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January 24, 2010

Strike the root

By: John Caruso

I'm sure I won't be the only one quoting Paddy Chayefsky in the wake of the Supreme Corporate's idiotic decision, but here you go:

There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels.

It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today! [...] There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.

(If you haven't seen the movie, you really should see the movie.  And be sure to see the other movie too.)

This also seems like a good time to remember this:

  1. Of the 100 largest economies in the world, 51 are now global corporations; only 49 are countries.
  2. The combined sales of the world's Top 200 corporations are far greater than a quarter of the world's economic activity. 
  3. The Top 200 corporations' combined sales are bigger than the combined economies of all countries minus the biggest 9; that is they surpass the combined economies of 182 countries.
  4. The Top 200 have almost twice the economic clout of the poorest four-fifths of humanity.

That data is from the year 2000; below are some updated stats from 2005:

Of the world's largest 150 economic entities, 95 are corporations (63.3%) according to data released this month by Fortune Magazine and the World Bank. Wal-Mart, BP, Exxon Mobil, and Royal Dutch/Shell Group all rank in the 25 largest entities in the world, above countries that include Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Norway, Denmark, Poland, South Africa, and Greece.

But even taking all that into account, I'm not particularly bothered by this decision.  It ultimately does little to change the reality of corporate control of our political system, and in a sense it's an improvement because it makes that reality clear and undeniable.  The mask is gone.  Also, this will be the first time many people have heard (or fully understood) that our legal system treats corporations as persons, with all the rights that entails—and that's a good thing, because only the clinically insane believe that it's desirable for immortal and amoral profit-driven entities to have more power over our lives than they already do.  Even hardcore conservatives will usually agree on this point if you talk to them about it one on one, with specific examples.  I would never have imagined at the beginning of this week that by the end of it the phrase "corporate personhood" would be on so many lips, yet here we are.  Thanks, Supreme Thwart!

And the fact that this makes it impossible to pass laws limiting corporate brainwashing is also arguably for the best.  McCain-Feingold was never more than a half-assed palliative that left corporate domination over the system essentially intact—the illusion of reform, not the real thing.  In its breathtaking, overreaching arrogance, this decision forces us toward the only real solution to ending corporate dominance not only of our political system but of every aspect of our lives: passing a constitutional amendment to put an end to the offensively absurd fiction of corporate personhood.

So now that the Supreme Snort has made it illegal to waste our time hacking at the branches of evil, maybe we can finally start striking at the root.

ADDING: Conservative sites have shown an impressive dedication to hypocrisy as they've studiously avoided condemning this decision as "judicial activism", but National Review Online deserves special recognition for choosing yesterday as the perfect day to decry liberal judicial activism.  Way to go, NRO!

— John Caruso

Posted at January 24, 2010 03:27 PM

This should be like FaceBook; there should be a "Like" button! I'm glad to see somebody say that this decision is useful because it informs people about one of the hidden ideas which shapes their lives. Very good insight.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at January 24, 2010 04:09 PM

bingo, even if I can't get excited about improvement by worsening

Posted by: N E at January 24, 2010 05:45 PM

Look on the bright side, John. You can now declare yourself a limited liability corporation now, unless some 'people' are more equal than others.

Posted by: Euripides at January 24, 2010 06:36 PM

I'm surprised at the number of liberal lawyers who accept the premise that money is speech. I thought it was only the ACLU people who agreed to this because it helps their fundraising. Clearly not.

Corruption is a principle for some people.

Posted by: Carl at January 24, 2010 06:38 PM

Glenn Greenwald has a contrarian take that I found convincing.

Posted by: aram at January 24, 2010 08:12 PM

I found Glenn Greenwald's argument disappointing, at best. Missing the forest for the trees.

And what happens when the corporations are foreign-owned? Do they also have 1st Amendment rights?

Mussolini had a word for this, something about a bundle of sticks.

Posted by: Oarwell at January 24, 2010 09:54 PM

I am conflicted as well. Greenwald is legally compelling, but I agree that corporate personhood is the root of much of what has gone wrong with our political/cultural system. Grayson has put forth some really interesting bills - maybe only non-profit, time dependent corporations are persons? Would like to see what kind of options we have and if there are any lessons from the past.

Posted by: Phaedrus at January 24, 2010 10:14 PM

I think the way to go about this that is fair and equitable is to have a provision in the law like the IRS uses when corporate and personal money is mixed, the IRS strips the corporate veil and all the funds become personal money. When a corporation is found to be knowingly and willingly acting with wanton disregard AND deception that results in loss of life, liberty, or property their corporate status should be revoked and the executives of that enterprise held personally responsible for the actions and/or omissions which resulted in the wrongdoing.

The wording of the law would have to be very specific so as to avoid the vast potential for government abuse, such as deciding to take down a corporation to get its hands on a quick cash infusion. For instance, the products of tobacco companies are labeled warning consumers of the risk, therefor they would be protected because they are not acting with deception.

While it is easy to blame corporations for many of the ills we see in society, it is not the responsibility of business to draw the line as to what is acceptable to the American People that is something that our Representatives are charged with doing. The critical failure has occurred in the leadership of our Republic and ultimately this can only mean that we the People have failed in our responsibility to put honorable people in those esteemed positions of representing our will. We have succumbed to the lure of unrealistic and unsustainable expectations (risk free banking, risk free retirement investments, subsidized if not "free" world class health care, a constantly expanding economy that provides secure employment at good wages for everyone etc.) rather than focusing on what government is actually capable of providing... all of which are specifically enumerated in the Constitution. Those other items are predominantly if not completely Utopian lies.

Just as the Praetorian Guard made whoever promised them the most money Caesar, we have elected representatives based on what they promise us, not on their character, conscience, and good judgement. Our towering national debt is a testament to that.

Posted by: Mikhail Panankovich at January 24, 2010 10:54 PM

So with all this jabbering about "corporate personhood", what exactly does the First Amendment say about "persons," other than nothing at all?

If free speech does not include purchasing of media, what does it include, simply speaking out loud? So books, pamphlets, anything that cost money, could be banned. And any collaboration could be banned from expression, as a Corporation.

If you want to pass an amendment to end the most basic right, free speech, then why pretend to operate under the Constitution at all?

That darling of corporatism, the tit-suckler Obomba, says this is an outrage. That should tell you something.

Regulations are designed to protect monopolies.

GG eviscerates the arguments against this ruling.

The fact that media companies were already exempted from restrictions, that Fox or CNN or a war profiteer such as GE-NBC could hire anyone to promote or condemn a politician without restraint should be enough to expose the regulations for the mono/duopoly perpetuating coercions they were.

Posted by: Marcus at January 24, 2010 11:01 PM

If free speech does not include purchasing of media, what does it include, simply speaking out loud? So books, pamphlets, anything that cost money, could be banned. And any collaboration could be banned from expression, as a Corporation.

As a practical matter, if we allow the Exxons and Shells to have an infinite megaphone, we will ensure the extinction of the human race.

All the facts of global warming are on one side of the "debate", and all the marketing is on the other. Marketing is winning right now -- which proves that corporate money can win on almost any issue if it remains fairly united.

The main problem with "purchasing media" is when it's done on the public airwaves, and it's ridiculous to claim that the government isn't censoring speech here. The current policy of granting licenses to a handful of corporations ensures that only a very narrow range of views can be heard, as Greenwald himself has demonstrated every other day.

Posted by: Carl at January 25, 2010 12:43 AM

I agree with much of what Greenwald writes in that article, but he goes astray when he says "organized groups of people -- which is what corporations are." The entire point is that thanks to decisions like this one (and of course this one), a corporation is itself treated as a person, with its own independent Constitutional rights. And then he misses the point badly when he assumes the idea is to change the First Amendment, which I haven't seen anyone suggest. Here's the text of the proposed amendment I linked to in the posting:

SECTION 1. The U.S. Constitution protects only the rights of living human beings.

SECTION 2. Corporations and other institutions granted the privilege to exist shall be subordinate to any and all laws enacted by citizens and their elected governments.

SECTION 3. Corporations and other for-profit institutions are prohibited from attempting to influence the outcome of elections, legislation or government policy through the use of aggregate resources or by rewarding or repaying employees or directors to exert such influence.

SECTION 4. Congress shall have power to implement this article by appropriate legislation.

That's just one example (and I've seen much shorter versions I'd be happy with), but it gets the idea across.

Posted by: John Caruso at January 25, 2010 12:50 AM

As to Greenwald, he wrote:

"My skepticism is due to one principal fact: I really don't see how things can get much worse in that regard. The reality is that our political institutions are already completely beholden to and controlled by large corporate interests (Dick Durbin: "banks own" the Congress)."

I think that shows a real lack of imagination and also evidences a peculiar tendency of absolutist First Amendment types that is also shared by many economists. Greenwald is defending a system that discourages political participation, creates an uninformed citizenry, and fosters corrupt politics on the grounds that the First Amendment requires it. In response to the argument that this is the result of his views, he posits that he doesn't give that much credence to the negative effects of permitting such practices because everything is already totally screwed up anyway.

Well, if everything is already screwed up anyway, how about we take the novel approach of reexamining the legal and economic ideas that got us there? Greenwald is urging more of what hasn't worked. Most economists and First Amendment lawyers seem equally prone to this destructive habit.

The First Amendment says:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Has Congress really abridged the freedom of speech by restricting the amount of money that corporations can spend on political activity? Well, perhaps if corporations have THE SAME rights as human beings and restricting spending actually abridges speech. Of course, that's an assumption in all empirical respects, and it's only really sensible within an ideological model of public discourse that has little or no grounding in empirical reality. Endowing cororations with human rights has put corporate shareholders in control of everything and made a mess of society in countless ways, giving us exactly what we have that sucks so much.

So, Glenn Greenwald, let's not do even more of what hasn't worked just because it has damn near ruined us so much already that you can hardly believe things can get worse. Every time people say that, they do get worse, and they will again.

This will keep happening unless we analyze the empirical world and not a very simplistic logical construct developed by some 19th century lawyers appointed by Teddy Roosevelt. Giving corporations human rights doesn't promote speech, it destroys it. That isn't the law, but it's the truth, and most people who haven't been overeducated or overtrained in the law know it.
So instead of constantly making the truth bend to the law, how about we try having the law reflect the truth?

Posted by: N E at January 25, 2010 12:55 AM

Mikhail Panankovich writes above:

"The critical failure has occurred in the leadership of our Republic and ultimately this can only mean that we the People have failed in our responsibility to put honorable people in those esteemed positions of representing our will."

I grant that in the restricted purview of local elections there may be some aspect of genuinely representative democracy in operation. Panankovich's statement presumes that the elaborate pantomime of elections to national office in the US has anything at all to do with effecting the representation of 'our will' in the exercise of state power. To the extent that those who buy and control the electoral process manage to convince voters of their preferred narratives, then I suppose you could say that voters are expressing their will -- in the same way the victim of a scam can be said to express their will when they hand over their life savings to a con artist.

Posted by: Phillip Allen at January 25, 2010 08:02 AM

Corporations are not simply ingatherings of people. They are aggregators of capital, with charters that compel a fiduciary responsibility on officers to maximize shareholder profit. Quite a different animal than a "peacable assembly."

Granting personhood to corporations would have been like the Funding oops Founding Fathers granting personhood and legal right to King George to use the tremendous wealth of the English government to overthrow the nascent republic.

Most large corps nowadays are in part foreign-owned. Piercing the veil would reveal some interesting bedcritters under those spreadsheets. Not to mention viewing the actual owners of the Federal Reserve member banks who own the Fed. And, by the bye, is the Fed also a corporation, now hugely endowed with 1st amendment rights?

I'm a huge Glenn Greenwald acolyte, and give him enormous respect for his courageous writings, especially on the anthrax cover-up. But on this, although he might have displayed proper legal obeisance to precedents, he misses the point, just as Dred Scott kinda sorta missed the point. The intent of the Framers was not to grant personhood to companies. It's "We the People," not "We the People and/or corporations." Imagine if Lincoln had written "That government of the people and/or corporations, by the people and/or corporations...!"

Inalienable rights, such as free speech, are rights granted to individuals. Did the Framers' lack of foresight in extending these rights to African-Americans and women also include a failure to see aggregates of capital as individuals? Who argues such a thing other than...corporations? Does even a cursory review of the Federalist Papers support such an outlandish contention?

Take an isolated example: Montana voters, fed up with the grip of out-of-state mining interests on local politicians, passed a law in 1912 banning corporate spending on candidates for state office. Ask yourself: is that democracy in action, or is it, somehow, a restriction of democracy?

Follow the reductio ad absurdum: tody it is true that each senator and our cuddly president are beholden to certain special corporate interests. We've had the VP from Halliburton, the SecState from Conoco, etc. What if, gentle reader, the top 100 corporations who now control the politicians en masse merge into a single corporate entity (shades of Network and Ned Beatty), patriotically called Americorp? (If you like, carve out Goldman Sachs, whose personal fiefdom the Executive/Treasury would remain.)

Would this behemoth Americorp be acccorded all 1st amendment rights, and thus allowed, due to its uncontestable aggregate wealth, complete ownership of all the senate, all publishing, all media, because of precedents which arose from the granting of personhood to corporations? If not, why not?

If the law says a horse is a man, then the law is an ass.

Posted by: Oarwell at January 25, 2010 10:44 AM

I've signed the following petition:

I support the "Save Our Democracy" Platform:

We cannot have a government that is bought and paid for by huge multinational corporations. We need a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

You can click on my name (this post only) to go to the website to sign it yourself.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at January 25, 2010 03:56 PM

If capital flow is your thing, the must see movie is "let's make money".

Posted by: sam_m at January 26, 2010 04:35 AM

mistah charley

i signned the petition!


All very well put. I had forgotten Greenwald wrote on anthrax, and I went back and read some of his fine articles. (He better look out or Michael Reagan will urge people to kill him.) It seems that damn monster we keep looked in the cellar just keeps escaping no matter what we do! It's a good thing we have the FBI around to chase around after it destroying all the evidence!

Your excellent reductio ad absurdem hypothetical could be read to imply that something would change if all of our largest 100 corporations merged into one Leviathan. That isn't so clear to me, because in some respects they operate as a single entity already and long have. Mark Hulbert wrote a book called Interlock back in the early 80s about the interconnectedness of the big banks and oil companies, a book which also explores how that coalition of money helped destroy Jimmy Carter. (That book is a big puzzle piece.)

That giant interlocking corporate, financial megacomplex is the client of the intelligence agencies. (I won't even bother using the plural.) That's why we see things like Louis Freeh leaving the FBI to go to MBNA as their general counsel. Basically the same job.

By the way, it's interesting to me how once debate on a point is suppressed, even opposition opinion quickly forgets some important points facts. There is compelling evidence that both the 2000 and 2004 Presidential elections were stolen, which is a mighty big fact to leave out of any analysis of the real world. Of course, such things don't happen in our little abstract models of how ideas battle for the minds of men and companies compete to create better and better products and services and a general state of equilibrium in which all wants are satisfied. It is almost equivalent to writing a history of the 20th century without mentioning war.

It's only when we abandon all traditional ideology, which I think Greenwald sometimes falls into instinctively as a First Amendment lawyer, that it's possible to see what actually is happening around us in the empirical world. Greenwald could do that with the Anthrax attacks, because he rightly doesn't trust the government, or at least its National Security sector. But he hasn't abandoned his model of how the First Amendment creates a "free marketplace of ideas," which is the the rationale for the leading cases that help lay the foundation for an argument that corporations should have the same rights as human citizens to express ideas.

Stepping away from his legal training would do Greenwald some good as a thinker. He might ponder whether there really is a government and a media instead of something else that includes both. These thoughts we have are necessary shorthand, just abstractions, but they seem to obscure as much as they reveal. Often much of the government and media and the other parts of our corporate and juridical Leviathan seem to move as one, as during the 2000 and 2004 elections and the run-up to th war with Iraq and some have noticed recently too. It's heretical to say that something unites these disparate elements that our habits of thought require us to separate(conspiracy theorist!)because it's a charge that can't be rebutted by facts. It's obviously true that there is no effective system of "checks and balances" within or among government or non-government entities to prevent these abuses. The only effective check, and higly effective it is, is on popular opposition and popular opinion.

But it's even more obvious that we don't have any easy way to fix the stinking mess. So we are left with the oldest question of the Left: What is to be done?

Posted by: N E at January 26, 2010 08:01 AM

So with all this jabbering about "corporate personhood", what exactly does the First Amendment say about "persons," other than nothing at all?

Corporate personhood is established by the 14th Amendment. Or by the Supreme Court's interpretation of the 14th Amendment. Or by John Chandler Davis' interpretation of the Supreme Court's interpretation of the 14th Amendment.

Not the 1st.

Posted by: weaver at January 26, 2010 06:52 PM

Just to be clear - corporate "personhood" derives from an interpretation of the 14th amendment such that the Amendment also applies to corporations, giving them equal protection i.e. the term "person" used in the last two clauses of section 1 of the Amendment also refers to corporations (given that the same sentence uses the term "citizen" and "citizen" is defined earlier as "born or naturalised", Blind Freddy can see the Amendment doesn't refer to corporations, but try telling that to the 19th century Supreme Court).

The money=speech nonsense also has a long history, though not as long as corporate personhood. This is Greenwald's point. If you have a problem with corporate personhood and money=speech, there's no point bitching about this ruling: those principles have been established judge-made law in the U.S. for a long time, and even the dissenters in this case subscribe to them. This ruling may strike down oodles of state and federal legislation but overturning corporate personhood would mean erasing more than a century of case law.

So, in a way, this ruling is a good thing, as it could provide an impetus to passing a Constitutional Amendment that makes it damn clear that corporations ARE NOT PEOPLE, which is about what it would take at this stage to deep-six the concept.

Not that I'll be holding my breath, mind.

Posted by: weaver at January 26, 2010 07:19 PM

Anyone interested in further info on the ongoing anthrax cover-up can read Edward Jay Epstein's WSJ article, published January 24, 2010:

Posted by: Cough Cough at January 27, 2010 09:24 AM

Alas, though I have obvious biases, I am not sure of the real story of the anthrax cover-up. But I am confident that Edward Jay Epstein would only tell the truth about it if some very influential people at Langley approved of that story being told. Which I rather doubt.

For a detailed recital of the sordid writings of Epstein, and abundant evidence that he is not trustworthy, also a narrative of how some of the icons of the blogospere have been as easily controlled or subverted as the Old Media was, those interested can read the following story:

Arianna Huffington, Tina Brown and the New Media: Death at an Early Age?
By James DiEugenio

Posted by: N E at January 27, 2010 10:45 AM

Alas, though I have obvious biases, I am not sure of the real story of the anthrax cover-up. But I am confident that Edward Jay Epstein would only tell the truth about it if some very influential people at Langley approved of that story being told. Which I rather doubt.

For a detailed recital of the sordid writings of Epstein, and abundant evidence that he is not trustworthy, also a narrative of how some of the icons of the blogospere have been as easily controlled or subverted as the Old Media was, those interested can read the following story:

Arianna Huffington, Tina Brown and the New Media: Death at an Early Age?
By James DiEugenio

Posted by: N E at January 27, 2010 10:45 AM

Here's another blog post on the SCOTUS decision citing the film "Network":

Pay attention to the last 3 paragraphs--a *different* take on that dialogue, don't you think? (Puts things into perspective, IMSHO...)

Posted by: Edgewise at January 28, 2010 02:30 AM


Interesting, and Fernandez makes many good points. (That being said, Exxon is much bigger than the Nigerian National Petroleum Company--the chart to which Fernandez linked is about reported petroleum reserves. And I wouldn't call the times we live in "revolutionary" just because they involve big changes in the corporate landscape)

weaver had many good points too, and like him I won't hold my breath for a constitutional amendment or any other dramatic restriction on corporate rights. we'll need really revolutionary times before that happens

Posted by: N E at January 28, 2010 08:30 AM

NE, is there a specific part of Epstein's WSJ article you wish to refute? I read it, and he makes a persuasive case that Ivins couldn't possibly have been the mailer. We know the govt. has already paid millions to Hatfill for ruining his life, and we know that the letters were intended to frame arabs. The government has already confirmed that the weaponized anthrax was produced in a US military lab. We also know the White House staff were put on Cipro the very day the first letter was mailed. And that the 2 senators targeted were opposed to the Patriot Act.

So what precisely is your point? What factual error do you find in Epstein's article? Or are you just playing your usual role of diversion?

Posted by: Oarwell at January 28, 2010 11:06 AM

Hi there,
Thank you! I would now go on this blog every day!

Posted by: Kicker at January 29, 2010 03:10 AM


My usual role of diversion? Sigh.

People who have worked for Langley do sometimes tell the truth, but I am very cautious about believing them. That is especially true when I don't know enough about something. Earlier on this thread I believe I indicated that I hadn't previously read Glenn Greenwald's article on the anthrax coverup, but that I considered it a fine article. I need to sometime study more carefully that aspect of our war on terrorism, and I do tend to trust Glenn Greenwald, though without always sharing his perspective. I have never suspected Greenwald of deception.

I am no JFK researcher, but I have a very high opinion of Jim DiEugenio's honesty and accuracy. So I often look to his writings for information on people like Epstein. The information I included in that article at that link above in the thread, especially in connection what the internal CIA study done by Cleveland Cram says about Epstein, makes me greatly distrust Epstein. I would certainly think it would give you pause, given your stated views. That Epstein may have knowingly participated in deception for Langley in one instance doesn't mean that is what he is doing in connetion with the anthrax story too, but it does raise the question of why Epstein is writing about it. The best deception involves some elements of truth, and sometimes part of it is about buildinig credibility. People claim to believe something and turn out to be liars. Just as supermarkets have loss leaders, intel agencies have truth leaders. (maybe that analogy doesn't make it, but i suspect you get it).

I don't know what specifically happened with the anthrax attacks. If your suspicions is that some element of the National Security apparatus of the US government was responsible, I share it. That certainly fits veary neatly into the broader narrative of 9/11 that some readers of this site find absurd or unnerving or just plain crazy. There may be much truth in Epstein's article--I would expect there is. But I won't believe anything he says just on his word, and I wonder what he has been tasked to say and why.

For the life of me I don't know why you would think the information about Epstein in that article is diversionary. That makes no sense to me at all. If you want you and others to be led by the nose in the wrong direction, just take what people with backgrounds like Epstein says on trust.

Posted by: N E at January 29, 2010 09:15 AM

Supplement to Oarwell

Don't assume that Hatfill got paid because he had actually been wronged. He could have been paid just because some part of the government didn't want to pursue any prosecution or further investigation of him. That isn't the same thing as him being innocent. (I certainly don't think any one person, whether Hatfill or Ivins or someone else, was behind the anthrax attacks.)

I chuckle at the statement that Ivins had porn on his computer and was "disturbed." How unlike everyone else, especially at the FBI!

I don't know the real story and I share your general suspicions. I certainly don't think one disturbed person was behind those highly convenitently timed and directed anthrax attacks. My perception from reading about the history of 30 years of JFK investigations is that there will be a lot of confusion about specifics for a long time and that there will be a lot of lying too, not always for reasons that are clear at the time. Which is too bad, but it does suggest people have to be careful who they believe. Somebody with old ties to James Jesus Angleton would be near the bottom of my list of those I'd trust.

Posted by: N E at January 29, 2010 09:46 AM