Friday, August 12, 2011

'Corporations are people,' says every American politician

Out stumping on the campaign trail this week, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney committed the following "gaffe" when confronted by some liberal hecklers:
"Corporations are people, my friend. . . . Of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people."
Like the spectacle of a moderately liberal New England governor campaigning as a true, red-blooded social conservative, Romney's remark is ludicrous and liberal pundits have rightly had a field day with it. Corporations, of course, most certainly are not people; they can't be imprisoned, for one. So yes, let's all enjoy a good chuckle at ol' Mitt's expense and hope he provides many more belly laughs in the coming months -- I have my fingers crossed for more impromptu mingling with minorities.

But here's the thing, and the reason I have "gaffe" in scare quotes: Does any national politician -- does any leading Democrat -- actually disagree with what Romney said? Not the rhetoric, which I think most would be wise enough to avoid, but the substance of what he was defending: corporate personhood.

Some would no doubt point to President Obama's denunciation at last year's State of the Union Address of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which held that corporations enjoy the same free speech rights as any other person. However, that response is something of a non-sequitur, as Obama's criticism was not of the root problem behind the decision about which I asked, corporate personhood, but of a narrow ruling that merely extended said legal status. And on strictly legal grounds -- which, full disclosure, I don't much care about -- it's hard to disagree with the court's ruling, which is merely the bizarre consequence of the even more bizarre and longstanding practice of the state bestowing the legal status of a person on an inanimate financial venture.

This isn't nitpicking. Conflating criticism of the Citizens United ruling with criticism of corporate personhood itself is like conflating criticism of a politician with sedition and treason. I mean, what's the fear, exactly: that, thanks to the Supreme Court, corporations are now going to corrupt Our Democracy by buying and selling politicians? I'll admit such an outcome is scary, but if we're going to be in the business of constructing doomsday scenarios, we ought to be sure they differ from the status quo.

The truth is, Romney's "gaffe" is much like Sarah Palin's remark in 2008 that, why yes, the U.S. would be legally obliged to attack Russia if it went to war with a member of NATO. Back then, every pundit and politician with a blog or a microphone went to town ridiculing Palin's ill-considered and risible remark, arguing it proved her unfitness for office, all the while obscuring a key fact: that what she said was indisputably true. Then as now, the real controversy ought not to have been the clumsy way something was stated, but the truth of what was said.

Criticize Romney and the Supreme Court all you want, the more troubling issue is that, legally speaking, corporations are people -- and that no one in establishment political circles sees a problem with that. This bipartisan embrace of the corporate state consequently causes problems for the 99.9 percent of us not likely to sit on any corporate boards for, while real-live people do indeed reap the benefit of corporate profits, corporate personhood and its attendant "limited liability" ensure they face almost none of the consequences of their bad, and often criminal, decisions.

For instance, while mere mortal, flesh-and-blood people would face serious prison time for paying right-wing death squads to execute labor activists, corporate executives who personally approved those very payments were able to conceal their identities and get away with a mere fine from the Justice Department, the cost of which was no doubt passed along to costumers and shareholders as a whole, rather than the actual perpetrators. Legally, the executives weren't responsible, some prick named "Chiquita" was.

Because blame for wrongdoing can be passed off on to another person -- another person who, again, can't go to jail -- corporate executives can get away with reckless behavior as a matter of course. The profit when such recklessness pays off is huge and, of course, theirs to keep. When it doesn't, as in the case of Goldman Sachs and the housing bubble and with BP and its destruction of the Gulf, the worst that happens is someone like Tony Hayward has to delay remodeling the kitchen in their 14th house by a few weeks while, in true American socialistic fashion, the rest of us chip in to pay for their mistakes. And every politician from Mitt Romney to Nancy Pelosi is fine with that, even if they disagree on how best to rationalize it to an angry public.

If you're laughing at Mitt Romney because, well, he's Mitt Romney: Fine. By all means. But if you're laughing at his remark under the impression his stance on corporations is fundamentally at odds with, say, Barack Obama, the laugh's on you.


  1. "I mean, what's the fear, exactly: that, thanks to the Supreme Court, corporations are now going to corrupt Our Democracy by buying and selling politicians? I'll admit such an outcome is scary, but if we're going to be in the business of constructing doomsday scenarios, we ought to be sure they differ from the status quo."

    This is spot-on. Back in 1916 John Dewey observed that politics "is the shadow cast on society by Big Business," and that had been indisputably true since (conservatively) the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. People who began fretting after the Citizens United decision in 2010 because it supposedly signaled a new era of corruption and corporate dominance of our electoral system clearly know little of American history, which is a long narrative of collusion between policymakers and business executives at the expense of everyone else.

  2. Anonymous4:39 PM

    As pointed out elsewhere, Romney was stating that the money ultimate goes to people, which it doesn't. The money that the government taxes, the money he feels needs to be protected, is money *not* spent on people.

  3. Anonymous4:43 PM

    Um, corporations have held legal personhood for a long, long time in American governmental and jurisprudential history.

    Libbies and Pwoggies and Donklebots love to imagine it was an "Evil Rethuglican SCOTUS" that created the problem in Citizens United v. FEC, but one quick review of the much older case of Buckley v. Valeo suggests that Citizens United was not some frightening anomaly of Evil Rethuglican strong-arm jurisprudence.

    I'd suggest spending a few moments watching this bit of amateur satire:

    Corporate personhood is old news, and obviously not a "shocker revelation" by Romney. Some clever folks even made a documentary about it a few years back.

  4. The Gilded Age never happened. Union busting through gov't policy just started(Police never killed strikers). Our elites and their institutions rely on Historical ignorance to push partisan points for the money machines(political parties, think tanks and pacs) they front.

    The Eisenhower and Kennedy DOJ never attacked United Fruit for sponsoring coups in Central America through intelligence agencies or Kermit Roosevelt for orchestrating a coup in Iran to protect British Petroleum interests...

    No, the Unions linked to "Organized Crime"(never applied to Gov't organized criminal activity--this piece nicely dovetails with the previous on Institutions)were attacked by stalwart "Liberal heroes" like AG Bobby Kennedy---The previous bi-partisan assault on Leftists through HUAC was another facet of the elite's attack on worker organizations and power.

    Even more humorous is the taboo of noting Class Warfare in the US. You'll be shouted down, ridiculed, and tarred for stating a glaring truth(cf. Growing Income Inequality, Regressive Tax Laws--taxing income from labor higher than income from investment and inheritance, loopholes, corporate offshoring etc). The war has been waged by elites with all the power of our Government as a "Fidus Achates", and boy have they annihilated organized opposition. Mitt Romney noted the obvious, real, consensus amongst our elites for over a century. Some truths seem profane when clearly spoken ex cathedra to the plebes. (The Mother Church barred the laity free access to the Scriptures before the Reformation...) In rushes Corpress and phony opposition Angels spreading their thick wings out of fear to obscure plain truths.

  5. Anonymous9:46 PM

    “Obviously they’re not. People are individuals, they’re not groups and they’re not companies. Individuals have rights, they’re not collective. You can’t duck that. So individuals should be responsible for corporations, but they shouldn’t be a new creature, so to speak. Rights and obligations should always be back to the individual.”- Paul