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The Brazen U.S. Chamber of Commerce Campaign to Hurt the Economy

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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has become a despicable organization. I'm not talking about the local Chambers to whom many of us turn when we're relocating to a new area, inquiring about civic and business associations or good tourist sites to visit. Rather, this is about the national office, the nation's richest corporate lobby group with a far-reaching right-wing anti-consumer partisan political agenda.

First, a quick review of the U.S. Chamber's activities this year: multimillion-dollar ad campaigns (on top of record $144 million spent lobbying) to try to bring down both health insurance and financial reform; petitions and lawsuits against the EPA for finding that greenhouse gases endanger the public; a harassment lawsuit against the satirical Yes Men for punking them over their backwards climate change views, a position so out of whack that several major companies left the Chamber in protest ; and opposing Senator Al Franken's defense appropriations amendment that says those who serve as contractors in Iraq and get brutally drugged and raped by their co-workers ought to be able to seek legal recourse for their injuries court. They are also starting to force movie audiences to watch commercials to convince them that the biggest problem facing the country today isn't the economy, unemployment, two wars... (need we go on). It's lawsuits by average working families, especially the ones against corporations that hurt and poison people. Tone deaf doesn't begin to describe this.

They were also caught in a number of other embarrassing faux pas (like here and here) but as we saw with the behavior of bonus-seeking Wall St. executives, when you're that rich, you're incapable of embarrassment. And here's more proof of that.

In 1998, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, created a project called the "Institute for Legal Reform" (ILR) to pursue the Chamber's agenda of protecting dangerous corporations from liability. I've written about this group here. ILR is itself a huge spender. One of ILR's "jobs" is to publish an annual "ranking" of states, a survey that criticizes certain state business climates based on nothing more than the views of a scattering of corporate lawyers' from around the country, most of whom know absolutely nothing about the states they are "ranking." Their new one is out today.

Back in 2006 - just months after Hurricane Katrina - the Chamber's "survey" inexplicably pummeled the struggling Gulf Coast region, calling these states bad for business just as they were trying to recover from one of the worst disasters in our nation's history. Despite withering criticism from consumer groups (like ours) and experts, the Chamber has reissued this ranking every year with nearly the same results. This year, it again beats up some of our country's most struggling states, suggesting that these states - West Virginia and Mississippi, the nation's two poorest, along with Alabama, Louisiana, and struggling California - deserve to be ridiculed as bad for businesses.

Ironically, the Chamber seems utterly unconcerned with the actual business climate in or the impact their survey might have on the communities they are hurting. Back when Madison County, Illinois was the most frequent object of Chamber attack (they still make the list), the county board chair countered by saying, "I've been in contact with local chambers of commerce trying to attract people to Madison County, and we agree Madison County is a good place to locate business... There has been a lot of propaganda in the last election year."

Before trying to understand why they do this, it's worth examining just how intellectually dishonest and harmful to the country this "survey" is. Theodore Eisenberg, Professor of Law and Adjunct Professor of Statistical Sciences at Cornell University, severely critiqued this shoddy document last September. Here are just a few highlights:

• "The survey is methodologically flawed and provides little useful information for states assessing their liability systems or for businesses considering investment in states or in the United States. The survey lacks elementary social scientific objectivity and incorrectly characterizes state law. Objectively verifiable responses are correct less than 10% of the time. Respondents ignore legal rules and material events within states."

• "The Chamber's survey violates the elementary principle that evaluation of legal system performance should be based on input from both sides to disputes," noting the obvious: "asking only one side to a dispute about a system will yield biased results."

• Compounding this bias is the fact that respondents are first told of the prior year's results, and are provided monetary incentives.

• Even when one of those states changes its laws to strip consumers or patients of legal rights (such as Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and West Virginia), these states continue to rank "low," which is "consistent with evidence from other states that respondents know little about the states they rank."

But this survey is more than just hurtful to a few states. Eisenberg finds that the most damaging effects of the Chamber's survey likely are "on our whole country's fiscal and physical well-being." That's because "U.S. businesses invest largely based on criteria more relevant to their decisions than the Chamber's claims about state legal systems. [This survey] creates false impressions about states and the United States that may discourage foreign investment" and "may also unnecessarily endanger the public safety by decreasing tort law's deterrent effect."

What to do? One idea: rather than sit through their 2-minute film propaganda at the movies, take a moment and complain to the manager.