8 Words That Could Save Our Country
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A rogue Supreme Court seems hellbent on establishing a corporate oligarchy. Congress can’t stop it. Every time Congress or state legislatures tries to curb the power of billionaires or mega corporations the Court slaps them down.
Citizens United v. FEC, the recent Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations to spend unlimited sums of money to influence elections is only the most recent step in this process. There will be more. But the shocking decision may be sufficient to galvanize a political movement that can change the rules and ensure our democracy.
We can save our country by adding eight words to the fundamental law of the land, the US Constitution. "Corporations are not persons." "Money is not speech."
Such a development is not without precedent. Once before a political movement has changed the Constitution to nurture democracy. The populist uprising of the late 20th century led to the passage, in rapid succession of the 16th Amendment in 1913 that allowed for an income tax, the 17th Amendment, ratified the same year that required the direct election of Senators and in 1920 the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote.
A campaign to strip corporations of personhood would have a similar populist and popular appeal. A recent Quinnipiac poll reveals a whopping 79 percent public disapproval of the Court’s ruling. A Washington Post-ABC News poll puts the figure even higher at 81 percent. And as Dan Eggen of the Post writes, "The poll reveals relatively little difference of opinion on the issue among Democrats (85 percent opposed to the ruling), Republicans (76 percent) and independents (81 percent)."
But win or lose, a campaign against corporate personhood would allow us to regain control of a narrative we lost in 1980 when Ronald Reagan declared in his Inaugural Address, "government is the problem" and initiated a process that has resulted in the greatest concentration of private wealth and power in American history.
People may not know exactly what Goldman Sachs is, but they know it is not a person. A person doesn’t have unlimited life or limited liability. A person is responsible for her decisions. If she makes a decision that kills or maims people she will go to jail. If a CEO makes such a decision she, at worst, receives a golden parachute.
Unlike a real person, a corporation lacks a conscience. It is guided neither by ethics nor morality but rather by laws that required its Boards to elevate the maximization of profits above all other concerns.
A real person is an independent actor, subject to many influences that affect how he votes. Warren Buffett, for example, thinks it is in his and society’s best interest for him to be required to pay more taxes. A corporation that made this decision could be taken to court by its stockholders.
In his The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith’s first, and in his own mind more important work than Wealth of Nations, he outlined his view of the institutions that make men virtuous. He focused on the inherent human qualities of gratitude and sympathy and empathy that lead to a merging of our self-interest with the public good. To Adam Smith, that was the real invisible hand. A corporation lacks sympathy or empathy although occasionally it might express gratitude in the form of increased financial contributions to politicians who do its bidding.
The curious tale of how a corporation became a person
President Obama had the opportunity to launch a vigorous and informed national campaign on corporate personhood in his State of the Union Address. He came close, tiptoeing up to the topic and then backing away. His was a historic moment, coming just a few days after the Supreme Court decision and in front of an audience of more than 40 million Americans. The President did raise the issue. "Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests -- including foreign corporations -- to spend without limit in our elections," he noted. "Well I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities."