Time To Reign In Corporations

September 9, 2010

- See all 39 of my articles

Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining profit without individual responsibility.

-Ambrose Bierce

When I hear the phrase “we the people” I think of your average Joe Citizen. I think of people down on their luck in the inner city, struggling to make ends meet. I think of a guy living in Westchester county with an acre of land and a beautifully manicured lawn. I don’t think of Exxon. Or Pfizer. Or Halliburton. Strangely enough, though, the Supreme Court of the United States thinks of those corporations – all corporations, really – in the same category as “we the people.”

Earlier this year in January with the ruling of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, when the John Roberts led supreme court ruled that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts could not be limited under the First Amendment. This ruling was absolutely unprecedented, but was yet another small step in giving corporations power at the expense of the people. This was an absolutely partisan ruling that struck down the previous bi-partisan McCain-Feingold act that prohibited all corporations from broadcasting “electioneering communications.” In very simple terms the Supreme Court ruled that anyone is essentially “an individual” in terms of campaign donations and political broadcasts. The First Amendment, one of the few things that still separated people from corporations, was now declared by the majority opinion (5-4 almost strictly along party lines) to apply to corporations too.

Since that ruling any group whatsoever can now spend any amount of money on political advertisements that they so wish and do so in a fashion that allows them to obfuscate where the money is coming from. Combine this with the Florida court ruling that says media agencies – even ones specifically devoted toward broadcasting “the news” – are allowed to lie under the first amendment, and you have an environment perfectly set to have corporate shills and puppets running our country.

Not that they don’t already.

One of my favorite authors, William Gibson, often writes about a dystopian future where corporations rule the world by propping up cardboard cutout governments that are technically legal but amount to nothing. In these books no one thinks twice about the fact that these corporations field standing armies, assassinate anyone they deem a threat, and produce products that are known to be harmful to humans simply because they make a profit. We’re not too far from that today. This country was originally set up to be run for the people by the people – a vote by the masses would ensure the brightest would lead this country and have only the best interests in mind for the people. There already are politicians associated with certain high-power corporate entities. Joe Lieberman is widely known for being the senator from Etna, not Connecticut. The Cheney administration seemed to have the best interests of Haliburton and the military-industrial complex in mind rather than those of the country. Now that donation money can flow even more freely you’re going to see a lot more political attack ads against people the corporations don’t want in power and the people they do want in power winning more offices.

What’s one of the biggest ways a corporation gains money and power? At your expense. When Major League Baseball’s Expos were shown to be floundering economically it was decided by a consortium of MLB owners to move the team. They already had the buyer picked out, and through tax breaks, outright grants, and local government donations the Lerner Group effectively purchased the team for no money. Based on the value of the Nationals compared to the Expos it can even be argued that they were paid to take the team. Taxpayers in DC were told a stadium would boost income and revenue for the local economy, they were repeatedly told a popular lie the money would “trickle down.” from the rich to the poor. Yet here we are years later and the income gap between the poor and rich has widened, even more so in Washington DC than other areas.  [Read David Cay Johnston’s book A Free Lunch for more background on the Nationals sale].

In the 1940’s, corporations typically paid around 33% of our government’s tax income. This had failed to 15 percent in the 1990s. On the flip side, the individual tax burden has risen from 44% to over 70% in that same time frame. Corporations feel no remorse, feel no pain, don’t age, don’t worry about the environment, don’t care about the quality of food, and have only one goal: to gain as much money as possible for the few that run it. Corporations are considered people and have all those advantages, yet they don’t have the built-in regulation that most people have: a conscience. A sense of what is right and wrong. How many times can you think of a corporate disaster that cost lives or greatly damaged lives where before any government interaction that corporation jumped to do the right thing and fixed their damage. I honestly can’t think of any. Now how many times can you think of where the reverse happened, where a corporation caused massage damage or death and then dragged their feet doing the right thing and in the end never did make things whole? The Deep Horizon oil spill, the Exxon Valdez, Toyota’s acceleration/brake problem, Union Carbide’s Bopa disaster. In each of those situations I clearly remember more effort and possibly more money going into telling us they were working on fixing the problem than actually fixing the problem.

Think of how scary a world we already live in, in terms of corporate power.

Now think that the vast majority of politicians get the vast majority of their money from corporations with the express intent that the money given is to sway political decisions in corporate favor.

William Gibson, we’re not far from the ethics of Neuromancer while still being pretty far away from the technology that makes that world a wonder. I’d call that a horror book.

12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Martin Kelly
    Sep 09, 2010 @ 09:39:34

    Zarber, you pose several very compelling arguments. I agree with you interpretation of who “We the People” are, however I have to disagree with your interpetation of the SCOTUS. The ruling was in part to close an interesting gap that the campaign finance law allowed, specifically, unions (which can be considered corporations on their own) had the right and ability to produce policical speech, but other entities did not. The result of the discision puts Exxon ahead of any grass roots group as far as buying power. I would actually like to have seen both unions and corporations banned from the political arena.

    Theonly example of a corporation jumping to fix problems they have causeed I can think of is the BP response to the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. They were working to stop the leak and clean up before the government stepped in. Of course, theare are laws in effect to force that response. The corporations who have caused or are responsible for the worst desasters do need to be penalized. The ones who identify problems and solve them before they cause harm are the types of companies I like, solid and quiet and most likely not considering growth and quartly profits as the only gauge of success.

    I still believe that the natural process of consumer choice will put those companies who are trying to hurt thier costomers out of business. Only the government can force you to purchase something you do not want. In the books you reference, corporations usurp the power of government with police and armed forces to compel individuals to support them. I also would consider that condition to be a nightmare.

    In fact there are only three things in this article I disagree with are:
    1) McCain-Fiengold is not bi-partison. McCain is just a democrat with an R next to his name.
    2) Cheney was never president, give it up.
    3) The attachment to corporations is only one of the problems our politicians face. It is an overall high dollar buy off by corporations and special instrest groups (i.e. the millions of dollars George Soros is spending, or the NRA) instead of millions of small donations from individuals.


  2. Zarberg
    Sep 09, 2010 @ 11:19:06

    You REALLY don’t think Cheney was running the show from 2000-2008? In my mind there’s zero doubt. The evidence to show he was orchestrating the 2nd war in Iraq is absolutely overwhelming. The fact that he did so to sacrifice thousands of American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives makes him a vile, disgusting, evil man in my book.

    As for campaign donations, they should end. Period. If a company wants to donate to the political process they can donate to the presidential election fund and that can be distributed evening and 100% transparently. People should win based on their own merit, absolutely not on the money of others.


  3. Squeaky
    Sep 09, 2010 @ 11:55:27

    Z—thought provoking article today.
    Martin, you hit the nail on the head from every angle.

    I don’t care who it is, no company or union should be campaigning or throwing their money behind candidates. Unions are the most crooked form of organization in the country with some companies following close in suit. The Teamsters and AFL-CIO should be disbanded, but that is a topic for another day.

    I remember the Exxon Valdez situation but was too young to follow it so I can’t comment on that. My reading on the situation has been zero.

    BP – The company was all over the spill and I disagree with Zarberg’s assertion:

    “…I clearly remember more effort and possibly more money going into telling us they were working on fixing the problem than actually fixing the problem.”

    I spent hours online watching BP employees working on the leak, cleaning up the spill, cleaning up the shorelines. A far comparison to any press conferences that they had.

    McCain is most definitely a Democrat. He may campaign as a Rebublican but when it comes to the issues he and I are not on the same page.

    You could make today’s columb and just sum it as with what every liberal is really thinking, “This is George W. Bush’s fault.”

    Have a good weekend boyzzzz.



  4. Zarberg
    Sep 09, 2010 @ 12:01:26

    You’re both wrong on McCain


    If you have something against wiki, just click on the citing link.


  5. Evan @ 40Tech
    Sep 09, 2010 @ 12:43:01

    Punitive damages in lawsuits were created, in part, to dissuade companies from making purely economic decisions when it comes to their wrongdoing. It sort of offsets the fact that a publicly-traded company has a fiduciary duty to its stockholders to make money. The idea was to reduce the chance that a company’s officers would say to themselves, “well, it will be cheaper to pay off the damages we caused (to anyone that bothers to sue us for it), than it would be to fix the problem.”

    Of course, the scary part is that there is a very real possibility that this will become less of a deterrent, and corporations will be afforded special rights and immunities not afforded to the rest of us, if lobbying efforts go through to restrict the average person’s right to hold them legally accountable. That’s one of the frightening parts about the Supreme Court decision regarding election laws. Our civil justice system is one of the last bastions of hope for the little guy to stand on equal footing with billion dollar corporations, and that is now in the crosshairs of big business and the insurance lobby.

    The BP news the other day was interesting. After the spill, they increased their Google Adwords spending from $57,000 a month, to $3.6 million in June alone, buying up such adwords as “Gulf oil spill.” I guess that is smart PR and it is hard to find too much fault with it, but it still rubs me the wrong way for some reason.


  6. kosmo
    Sep 09, 2010 @ 13:25:38

    I don’t want to be painted as a big defender of BP, because clearly there was wrongdoing on their part.

    However, take a look at they money they are paying out to affected business. If they wanted to play hardball, they could force the companies to sue. They have at least given companies the option of settling without litigation.


  7. Tim Wolfe
    Sep 09, 2010 @ 14:52:51

    Instead of slamming corporations/big business let’s encourage more people to go into business for themselves. The other issue is that people run things and people have to fix things. We need better fixers and we need people to vote for the right people, not the same old ones who keep screwing things up as well as the new one’s who way over and we the voters should know better.


  8. Onij
    Sep 09, 2010 @ 18:07:52

    im sorry, did @Squeaky and @Kelly really call McCain a Democrat??


  9. Martin Kelly
    Sep 10, 2010 @ 21:28:12

    Yes Onij, we did accuse McCain of being a democrat in republican clothing.

    There are web sites out there that claim he voted 80% with President Bush, and that may be true, but he got the monicer of Maverick because he went against the republican party on many major issues such as boarder security and finance reform. He has voted for every major spending bill ever introduced. Now I am not a good republican, because I disagree with the old establishment. I am a fiscal conservative and a social agnostic. My personal views tend to stain my opinion of what the republican party should be, since the democratic party has moved so far away from fical conservatism since JFK.


  10. Zarberg
    Sep 10, 2010 @ 21:34:25

    If anything he’s a flip-flopper in opportunity’s clothing. When it suited him he was as liberal as the Republican party allowed (which is still conservative enough if you look at the link I provided) back around 2000. When J. D. Hayworth seemed popular this year for the primaries he went extremely conservative to shore-up his base (and spent more money on a primary race than he’s ever spent in any senate race previously). I would not be surprised in the slightest to see him slide back toward the middle in 2 months. He’s an opportunist who cares nothing about values and everything about his image.

    Not surprising from a man who divorced his first wife after she was crippled in a car accident to marry a woman rich enough to support his political career.


  11. kosmo
    Sep 10, 2010 @ 22:22:52

    “If anything he’s a flip-flopper in opportunity’s clothing.”

    If definitely does seems that he has shifted considerably on some issues in the last few years. Remember him be a champion of amnesty for illegal aliens in 2008?


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