Entries in corporations (4)


Caught up in the personality war 

My last couple of posts have gained some currency online. Sadly, they have been taken up by a few right wing blogs as a stick with which to beat Rachel Maddow. She had done a piece on the obvious plagiarism of Rand Paul, and his defenders had pointed to my piece (A Remarkable Coincidence) as evidence of hypocrisy.

First, my piece about Maddow was not an accusation of plagiarism, despite the deadly serious quotation from Tom Lehrer. Second, or perhaps first, I really do not give a damn either way. I like the activities of Rachel Maddow and dislike the activities of Rand Paul, but I do not know either of them personally and do not consider their footnoting practices important in the least.

Both of these people, as public figures, and in his case as a legislator, are symptoms of something greater. They are not prime causes. They are products of a corporatized society, playing out their assigned roles within defined boundaries. Attacking either of them is like attacking a piece of a jigsaw puzzle for fitting into that puzzle.

Human beings are obsessed with status. By status I mean both placement in a hierarchy and membership in a group. (Read Professor Collins on this) We are also focused on personalities and stories. We love heroes and villains and satisfying plot lines. We love to have our expectations met. Unfortunately, that doesn’t do us any good in politics.

Casting politics as Maddow versus Paul, or Mitch McConnell versus Harry Reid, or any pairing you’d like, is just a tribal sideshow. Likewise the demonizing or deifying of any political figure.

It is structures that we are up against. It is law and the creatures of law. Law and the social constructs it creates do not satisfy us emotionally the way a rip-snorting tribal battle might, but again, that personality pissing contest is a sideshow. By creatures of law I mean corporations. They were created as a means to concentrate the power of individuals into one focused effort. They evolved into a means to focus the wealth of a number of individuals in order to extract more value from the physical and social environment. They further evolved into a kind of reverse parasite, where the parasite is bigger than the hosts.

An effective parasite alters the behavior of its hosts. Consider the bacteria Toxoplasmia Gondii, which lives in the guts of cats and mice. Infected mice become less frightened by the smell of cats, thus hastening their progress into the digestive systems of their fellow host. There is a tiny fluke that infects ants, and also lives in the digestive tracts of cows. When it infects an ant, that ant compulsively climbs to the top of a grass stem and waits, making it more likely to become food for bovines. We get infected with corporate memes such as “free markets,” “free trade,” and the myth of meritocracy. Fossil fuel companies sow doubt about climate change and health insurance companies propagandize against European style health care systems. Corporate media focuses on horse race coverage of elections, celebrity trivia, and personality politics. Most of America climbs to the top of the grass stalk and waits.

 Corporations have become genetically recursive. That is, they have gained the enviable superhuman capability of altering their own DNA in real time. Law is their DNA. Law gives birth to corporations, defines their shape, and regulates their functions. They have a much simpler time of it than actual genetic researchers because the meaning of each segment is explicit and the method for changing it is straightforward.

Their basic methodology has two interlocking parts with reinforcing feedback. One is making sure that mostly corporation-minded candidates get into office. I’ve written about this before: The candidate in a congressional primary who spends the most money wins, about 97% of the time. Most of the money comes in big chunks from millionaires and billionaires, the privileged remoras clinging to the corporate sharks. Ergo, any candidate with opinions offensive to corporations has a very small chance of making it to the general election. We, the voters, get an imaginary choice between two prescreened candidates.

The second technique is what Noam Chomsky called the manufacture of consent. The corporate media allow a vigorous debate within carefully defined limits. Again, we get an imaginary choice. An example that comes to mind is the debate in Congress about the proper interest rate for student loans. 6.8%? 3.4%? Or, thinking oh so radically, the prime rate that banks get? Nobody was allowed to mainstream the idea that we’d be more prosperous in the long run if we copied some European countries: simply pay for the higher education of any young person with enough brains and drive to do it. (Hint: Debt ridden graduates are a corporate two-fer. They pay interest to banks and make docile employees.)

So, Toxoplasmia Corporatii creates a cohort of people who accept corporate policy and fear anti-corporate policy, and then selects among them via campaign finance law to promote the most parasite friendly individuals. Those politicians make the law even friendlier to corporations and give them greater power to filter the electoral process. Those politicians also change the law to make media consolidation easier and dissent more dangerous. The electorate gets bombarded with even more corporate memes, candidates become more slavish, and the cycle spirals downward.

So I do not give a flip about what Rachel Maddow said about Rand Paul or vice versa. Rand Paul got elected by the same system that produced Barack Obama, which also spat out G. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan. The same electoral methods gave us Nancy Pelosi and Michelle Bachmann. We are encouraged to debate the differences between them, but never the similarities. There are a host of assumptions that underlie all their rhetoric, so much in the background, so submerged that they are never questioned in the mainstream of debate. Questioning them puts someone out on the fringe, makes them not serious. I’m not talking about ding dong conspiracy theories. There are fundamental questions about our economy, our budgeting priorities, our military, and our place in the world that never get airplay.

The work pressure is slacking off on your Minor Heretic. I’ll try to post more regularly this winter. More on this subject soon.


If They Were Really Persons 

A friend of mine and I were discussing the concept of corporate personhood. Yeah, that’s what we talk about here in Central Vermont when we are tapped out on deer hunting, snowmobiles, and how bad mud season was last year.

Review: The Supreme Court decided in Citizens United that corporations are persons and therefore have free speech rights, which means money donating rights, which translates into tanker-loads of cash flooding our already corrupt political system.

I mentioned the sign at Occupy Wall Street that said, “I’ll believe that corporations are persons when Texas executes one.”

My friend raised the concept of corporations as persons having the right to marry. We mused on this for a moment.

I brought up the issue of same-business mergers. Would Americans support an oil company marrying another oil company?

My friend admitted that Exxon/Mobil made him uncomfortable. I had to agree. Many would say that this oil company on oil company stuff threatens and dishonors traditional mergers. I mean, Exxon/Ben & Jerry’s is normal, but Morgan Stanley/Smith Barney just creeps me out. It’s not just same-business, it is polygamy. More alarming, these same-business mergers actually hire professional firms for “recruitment.” They advertise themselves for sale in public offerings. Won’t someone think of the children?

I forget which one of us brought up jury duty. How would we handle that with, let’s say, Lockheed Martin? It employs 126,000 people in the U.S. alone. Do they all have to show up? Jury selection would be restricted to the largest sports stadiums. Can an attorney reject Lockheed Martin as a juror based on the bias of one employee, or would it have to be a majority? The interviews would take months. Does the company get shut down for the duration and get $10 a day for lunch? Or could it be just the board of directors? What if they, as one person, deliver a split decision? Or would it be the stockholders who would have to show up? This corporate personhood thing is more complex than it seems at first glance.

Under the new Defense Authorization Act, persons deemed enemy combatants, or supporters of Al Qaeda, or the brother-in-law of the best friend of the nephew of someone who once talked politics with a guy who shared an apartment with someone who donated money to an Islamic charity can be detained indefinitely without trial or appeal or habeas corpus or even being told why they are being detained.

I think that the thirteen largest banks in the U.S. have supported Al Qaeda. Maybe. Which is good enough, apparently, to have missiles shot at them from drone aircraft without a trial. Can we start with Bank of America? Detain some, blow up some others, see if I care which, as long as we cancel the mortgages and credit card debts.

There are all sorts of slings and arrows we persons have to face, a thousand ills that the flesh is heir to. It’s only fair that corporate persons should have to endure the same. Right now I’m trying to figure out how to make a legal fiction get an annual colonoscopy.


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.


The Good Corporate Citizen 

Apple Computer (Stock symbol APPL) makes a metric buttload of money. They make a gross margin of 60% on their computers, roughly five times what any other computer company makes. Their stock price is plump as a result. One of the many reasons they make this kind of money is that they have close control of their supply chain, one end of which is in China. Having 100,000 workers in one place, working for peanuts and putting in 40 hours of overtime a week results in great cost savings.

Now, I don’t want to pile on Apple over their sweatshop suppliers. The use of sweatshop labor in the electronics industry is universal. It isn’t my point. Let me illustrate my idea with a fairy tale.

Steve Jobs, the founder and CEO (now former CEO, but this is a fairy tale) looked upon the teeming masses at Foxconn and the teeming masses of unemployed people in the U.S. and had an epiphany. He went before the board of directors of Apple and said “I have had an epiphany!” The board of directors Googled the word “epiphany” and then said, “Ok Steve, did you get religion, or what? Are we going to market an iPray?”

“No,” Steve responded, “I have had an epiphany about sweat labor and U.S. unemployment. I am a compassionate man and a loyal and patriotic American. I propose that we move all our iPhone production from China to the parts of the U.S. that need jobs the most. We’ll have to knock our margin from 64% down to 50%, but we’ll still be making four times as much per computer than any other company. Then our potential domestic customer base will be expanded and the dead end of the U.S. trade deficit will be slowed.”

The board of directors of Apple paused for a moment with their mouths open and then nearly pissed themselves laughing. One of them, wiping tears from his eyes and catching his breath, managed to say, “Steve, Steve, that’s why we love you. Not just a great designer, but a great comedian. Damn, I think I pulled a muscle. 50% margin, oh god!” He collapsed in merriment.

Steve Jobs stood up, put his hands on his hips and glared at the board. “I’m serious!” he shouted. “Americans need jobs! Our trade deficit is climbing! In-sourcing is the morally right thing to do! I insist!”

The directors sobered up fast at that. They looked back and forth at each other. They exchanged significant looks, raised eyebrows, and subtle nods. Finally, one of them spoke.

“You’re serious about this, Steve? In sourcing the iPhone and accepting a 50% margin?”


“Well, Steve, we know you’ve been ill, and you’ve been dealing with the specter of end-of-life issues, and you’ve still been working really hard. Maybe too hard. Maybe you deserve some time off.”

Do I even need to continue the story at this point? Steve gets the heave-ho, the shareholders keep the 64% margin, U.S. workers stand in the unemployment line, Foxconn employees keep their 80-hour weeks, and the Apple juggernaut rolls on.

As I said before, I don’t mean to pile on Apple, except that they have margin to spare compared to their competition. CEOs at Dell or HP would sell their mothers for even 20% margin. And maybe that’s the point.

Imagine Tony Heyward, the former CEO of BP, getting religion after the Macondo oil spill and proposing that BP go all environmental to the detriment of profit. Same result. Same result at any corporation. This is no shock to anybody.

It’s the concept of fiduciary responsibility that is the problem. Fiduciary responsibility is part of corporate law. It means that the officers of a corporation are legally obligated to maximize shareholder value, meaning stock price and dividends. It also means that corporate officers need to practice fiduciary psychopathy, the choice of corporate profit over human life and health.

Consider the infamous Ford Pinto memo, where Ford executives pointed out to the Highway Safety Administration that letting a predicted 180 people burn to death in their cars was less than half the cost of fixing the Pinto’s fuel tank problem. In the end, it turned out that the Pinto wasn’t any more dangerous than other similar vehicles, but the execs were willing to make that calculation.

Consider Kellogg, Brown, and Root, the Halliburton subsidiary and military contractor. KBR had a fuel trucking contract in Iraq and got paid by the mile. KBR managers decided to run empty trucks up and down the dangerous highways of Iraq, risking (and sometimes sacrificing) the lives of drivers and soldiers. (The soldiers called it “sailboat fuel.”) It was a singular combination of greed, fraud, cold-bloodedness, and disloyalty.

That’s wishful thinking. It wasn’t singular. It was, and is, all too common.

It is why there is no such thing as a good corporate citizen. If you get the impression that a corporation is behaving morally, it is due to one of several factors:

The corporation is too small to get away with much.

In this instance the corporation has been successfully restrained by regulation.

The interests of the corporation have momentarily aligned with those of society; a chance event.

The corporation is engaged in effective public relations.

A corporation is not just incapable of moral judgment. It is actively bent in the direction of immoral behavior. Acting morally requires some amount of self denial and self restraint, and those concepts act against shareholder value. A corporation pursues ever more resources, preferential laws, pointless subsidies, low wages, and unrestrained polluting, among many other wretched things.

I cringe when CEOs and the politicians they selected go on about lifting regulations off the backs of business. Yes, let the saber-toothed beast root about in our guts more freely. Businesses do more for us when they are properly regulated. They innovate instead of monopolizing. They create real products instead of defrauding. If you want to ponder the results of eased regulation, look no further than the derivatives market that just collapsed our economy. If you are a nostalgic type, look back to Enron or the Savings and Loan crisis of the 1980s. Bolster your blood pressure with thoughts of the speculative oil market that probably adds a 20% premium to our gasoline and heating bills.

Just don’t ever, ever, fall for the myth of the good corporate citizen.