will utterly neuter the law, if it ever takes effect.
With staggering results like these, it's no wonder that the corruption of American politics is now an industry itself. The Times estimates its size at $6 billion a year, and reports that a series of mergers and acquisitions is creating a corporate lobbying conglomerate where the best and brightest -- including retiring members of Congress -- alight.
This is the Invisible Government that used to be the topic of novelists and conspiracy theorists. In the celebrity-driven entertainment Matrix, it's easy to miss if you aren't looking around and wondering what's going on.