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We need to hold corporations accountable

Molly Ivins: We need to hold corporations accountable

By Molly Ivins
Published 2:15 am PDT Thursday, October 21, 2004
Editor's note: Molly Ivins is on vacation. The following column was first published in December 1996.

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Aunt Susan B. Anthony is buried in the town cemetery here, not far from her friend Frederick Douglass. What a hotbed of reformers this place was 150 years ago. Today, it's a corporate city. Rochester used to be known as Kodak's company town, but then came Xerox, Bausch & Lomb, Gannett.

Thinking about what those 19th-century reformers would be crusading about if they were around today, it seems to me that the most likely answer is the dominant force in their hometown: corporations. Not that Kodak, Xerox and B&L are bad corporate citizens; to the contrary, they support local arts programs and all manner of community endeavors. Still, Aunt Susan was never one to be misled by window dressing or pretty rhetoric. When she started, both God and Nature were assumed to be aligned in the subjugation of women.

What a curious entity a corporation is -- a legal artifact that exists to make a profit. Yet the law views a corporation as a person. The initial constitutional view of corporations as persons was limited to the right to sue and to be sued, which makes perfect economic sense for contract law. But starting in 1948, a series of Supreme Court decisions have given corporations other individual liberties as well. For example, it has been held that corporations have a right to privacy -- a right to which women still have only a contested claim. Aunt Susan would have turned incandescent over that one.

The civil rights of corporations are so strong that the entities are now the major political players in this country. Almost two-thirds of the money that puts people into federal office today comes from corporations. They effectively elect our government -- certainly more effectively than the people do. And as a consequence, the corporations now have more power than the people of this country. That is why the burden of taxation in America has shifted so dramatically from corporations to individual citizens, along with causing a thousand other ills.

The long struggle of the 19th-century reformers finally bore fruit in the early 20th century, with a spurt of progressive/populist legislation that gave the people back some power over corporations -- the eight-hour workday, health and safety regulations, antitrust laws.

But a quick read of any issue of The Wall Street Journal will prove that the corporations have shrugged through the restraints and are running loose again, and on a much larger scale. Check the WSJ any day for how many of the business stories involve economic globalization -- progress thereon, hitches thereto, results thereof.

Those who question the wisdom of economic globalization led by megacorporations are left looking a little quaint. Economic nationalism has a slightly musty flavor, "Buy American" is an old union slogan, and there certainly is a retrograde element to some economic nationalism -- immigrant-bashing, for example.

All the trendy people favor NAFTA and GATT and the alphabet soup of free-trade endeavors. Hey, Ralph Nader's almost the only citizen left who will stand up and bash corporations about their collective head with a two-by-four. And we know what The Wall Street Journal thinks of Nader.

There used to be two basic remedies that the citizen had against an evil-doing corporation. One was government regulation -- the government had the power to step in and stop its depredations, whether against public health, public safety or the environment. But now the government is effectively a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate power, in the hands of people to whom "regulation" is a dirty word. The Republicans took over Congress promising to drastically reduce the terrible "burden of regulation" that afflicts our poor corporations.

A citizen's other option was to use his Constitution-given right to sue the slime balls. If a corporation sold you something that killed your child or dumped its toxic waste in your backyard, you could get your day in court. But now the corporations are mounting an all-out assault on this remedy as well. They spend millions to influence public opinion in favor of "tort reform," a charming euphemism that simply means "citizens lose their rights," particularly our right of access to our own courts.

None of this is to say that corporations are intrinsically evil. They are simply legal entities to create profits, and they are genetically programmed, as it were, to increase profits -- increasingly in the short term. This is neither good nor evil -- it simply is.

The question is what we the people, who have spent more than 200 years working slowly toward greater liberty and justice for all, should do with these powerful entities now shaping our lives and our polity. Corporations are not concerned with economic justice or with social justice -- it's not their job. It is our job. And we need to start thinking hard about how we integrate these strange legal entities into the scheme.

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