Support Minor Heresies


Magnitude 5+ Earthquakes
« Solar Exceptionalism | Main | Miles Per Hour »

Feedback Loop 

You may have noticed an article in the Washington Post comparing the popularity of various institutions to that of Congress. The approval rating of the U.S. Congress, at 9%, beats Fidel Castro (5%) and ties Hugo Chavez, but is below the approval for the concept of the U.S. going Communist, at 11%. The fact that at least one in ten Americans is willing to reverse the Cold War is interesting in itself. However, my focus is on Congress, and why even BP during the Macondo oil spill (16%) beats their approval rating.

I have written in earlier posts about the concept of hyperscopic life. (You may wish to review here, here, here, and here.) The short version is that a corporation fulfills all the qualities that scientists use to identify a living organism. My conclusion – if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, etc. The problem with corporations is that a duck is a lot smarter than a corporation but a corporation has political power.

Human beings serve corporations, and so naturally corporations have many of the characteristics of human beings. To be more specific, psychopathic human beings, as defined by their behaviors and psychiatric literature. One thing that humanity does very effectively is to modify our environment. We cut down forests, drain swamps, build roads, dam rivers, and blast the tops off of mountains. We build houses and breakwaters and other barriers against the forces of nature. Corporations modify their environment as well, but we must consider that their environment is both physical and legal. We might say that the legal environment is as physical to them as air, water, and land are to us. Law is also DNA and connective tissue to a corporation, meaning that it can modify both its internal and external environment.

As with the physical world, there is resistance to this modification. It is institutional, active, and consequential. By institutional I mean that human beings put into place legal strictures that limit corporate agency. These could be campaign finance laws, lobbying restrictions, conflict of interest laws, and transparency laws. By active I mean groups of citizens actively opposing corporate reach into legislation. By consequential I mean that corporations are too short sighted and narrow of vision to properly calculate the consequences of their actions. If either law or enforcement is inadequate they end up like Enron or Lehman Brothers, collapsing from the excess they pursued.

The tide turned for corporations back in 1976, with the Buckley vs. Valeo decision by the Supreme Court. The Court decided that donating money was the constitutional equivalent of political speech, thus making plutocracy official and ending our progress towards democracy. Corporations have gained ground continuously since then. It is a positive feedback loop. As they gain more political power they are able to reduce the resistance to their modification of their environment. This includes all three of the modes of resistance I outlined above.

The millionaires and billionaires who engage in symbiotic parasitism on the corporate herd have veto power over entry into politics. Candidates have to raise those two-thousand dollar donations in order to stand a chance. This restricts the boundaries of legislation to initiatives acceptable to corporate remoras, which means fewer restrictions on corporate power. Once enough presidents and senators have been elected this way, then the Supreme Court can be stacked, and the Constitution gets interpreted to benefit further corporate power. Witness the Citizens United decision.

Similarly, information (or, more likely, disinformation) is supplied to citizens by a shrinking handful of ever larger communications conglomerates. Citizens can’t oppose what they don’t know about, and they won’t oppose what they have been convinced is in their interests. The internet has provided some outlet for human voices, but the behemoths of the business are always making efforts to fence that in as well. The latest outrage is the ProtectIP/SOPA bills, which would allow the big media players to shut down competing sites without due process.

Even the consequential restrictions on corporate action have been buffered by massive government intervention. Instead of taking over bankrupt financial firms and writing down mortgages to market prices, the government just stuck a funnel in the top of the banking industry and poured in a trillion dollars.

So there is a feedback loop going on. The accelerating accumulation of power by corporations allows the increasing acceleration of their accumulation of power. The problem for corporations in this situation is that some restrictions are necessary to prevent them from destroying their own environment. The idiocy that culminated in the 2007 financial meltdown is one symptom of corporate self-direction. Another symptom is the congressional approval rating.

Corporations are so short sighted and so programmed for self interest that they habitually overreach. Eventually even the cleverest psychopath buries too many bodies in the backyard and it begins to stink. The stink of political corruption has gotten so obvious that even the propaganda efforts of corporate media can’t cover it. In good times a certain amount of corruption can make it past the public with a knowing eye roll, but when everybody knows (or is) someone who is one of the long term unemployed, and when everyone knows (or is) someone on the wrong end of an underwater mortgage, public consciousness shifts. As long as most people were on an upward economic trend, or at least there was a promise of upward mobility for the next generation, people could put up with their lot. Now we’re looking at structural unemployment and underemployment, while college has become too much of a financial burden for too many, with no reasonable guarantee of a benefit. Corporations and their elite parasites have simply sucked too much wealth out of the economy.

This has given them the power to change the economic rules so that they can suck out even more. Up to a point. Another symptom of the ever tightening feedback loop is the Occupy Wall Street movement, as well as dozens of other movements focused directly on taking power away from corporations. Review any number of opinion polls from the last decade and you’ll find that a consistent 75% (or more) of respondents say that big business and their lobbyists have too much power. The question is whether these various political movements can turn this sentiment into real action and a real power shift. The corporate grip on the means of communication and legislation is firm. On the other hand, who would have thought a couple of years ago that Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya would have pitched out their dictators? I have no conclusion here, except to note that the fight is out in the open now. I guess that’s half the battle.

Reader Comments (1)

The "personification" of corporations is a legal metaphor gone wild. Back when the notion of a corporation was invented, the corporation was to be a license by the state to a group of people. The license would allow them to engage in a business while shielding their personal assets from the business's liabilities. That is, the maximum amount of money they could lose was the amount they actually put into the business (or promised to put in). Without this concept, it would be economically suicidal for an outside investor (such as the average Joe-401K buyer of stock) to buy a fractional share of a business. Corporation-as-a-person was originally a shorthand, pictuesque way of expressing the single idea that investors in corporations would be licensed to limit their liability for the business's debts.

This license allows private capital to exist. In so doing, it has allowed the gathering of the huge sums of up-front money needed to build such capital-intensive businesses as railroads, auto companies and electric utilties. It was a political judgment call: trade limited liability (thus potentially ripping off creditors) for a vast system of private investment that could benefit everyone. The tradeoff, despite sometimes harsh results, has arguably produced some useful things.

The idea went off the rails when corporate owners (inevitably) saw the chance to push the metaphor. The U.S. Supreme Court, pre-New Deal, was an extremely conservative and "connected" group of people. They were most willing to expand the corporate "personhood" metaphor to encompass a corporation's right to due process. Later, with the Buckley and Citizens United cases, the Court awarded corporations a right to engage in monetary"speech". (Not coincidentally, by the time of the Buckley case, the Supreme Court was returning to its old role as protector of privilege, money and property. It had taken a few decades-long hiatus from this role to experiment with championing the less-privileged: minorities, criminal defendants, pregnant women and the like.)

There is, in fact, no need, from the viewpoint of the original purpose of the corporate license, for First Amendment free speech to include corporate speech. There is certainly no need for it to encompass the spending of money on political advertising or donations, by corporations or anyone else. Corporations are not citizens, or even people. The old "personhood" metaphor was never a statement of legal truth -- it was merely a picturesque comparison. Money is not speech.

That's why the constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United, proposed by Bernie Sanders, is merely a good start. Additional amendment language stating point-blank that neither commercial speech nor the spending of money in a political context is ever "speech" at all for First Amendment purposes is necessary to reduce the scandalous degree to which our government is bought and paid for.

January 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Riley

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>