By Lucas O’Connor
By now, most of us agree that the concept of treating corporations as people has, in practice, been a disaster. The flood of corporate money into elections since Citizens United has been just as bad as advertised, deference to the supremacy of corporate health as national health continues to rise, and still the very concept remains just as laughable now as it’s always been. But it isn’t just the straightforward threats to a functioning electoral system or a stable economy that should be worrisome. This march towards corporations-as-people ultimately challenges how we see ourselves and what we value in our lives.
The argument that corporations are people inevitably spills over into what the role of people are in our society. Corporatizing that concept will, over time, reduce individual people more and more into nothing more than instruments of profit. That means that quality of life goes out the window, it means value that doesn’t show up on a balance sheet is dismissed, and over time we give up on building anything into our lives or communities that don’t make money.
This cuts to the heart of how we treat the economy and what we want for our communities. The argument that corporations are people comes with the vision of an invisible hand that makes economic decisions far beyond our own control. Far from its origins with Adam Smith, this is no longer about the economy being able to correct its own inefficiencies. In this modern conception, the tale becomes one of an economy that decides our lives and our society for us; we cannot stop it, we can only hope to contain it.
On the other hand is the radical notion that the economy is of our own creation and thus meant to serve our goals, whatever we choose those goals to be. While there are undeniable forces of economics and human nature, this perspective still believes that the economy is a tool to be wielded to achieve our desired end. So are we in charge, or have we created an economic beast that’s now grown larger than our control? Have we built this elaborate capitalist system in order to achieve something, or are we simply hoping not to become victims of mystical economic forces?
Of course, in practice that invisible hand is usually just the decrees of the super-rich dressed up as inevitability. As economics becomes too complex for laypeople to wrap their heads around, it’s easy to cast people as helpless against the forces they don’t understand. And it’s easy to slip into the role of servants to that mystical economic borg. But we can be proactive participants in this world, shaping our own society instead of waiting to see what the invisible hand dispenses to us. We can shape the economy to produce desired outcomes instead of simply crossing our fingers and keeping our heads down. The distinction between acting and being acted upon makes all the difference.
Reducing our neighbors, our coworkers, and ourselves to mere instruments of profit does, of course, de-humanize them (us). It turns us into abstractions on a ledger, and makes it much easier to foster discord, turn people against each other and against their own self-interest. San Diego recently voted overwhelmingly to say that the middle class is inherently overpaid. Why? Not likely because they don’t want to be middle class so much as because they aren’t. If we’ve been effectively trained to believe there’s nothing to be done about it, it doesn’t seem like a structural problem or a leadership problem that can be fixed. And sadly, too few of our elected leaders are telling them they can do anything about it.
We see this play out again and again, but perhaps the most accessible example comes from the recent economic crisis. In the face of turmoil and a pressing need to create new jobs, we quickly threw over the notion of rebuilding from the bottom up; an economic recovery directly rooted in small, community businesses that served local needs and could better hold up against another economic downturn in the future. Even with the opportunity, we skipped over the notion that a community that provides its own supply to its own demand is much less susceptible to the winds of Wall Street fate.
Instead, we got the Carl DeMaio model: Ask the “job creators” how much they need in de-regulation and tax breaks to consider rehiring. In other words, how much do the have nots need to pay the haves for the honor or remaining cogs in the machine? This is called supply side or trickle-down economics, famously dubbed voodoo economics under Reagan and, more famously, in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. More than thirty years on, we’re still waiting for some of that to trickle down.
So who’s missing in that equation? Workers, job seekers and customers jump to mind. Generally they’re considered integral parts of the economic equation, but curiously not in this case. There are some, like DeMaio, who will try to sell an economic vision that believes that the economy will use its invisible hand to take care of everyone if you just leave the rich to their money. It says that the rest of the world — workers and customers – are simply reactive to what’s issued them by the overlords of economic inevitability.
Work for whatever pay and conditions you’re issued because it’s better than nothing, consume whatever’s put on the shelves because it’s better than nothing. Of course businesses have been willing to take free money. If you’ve got a crop of elected leaders who are hoping for the opportunity to hand out free money to rich business elites, it would be stupid for those elites not to take the money. But it only reinforces the idea that capitalism must be run top-down.
Just because that may be the only model that a millionaire like DeMaio and his friends are interested in doesn’t mean it’s the only available option. Instead of hoping that a supply will generate demand, we can grow broad-based demand that allows (occasionally forces, even) suppliers to react. Put consumers in the drivers seat, let communities decide what’s best for them, use the economy we’ve spent centuries building instead of being used by it.
But who’s going to suggest that? Which elected official is going to stand up when San Diego’s right wing trumpets being ‘business friendly’ and remind them that San Diegans are people, not corporations? That maybe the city could try being people friendly, consumer friendly, worker friendly? That if we’re going to spend the money anyways, maybe instead of more corporate welfare it could be on better ways to lift people up to be stronger economic engines of their own? And if it’s a struggle to come up with a name or two, maybe it’s time to start asking why we don’t have leaders who will ask these questions seriously.
This November, we’ll get the opportunity to vote on this idea; the notion that one corporation is roughly equivalent to one person. San Diego’s mayoral election includes Carl DeMaio, an unequivocal believer in treating people as profit opportunities. And at the state level, The Special Exemption Act would mostly prevent labor unions from spending money on elections while codifying the corporate loopholes that allow free spending to influence elections. As it stands, corporate spending outpaces union spending on politics fifteen to one. Supposedly in the name of campaign finance reform, this proposition aims squarely to eliminate the one to protect the fifteen. It’s an occasion for a clear statement on where non-corporate people fit in this brave new world.
People will have clear choices. We’ll see how it comes out.