Leash the Corporate Dogs

By Jim Van Der Pol

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and his hardy majority of conservative “strict constructionists” just turned loose the corporate dogs. Allowing our most powerful institutions unlimited spending in campaigns by a ruling that will allow them, for instance, to buy up ahead all radio and television time immediately before elections turns our founding fathers on their heads and their Constitution into something none of them would recognize. It is pretty telling that Justice Scalia opined that corporations are pretty much indistinguishable from their owners anyway, so freeing them to buy politicians at will is a kind of business as usual. I, being of somewhat more modest means, have not so far been able to purchase a single politician, more is the pity.

The idea that corporations should be treated like persons in some ways goes back to 1886 at least, when the Supreme Court Chief Justice reportedly pronounced himself and his entire court entirely satisfied that corporations were indeed people and that he wished to hear no oral arguments on the matter in the Santa Clara County vs Southern Pacific Railroad case. A century earlier, Thomas Jefferson was alarmed at the power such an idea would give large financial institutions. So corporations are “persons” with rights of free speech who never get old or are killed in war and have the right to sue and be sued, though how being sued works out in practice is problematic due to the difficulty in pin pointing who the corporation actually is, so that it can be held liable. Generally, courts have settled for fines, often so light that the corporations can pay them out of petty cash.

While the legal right to speak and write about products should not be troublesome beyond the tendency of it to involve a great deal of lying (thus distinguishing it from politics not at all), there is another generally recognized attribute of corporate “persons” that does ramify through all the actions of the organization. This is the fact that corporations have been allowed to shed a good deal of the responsibility, or liability, inherent in whatever activity they pursue. Corporations use this second attribute for capital formation. Mutual funds, where our money goes a-hunting world wide for the best returns, are one version of this. We as individual investors come in for the profits our money generates while someone else gets stuck with any bad effects of the economic activity that generates those profits. The poverty in Haiti is a good example of this. So are the coalfields in Kentucky.

We need to reconsider these aspects of corporate personhood in the light of what is happening to us and our economy now. The fact that our laws enable corporations to essentially shield their wealth source from the consequences of their own bad behavior has directly to do with the current decay in the economy and the criminality on Wall Street. And the fact that we allow corporations to live on forever has to do with our own willingness to give over important economic decisions to them, to the point where they get to be primary and intergenerational drivers of our economic reality, and we as a people get to be impacted by them, rather than being in control of them It is as if we do not really want control. We have had a child-like faith in the big economy, corporations and all.

Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism, thought that a system of morality needed to be brought into capitalism from the outside, from the culture and the people, because capitalism itself does not generate morality. We are seeing how right he was with that. When we decided that corporations should be allowed to engage in economic activity pretty much without fear of their individual investors being held liable, we separated money from morality. We can’t do that. Humans aren’t made that way. The result is nearly unrestricted bad behavior on the part of corporations, especially in the financial area, enabled by a kind of helplessness in the general population.

Corporations have had a growing dominance in the economy and thus an increasing influence upon our government for most of its more than two centuries of existence. The current spectacle in Washington about bank regulation and health care is truly sickening to behold for anyone who cares about the country. So the latest gift to corporations from their enablers on the Supreme Court is not new, but is really just one more step in securing their dominance in both economy and politics.

But graziers, unlike politicians, are not big into helplessness. Most are former conventional farmers who have thought their way out of that box and are now accustomed to using their brains and determination to succeed. And the grazing movement is closely connected at its smaller end with a growing group of people who have a little land even if that is just a house in an urban area. These folks don’t like the life they have been raised to and they don’t particularly trust either the suppliers of their necessities or the general circumstance they see around them, often including the corporation for which they work. The difference between a grazier with 100 head of milk cows or 200 beef cows at the bigger end, down to the guy in South Minneapolis with a dozen chickens in his backyard is one of scale and not of kind. Even though misunderstandings often crop up, we are all going in the same direction in at least one important way. The choices we make are making us freer because we are becoming more capable. As we become more capable the corporate structure becomes less necessary to us. I cannot yet imagine a life without corporations. But I do see a few ways of beginning to de-emphasize them, and that is a start.

Turning the cows to grass lessens the need for tractors and machinery, thus for fuel, crop chemicals, fertilizers, crop insurance, debt, drugs and so forth. Planting a garden and harvesting and storing part of it frees us of some of what the grocery store sells, some of our body fat and some of our dependence on the doctor, the drug store, and the workout place. Raw milk gets us away from big dairy, and makes us get along with a cow, or if we buy it from a neighboring farmer, we must learn about what makes for good farming practices and some of what goes into producing good milk. Backyard chickens help us understand the cycling of energy in nature, the way in which pest insects and table scraps can be converted to good food and give us better eggs than we will ever get in the store. Notice how these actions push a certain number of corporations off the center stage in our lives. We have started on that first step which is to need them less. This is necessary. We probably cannot succeed in imposing responsible behavior on them while we are so completely dependant upon them. The habit and attitude of buying less begins to shift the power away from corporations and back toward human persons.

Jim Van Der Pol farms near Kerkhoven, Minn. This appeared in Graze magazine.

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2010


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