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How to Unleash Chemical-Policy Reform (and Every Other Progressive Reform)

By Peter Montague

Why is it so hard for Congress to pass a decent law to protect public health by regulating toxic chemicals? After all, during the 1960s and 1970s Congress adopted nearly two dozen far-reaching environmental laws and treaties [1]. Why can't Congress just repeat those earlier policy prescriptions?   Here's why:   In 1970, things were very different from today. In 1970, the business community was in disarray, still discredited and weakened by memories of the Great Depression (1929- 1941). Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal (1932-1952), combined with labor shortages created by World War II, had produced a large and powerful labor movement. Organized labor then demanded substantial wage increases, thus creating a large middle class [2]. Even non-unionized businesses raised wages, aiming to keep employees happy and unions out.   The massive economic stimulus of World War II, combined with pent-up demand after 15 years of austerity (1930-1945), plus rising wages, produced 30 years of post-war economic prosperity unmatched in American history. By 1970 the nation was feeling flush [3]. Then unions supported members of Congress who championed progressive causes, including environmental protection [4].  

The Rise of the Right

All that has changed. Today the labor movement has been systematically decimated by public policies [5]. Plus the business community now has its act together and has been systematically pursuing a simple common agenda since 1980 [6]. To pursue their common agenda, organized business interests have constructed a colossal advocacy machine [7], including dozens of think tanks and policy shops; university research institutes, professorships, and curricula; major PR/propaganda outlets (for example, Fox News and hate radio); K-street plumbers and fixers; experts for hire on any subject; issue- advocacy front groups; and Astroturf street-demonstrators. This machine can shine a spotlight and quickly move an issue onto society's agenda and keep it there – or shine a spotlight elsewhere to keep an issue out of public view.   The political heart of the advocacy machine is the "influence industry," which spends a massive $6.7 billion each year to cajole and bully Congress. That's an average of $12.5 million of loose cash available to tempt and strong-arm each of the 535 members of the House and Senate each year. (The average annual budget for running a Congressional office in D.C. is $1.3 million, so $12.5 million is a lot of money to play with) [8].   Furthermore, someone with $12.5 million to spend doesn't actually have to spend it to influence a politician. He or she just has to whisper into the ear of a Senator or Congressman, "We have unlimited funds that we can spend for you or against you. It's your choice."  

The Ascent of Wall Street with its Clustering of Psychopaths

Other crucial changes since 1970 include the end of the cold war and, with it, the enormous growth of the financial services industry.   Simon Johnson, former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, has described the recent ascension of Wall Street: "From 1973 to 1985, the financial sector never earned more than 16 percent of domestic corporate profits. In 1986, that figure reached 19 percent. In the 1990s, it oscillated between 21 percent and 30 percent, higher than it had ever been in the postwar period. This decade [2000-2010], it reached 41 percent." Of course enormous profits produce enormous political influence.   The ascent of Wall Street has had an important negative effect not often acknowledged: putting into positions of power an increasing number of psychopathic individuals.   Psychopaths are present in every society. They look like ordinary people, yet they are profoundly different. They lack a conscience. They cannot feel guilt or remorse. Furthermore, they lack empathy, the ability to share someone else's feelings. They are unable to care about anyone besides themselves, and do not mind inflicting pain on others when it helps them reach their goals. For them, laws matter little. Many psychopaths compensate for their emotional emptiness by cultivating attractive mannerisms. Many of them tend to be charming, polished, confident, glib, and decisive at the same time they are aggressive, manipulative, predatory risk-takers, cheats and swindlers. They muscle their way upward within corporations, becoming top decision- makers.   An estimated one percent of people in the general public meet the clinical definition of a psychopath [9]. But among top corporate managers, psychopaths represent an estimated 3.5 to 4% [10]. Furthermore, psychopaths seem to be particularly attracted to the wealth and power available in the world of finance [11]. According to one estimate, 10% of those working on Wall Street are psychopaths [12]. The leading researcher on psychopathology – Canadian forensic psychologist Robert Hare – has written, "If I were unable to study psychopaths in prison, my next choice would very likely be a place like the Vancouver Stock Exchange" [13].   Psychopaths can be identified by use of a standardized psychological test called the PCL-R [14]. In 2014, British psychologist Clive Boddy reported in an interview that some banks are using the PCL-R not to weed out psychopaths but to recruit them for employment [15].   So the rising financial and political power of Wall Street executives, combined with the increased integration and reach of global financial institutions, has greatly magnified the influence – and thus the stark social threat – of the psychopaths among us [16].   An official investigation of the recent financial crisis revealed the damage that psychopathic behavior on Wall Street can do. In 2009, Congress initiated an 18-month investigation of the causes of the meltdown [17]. In early 2012, the chairman of the investigative commission, Phil Angelides (former treasurer of the state of California), discussed the bi-partisan commission's findings in an hour-long interview broadcast by PBS [18].   Angelides began the interview bluntly placing blame for the financial crisis on "recklessness on Wall Street – unbridled recklessness... a private financial sector run amok." He blamed "egregious and predatory lending practices" and "an epidemic of mortgage fraud," which was reported by the FBI as early as 2004 but ignored by bankers, by regulators, and by the justice system. Bank executives routinely lied to regulators about their banks' exposure to debt – a crime under federal law.   The financial meltdown put 24 million people out of work. Of those still employed, 55% experienced decreased hours or decreased wages [19]. Almost immediately 4 million families lost their homes, and by late 2012, 8.2 million home foreclosures had been initiated [20].   The bankers that caused the crisis made out like bandits. As a result of their unbridled recklessness, the 10 largest U.S. banks grew even larger, increasing their share of the nation's total banking assets to 77%. A few banks paid small fines for their misdeeds without being required to admit fault. "It's very much akin to someone who robbed a 7- 11 for $1,000 being settled for $25 with no admission of wrongdoing," Angelides said.   By their reckless behavior, bank executives ruined the lives of tens of millions of people. But because they are have become so powerful -- too big to fail and too big to jail -- they are continuing to conduct business as usual, as if nothing had happened. "If you look across the board, very little has changed in the nature and operation of Wall Street," Angelides said. "It's really I think quite remarkable that so many of the practices and people that existed pre-crisis are still running the show today." Alongside the ascent of Wall Street with its clustering of psychopaths, the end of the cold war brought other crucial changes:   As the British economic journalist John Lanchester has observed, "Capitalism is not inherently fair: it does not [by itself] distribute the rewards of economic growth equitably. Instead, it runs on the bases of winner takes all and to them that hath shall be given. For several decades after World War II, western liberal democracies devoted themselves to the question of how to harness capitalism's potential for economic growth to the political imperative to provide better lives for ordinary people. The jet engine of capitalism was harnessed to the ox cart of social justice." [21]  

The End of the Cold War, the End of the Quest for Social Justice

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, U.S. and British leaders almost immediately unhitched the jet engine from the ox cart. With no alternative systems left to compete for the allegiance of the non-aligned Third World, the quest for social justice was largely abandoned in the U.S. and Britain alike.   "The free market stopped being one way of arranging the world, subject to argument and comparison with other systems: it became an item of faith, of near-mystical belief. In that belief system, the finance industry made up the class of priests and magicians, and began to be treated that way," Lanchester remarks [22].  

Religion of the Free Market & Mediaeval Inequalities of Wealth

As the religion of the so-called "free market" [23] took hold, its priesthood gained astonishing levels of wealth and therefore of political power. In the U.S., inequalities of wealth are now so extreme that they can accurately be labeled mediaeval. For example, in 2012, the top 40 hedge fund managers and traders took home, between them, $16.7 billion dollars – equivalent to the wages of 400,000 ordinary workers [24].  

Corrupt Money Unleashed

Everyone knows money talks. Now, thanks to recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, for a few hundred billionaires, money shouts [25]. In 2010, the Supreme Court changed the election-finance rules that had been in place since 1907 [26]. In Citizens United v. FEC, the Court gave corporations the right to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence political campaigns from the outside (running TV ads, for example).   Then in McCutcheon v. FEC in 2014, the Court raised 30-fold the amount of money that an individual donor can give directly to federal candidates and party committees during each two-year election cycle – raised it from $123,200 to $3.6 million [27].   As a direct result of these Supreme Court rulings, in early 2015, two billionaire petrochemical executives, Charles and David Koch of Wichita, Kan. [28], announced that they and their friends were planning to spend $889 million in 2016 to elect a libertarian Republican president. That's about $200 million more than the Republican Party itself spent on the 2012 election [29]. Notably, that $889 million is merely what the libertarian Koch brothers and their friends have chosen to disclose; additional undisclosed "dark money" donations are now entirely legal [30].

Middle Class Struggling to Hang On

Meanwhile, the middle class is falling off a cliff. Measured in constant (inflation- adjusted) dollars, between 2003 and 2013 the net worth of the average family in the U.S. declined by 36 percent. Specifically, in round numbers, the net worth of the average (median) U.S. family plunged from $88,000 in 2003 to $56,000 in 2013. (The median is the midpoint in a string of numbers, with half the numbers higher than the median and half lower.) In short, tens of millions of ordinary people are struggling to make ends meet. To keep up, they are working longer hours, thus reducing (or eliminating) any free time they used to devote to civic participation [31].  

Cumulative Impact: The General Public No Longer Affects Policy

As you might imagine, the cumulative impact of all these changes has corrupted and crippled American democracy. Indeed, in 2014 a large study of 1,779 public policy issues revealed that "the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact on public policy." In other words, it no longer matters what the public prefers or wants. When it comes to making public policy, the general public simply doesn't count anymore. The large study, by Martin Gilens at Princeton and Benjamin I. Page at Northwestern, found that public policies are chiefly influenced by business-oriented groups whose policy-preferences are opposite the wishes of the general public. The study concluded, "When a majority of citizens disagree with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose." [32]   Clearly, our democracy is broken, wrecked by massive payola pouring into elections at all levels, from local to national, corrupting every branch of government – legislative, executive, and judicial [33].  


So, yes, the conditions that enabled progressive environmental policies during the 1970s are gone. Progressive reform during the period 1932 to 1980 was made possible by circumstances that will almost certainly never recur – a deep global economic depression discrediting and weakening the business community, followed by a massive global ground war. New Deal policies that created a powerful labor movement, plus several decades of unparalleled prosperity, made other reforms possible – civil rights, women's rights, the regulation of Wall Street, and environmental protections. Since 1980, a coordinated counter-revolution has been rescinding those earlier reforms, one by one, and now – in a final blow – the way forward for progressives has been effectively blocked by the Supreme Court unleashing an avalanche of cash.  

The One reform that Could Make a Difference

To enact effective chemical-policy reform (or any other worthwhile progressive reform) requires first that we get private money out of our elections. This is the one essential reform that makes possible all other reforms. Can the environmental movement make common cause with other progressive reform-groups [34] and mount a multi-year (or multi-decade) campaign to escape the thrall of money-corruption[35]? Surely, in principle, it could. We the people do still have freedom of speech, the right to vote, and the internet for communication and information (though all three of these essential tools are under constant assault).   On many issues, progressive Americans outnumber their adversaries by as much as two to one. But the familiar strategy of "divide and conquer," powered by corrupt money, has drowned out the progressive voice. We can campaign together across issue-lines to win back our voice, or we can continue on our present lonely path, in pained silence beating our heads against a wall of gold. It seems a simple choice.


Peter Montague is an Historian and Journalist whose writing has appeared Huffington Post, The Nation, Truthout, and many other publications. For over 20 years Peter published Rachel's News which provided simple, strong arguments around complex issues, surveyed precautionary actions across sectors, and connected disparate actors with common aspirations. Peter has co-authored two books on toxic heavy metals. He is one of the true Godfathers of the environmental health and justice movements. 


[1] Natural Resources Defense Council, "Reference Links: Environmental Laws and Treaties," web site accessed March 29, 2015.

[2] Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself; The New deal and the Origins of Our Time (N.Y.: Liveright Publishing, 2014; Michael Lind, Land of Promise; An Economic History of the United States (N.Y.: Harper, 2013); Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands; The Businessmen's Crusade against the New Deal (N.Y.: W.W. Norton, 2010)

[3] Michael Lind, Land of Promise; An Economic History of the United States (N.Y.: Harper, 2013)

[4] Gar Alperovitz, What Then Must We Do? (White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green, 2013).

[5] In 1945, 35% of U.S. workers were unionized; by 2015 only 7% of private-sector workers were unionized. See Kirstin Downey, The Woman Behind the New Deal (N.Y.: Random House, 2009; Anchor Books edition, 2010), pgs. 121-122, 197, 200, 219, 228, 337. And: Nicholas Kristof, "The Cost of a Decline in Unions," New York Times Feb. 19, 2015.

[6] The basic libertarian/business agenda boils down to (1) shrink government; (2) prevent workers from organizing; and (3) allow the unrestricted flow of capital everywhere in the world. Sub-parts of this basic agenda include: (a) Eliminate all remaining restrictions on money in federal, state and local elections, allowing unrestricted donations that are entirely secret; (b) Cut or evade taxes to starve government, to keep it ineffective; (c) Crush labor unions and eliminate collective bargaining; (d) Reverse the victories of the civil rights movement, particularly the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to discourage voting by Blacks, Hispanics, the young, the elderly, the poor, and the disabled; and (e) Eliminate environmental regulations that restrict corporate behavior.

[7] Lee Fang, The Machine; A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right (N.Y. New Press, 2013). And David Brock, The Republican Noise Machine (N.Y.: Random House, 2004, 2005).

[8] Tim LaPira, "How much lobbying is there in Washington? It's DOUBLE what you think," (Washington, D.C.: The Sunlight Foundation, Nov. 25, 2013). Web site accessed March 30, 2015.

[9] The prevalence of psychopaths among the general public is difficult to establish because most research on psychopaths has studied individuals who are incarcerated or institutionalized. The one percent figure is from Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare, Snakes in Suits; When Psychopaths Go to Work (N.Y.: HarperCollins, 2006), pg. 18. The same one percent prevalence figure appears in Ronald Schouten and James Silver, Almost a Psychopath (Center City, Minn.: Hazelden Publishing, 2012), pg. 25.

[10] Clive R. P. Boddy, Richard Ladyshewsky and Peter Galvin, "Leaders without ethics in global business: corporate psychopaths," Journal of Public Affairs Vol. 10 (2010), pgs. 121–138 and Paul Babiak, Craig S. Neumann, and Robert D. Hare, "Corporate Psychopathy: Talking the Walk," Behavioral Sciences and the Law Vol. 28 (2010), pgs. 174-193 See also Ronald Schouten and James Silver, Almost a Psychopath (Center City, Minn.: Hazelden Publishing, 2012); Kevin Dutton, The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us about Success (N.Y.: Scientific American, 2013) ; Hervey Cleckley, The Mask of Sanity [revised edition; ISBN-10 0452253411] (St. Louis, Mo.: The C.V. Mosby Company, 1941, 1950, 1955 , 1982); William Deresiewicz, "Capitalists and Other Psychopaths," New York Times Jan. 30, 2015

[11] Clive R.P. Boddy, "Corporate Psychopaths and organizational type," Journal of Public Affairs Vol. 10 (2010), pgs. 300-312.

[12] Sherree Decovny, "The Financial Psychopath Next Door," CFA Institute Magazine Vol. 23, No. 12 (March-April 2012), pgs. 34-35. The basis for this estimate is not clear. CFA stands for "Certified Financial Analyst."

[13] Robert D. Hare, Without Conscience; The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us (N.Y. Guildford Press, 1993), pg. 119. Hare is the author of a widely-used psychopathy assessment tool, the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, 2nd Edition (PCL-R) (San Antonio, Tex.: Pearson, 2003).

[14] The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, 2nd Edition (PCL-R) (San Antonio, Tex.: Pearson, 2003).

[15] Anne-Marie MacDonald interviewing Clive Boddy Nov. 27, 2014, on the TV program "Doc Zone" on Canadian Broadcasting.

[16] Clive R. Boddy, "The Corporate Psychopaths Theory of the Global Financial Crisis," Journal of Business Ethics Vol. 102 (2011), pgs. 255-259.

[17] Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission [Phil Angelides, Chairman], The Financial Crisis Inquiry Report; Final Report of the National Commission on the Causes of the Financial and Economic Crisis in the United States [ISBN 9781780392264] (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2011). Available free in PDF at

[18] Jim Gilmore interviewing Phil Angelides Jan. 4, 2012, on the TV program "Frontline" on PBS. A video and transcript are available at; accessed April 2, 2015.

[19] Pam Bennett, "The aftermath of the Great Recession: Financially fragile communities and how professionals can help," The Forum for Family and Consumer Issues (FFCI), 2012.

[20] Pam Bennett, "The aftermath of the Great Recession: Financially fragile communities and how professionals can help," The Forum for Family and Consumer Issues (FFCI), 2012.

[21] John Lanchester, Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay. (London: Penguin Books, 2010), pg. 15. This short, readable book offers a clear explanation of what caused the ongoing financial crisis in the U.S. and the U.K., which began officially in 2007; highly recommended.

[22] John Lanchester, Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay. (London: Penguin Books, 2010), pg. 13.

[23] In reality, the "free market" was created, and is sustained, by the largest bureaucracy in the history of humankind.

[24] Paul Krugman, "Inequality, Dignity and Freedom," New York Times Feb. 13, 2014.

[25] Kerry A. Dolan and Luisa Kroll, "Forbes 400: The Richest people in America, 2014," Forbes, Sept. 29, 2014. Web site accessed Mar. 30, 2015.

[26] Editorial Board, "The Court's Blow to Democracy," New York Times January 21, 2010. 27 Adam Liptak, "Supreme Court Strikes Down Overall Political Spending Cap," New York Times April 2, 2014.

[28] Daniel Schulman, Sons of Wichita; How the Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful and Private Dynasty (N.Y. Grand Central Publishing, 2014).

[29] Nicholas Confessore, "Koch Brothers’ Budget of $889 Million for 2016 Is on Par With Both Parties’ Spending," New York Times, Jan. 26, 2015.

[30] Thomas B. Edsall, "Dark Money Politics," New York Times June 12, 2013.; and see Editorial Board, "Which Companies Are Buying the Election?" New York Times March 27, 2015.

[31] Fabian T. Pfeffer, Sheldon Danziger and Robert F. Schoeni, Wealth Levels, Wealth Inequality and the Great Recession – Research Summary (N.Y.: Russell Sage Foundation, June, 2014).; and see Fabian T. Pfeffer, Sheldon Danziger and Robert F. Schoeni, "Wealth Disparities Before and After the Great Recession," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science Vol. 650, No. 1 (2013), pgs. 98-123. See also Pew Research Center, Fewer, Poorer Gloomier – The Lost Decade of the Middle Class (Washington, D.C.: Pew Social and Demographic Trends, 2012.

[32] Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens," Perspectives on Politics Vol. 12, No. 3 (2014), pgs. 564-581.

[33] Charlie Cray and Peter Montague, The Kingpins of Carbon and Their War on Democracy (Washington, D.C.: Greenpeace, November, 2014), tells this story in some detail.

[34] For a preliminary list of the issues-areas in which the environmental movement might find potential allies, all of whom could gain by eliminating private money from elections, see Peter Montague, "Areas of Grass-roots Action," unpublished draft of April 5, 2015.

[35] For an incomplete list of organizations currently active in election-finance reform, see