Saturday, June 17, 2006

New Life Forms

[It's been nearly a sixty hour week and little time for blogging, so an entry from the archives.]

Column first appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times July 30, 2005:
“The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have themselves called into being. There can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains. To put an end to it will be neither a short nor an easy task, but it can be done.”

— Theodore Roosevelt, 1910

How many movies start with some clever guy inventing/discovering something extraordinary? So many that you don’t have to be Michael Crichton (“Jurassic Park”) or Mary Shelley (“Frankenstein”) to know where this is heading. Halfway through the film that something is threatening the hero, his girlfriend and the world. And a pair of cute kids.

In real life these out-of-control somethings are neither biological nor technological, but legal. They are corporations.

Public corporations are systematically corrupting democracy, spending vast sums exercising their rights as “persons” to remake America a nation of, by and for the corporation. They write the laws governing them — the recent bankruptcy bill, for one — secure federal handouts, and with the recent United Airlines bankruptcy ruling, are positioning to cheat employees out of billions of dollars in underfunded pensions by erasing their obligations in court. Stockholder risk is being socialized, subsidized by employees and taxpayers.

Conceived in law and born on paper, corporations grow, consume resources and generate waste — even mate and spawn offspring. They need not die. Ever. They are intelligent (some more than others) and have personalities (some nicer than others). Corporate behavior is, well, businesslike. Not unlike another cold-blooded beast.

In “Jaws,” Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) explained the shark to the town’s mayor as “a perfect engine … an eating machine. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks. And that’s all.”

The corporation is not so well rounded. All this machine does is generate profits for shareholders. And that’s all. Team building, recycling, and charitable donations give corporations a human face, but are ultimately window dressing. Employees who start hearing “shareholder value” had better update their resumes.

Thousands have done so lately. True, some factories had outlived their time. Yet many corporations simply desert America to evade taxes and to seek “greater efficiency” (cheap labor) overseas. The newly unemployed shrug, shed tears, pack their belongings, and go looking for their next opportunity to be treated as chattel. That’s just the way things are, right?

Well, something is wrong with the way things are. You might not be able to put a name to it, but you sense it. You feel it. And you know it when you experience it firsthand.

We easily spot the really bad apples: Enron, WorldCom, Tyco. But daily we tolerate common indecency and rule bending as acceptable — even desirable — as long as it feeds our portfolios (and campaign coffers). We learn to view the world through a corporate lens. Competition. Risk and reward. The bottom line. The big fish eat the little ones. What could be more natural?

Except there’s nothing natural about the corporation. It’s an artificial life form engineered to relentlessly pursue profit. As actor Michael Biehn said of “The Terminator,” that’s what it does. That’s all it does.

There’s the rub. Incorporation grants privileges and immunities unavailable to flesh-and-blood citizens. In return for special treatment — save for paying taxes when it’s unavoidable — corporate persons owe employees, communities and their country nothing. Especially loyalty. Loyalty is a one-way street.

Decisions that void workers’ American Dreams typically have little to do with unethical corporate boards (most are honest, to be sure) or dire economic necessity, but arise from the statutory requirement that corporations maximize profits. Period.

Everyone and everything else, including democracy, becomes fodder. What kind of “persons” have we created? The problem is the corporation was badly designed … by us.

Privileges are not without obligations, and these artificial persons have conveniently forgotten theirs. The growth in offshore tax shelters and the disappearance of America’s strategic manufacturing base reveal corporate patriotism as simply more window dressing.

President Calvin Coolidge said, “The chief business of the American people is business.”

But for corporate persons, the business of business is not America. The Bush administration dreams of reinventing the tort system, the tax system, and Social Security. But if the president truly puts America’s security and her working families ahead of political contributions, he should support reinventing the corporation. All it lacks is a soul.

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