Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Corporate Rights: A New Frontier For Political Correctness?

In 2010 the world as we know it was changed forever by the Supreme Court decision on a case called Citizens United. This is the means by which corporations gained control of the political system in America; one dollar, one vote. This post is about why that was the most stupid and irresponsible decision of all time.

Before Citizens United won the case in 2010, the American Petroleum Institute, a multinational trade association, spent $7.3 million lobbying politicians to vote against a proposed bill to address global warming. By August of this year their election engineering spend had rocketed to over $700 million. A loophole in the law permits non-profit groups to donate to the Super Pacs that make the ads that influence the election. The API's membership dues can top $20 million. This is why Americans are so divided right now; some of them actually believe that corporations should have rights; the same kind of rights as human beings.

Where did this nonsense come from?

It actually goes back to the time of ancient Rome, when cities were identified as corporations. The idea was to create an entity composed of people to act as one. Later on, it was baked into the US Constitution as the 14th Amendment:

In fact, in the United States, corporations have the same protections under the Constitution that humans do... The 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868, and it gave the federal government ultimate power over the states in respect to the rights of newly freed slaves. The amendment sought to overturn state-level legislation that was being created to limit the liberties of freedmen after the Civil War. The federal government circumvented each one of these laws with a broad sweep: Through the 14th Amendment, Congress granted equal protection under the law to every person [source: Library of Congress]. That last word is important, since in the eyes of the law, a corporation is an artificial person...

Despite not being natural persons, corporations are recognized by the law to have rights and responsibilities like natural persons ("people"). Corporations can exercise human rights against real individuals and the state, and they can themselves be responsible for human rights violations.

Not that they are actually held to account for violations thereof:

"...corporations have constitutional rights but have no liabilities under constitutional law," Noah Feldman, a Harvard Law School professor, told HuffPost.

The trouble with Citizens United is that it went a step further: it granted freedom of speech to corporations. That's not enough; now there's a movement to extend those rights to give them full human rights, including privacy. This warped ideology can be found as far back as 2006, if not further. It's no accident that a lot of the treaties I've been campaigning against started up around then.

Philosophical commonalities or normatively laden disputes aside, it cannot be denied that civil and political rights as found in international treaties can be capable of protecting different forms of economic activity. This is an aspect which is rarely comprehensively discussed in human rights theory or practice... - The Human Rights of Companies, by Marius Emberland, 2006

The politics of corporatism

The old political paradigms no longer apply, though to see Americans talk about it as a rule, you'd never know. Super PAC attack ads play good cop, bad cop with the public, who usually parrot what they're told if they're not keen on fact-checking. Republicans have a stronger Reality Distortion Field than Liberals, but most of the people I associate with are somewhere in the middle. For the most part, the people I despise on the Right are the religious Birther loons who think President Obama is a Muslim terrorist and must be defeated before he destroys America. The troll responses in this Google Plus thread are pretty standard for GOP supporters. Their favourite thing is to present the Democrats as the left and accuse them of socialism for using Federal funds for social programs instead of ramping up the war machine or diverting taxes from the middle class to the super rich.

Meanwhile, the Democrats have tried to escape the charges of socialism by swinging hard to the right (it's done them no good) and becoming more corporate friendly. The result is, there's little difference between the two parties except that the Republicans (also known as the GOP or Grand Old Party) are more extreme and are set to enforce a religious agenda.

The new dynamic, however, has moved past the old Left Right paradigm. We now live in an era defined by increasing Corporate influence and authority over the individual. The Left Right Paradigm is Over: Its You vs. Corporations - Barry Ritholtz

The idea is to distract us from the fact that both parties are receiving unprecedented amounts of money from unaccountable sources. The alarming thing about Citizens United is that it gives foreign corporations influence over American politics. Republicans, with their Reality Distortion Fields firmly in place, will no doubt ignore the fact about the Saudis paying for their election campaign. The FUD about global warming being invented by leftists derives from their fear of us finding new fuel sources. Their revenues would plummet and they'd become irrelevant. As long as they can keep frightening and distracting people, they can keep this charade up.

Notice that my friend in the last link never bothered to supply any proof. He was no doubt hoping that his cultish method of making me feel insecure about losing his friendship or approval (I'm not bothered and he'd be no loss) would convince me but I'm more moved by facts than emotions. Nice try but no cigar. I'm actually offended that he thought I'd care about whether he liked or approved of me enough to accept rampant twaddle. I called out all right-wingers for that.

The truth about corporate rights

One of the most cherished pillars of Republican and Libertarian thought is the notion of free market capitalism. The theory and practice are completely separate things. For example, Free Trade Agreements such as ACTA and CETA usually require some pretty harsh treatment of local people where they apply. ISPs are required to police their customers' use of the internet to protect the profits of the copyright monopoly holders. Corporations are granted the right to sue local municipalities who deny them the chance to turn a profit by exploiting local resources or denying local suppliers preferential treatment. Actually questioning the unfairness of this is seen as a direct assault on capitalism itself.

"Moreover, at least a party of the attack is disingenuous in the sense that the real target is capitalism or the free-market system; as the most conspicuous components of that system... corporations take the brunt of the criticism that is more properly directed elsewhere." - Corporations and Rights: On Treating Corporate People Justly, by Roger Pilon

That's what makes it so dangerous. The logical progression takes us from corporations have rights to property to freedom of speech to privacy to freedom from discrimination. I've mentioned before that Mike Masnick of Techdirt appears to have found the idea so ludicrous it simply didn't occur to him and the reference thereto sailed right over his head. Here's what he thought was stupid:

Entering into a sub-standard Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement that offers only weak intellectual property (IP) protections or permits countries to maintain mercantilist practices would be far worse than not joining the agreement

And here's his take on it:

Of course, that's hilarious, because there's nothing more mercantilist in trade policy today than intellectual property rights. The basic concepts -- developed at the height of mercantilist fervor -- are all about protectionism for legacy players in the space. To argue in favor of stronger IP and against mercantilism makes no sense, because it's self-contradictory. Either ITIF is completely clueless on basic economics, or it's being intellectually dishonest. I can't tell which is worse.

He thinks they're ignorant and misses the point. Sooner or later we'll have emotional idiots laying this crap on us over and over again, pushing the idea that the corporations are cherished institutions that must never be questioned. It'll start by portraying them as victims of the evil leftists. Given that there's a movement to curtail corporate rights don't be surprised. The law being what it is, untangling corporate rights from their responsibilities is problematic to say the least and there's no easy answer to it. Meanwhile, we're the ones who suffer.

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