June 25, 2018
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Down with corporate “personhood”

By John Greenman, Special to the BDN

There’s been a lot of press in recent weeks about how General Electric paid no taxes on its billions of dollars in profits last year. The same kind of attention has been devoted to Exxon-Mobil’s highest profits of any company ever for last quarter while receiving billions in government subsidies.

The taxes not paid and the profits made all have been perfectly legal.

There’s a reason that corporations have huge legal departments filled with tax lawyers and others. It’s to make sure that the maximum benefit is derived from the tax laws and trade and commercial regulations on the books — laws and regulations that the corporations’ lobbyists, in many cases, had a hand in writing, and laws and regulations that were set in stone by legislators supported by those same lobbyists.

How did we get into this mess where huge corporations pay no taxes and get subsidies while communities, counties, states and the federal government say they’re about to go bankrupt? Business corporations (and other incorporated entities such as unions) have, for years, been considered “people” under the law.

It all began in 1886, when a Supreme Court clerk wrote an inappropriate headnote on the court’s decision in “Santa Clara County v. the Southern Pacific Railroad.” Since then, incorporated entities have been enjoying the rights of citizens such as freedom of speech, equal protection, avoidance of search and seizure and self-incrimination, and other rights of being a citizen of the U.S.

And now, because of the recent U.S. Supreme Court “Citizens United v. the FEC” decision, corporations can pay whatever they want and publicly say whatever they want about issues and candidates, because the court upheld their “freedom of speech.” Even foreign entities can make financial contributions to the political concerns and politicians of their choice.

In the 2010 midterm elections, some estimates say that “non-persons” spent $300 million, more than any previous midterm election campaign. With this kind of clout on the books (and the current national campaign to marginalize unions and new voter campaigns), the whole concept of “we the people” is in danger of becoming a footnote in our history instead of the foundation of our nation’s existence that the founding fathers envisioned.

You might wonder, as I do, why this is being allowed to happen — why we the people aren’t outraged by the whole concept of corporate personhood. An ABC-Washington Post poll taken soon after the Citizens United decision came out indicates that there may be some outrage out there. Eighty-five percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans polled said they opposed the Citizens United decision.

How does that get translated into action? A group of NGOs is working to encourage a popular movement to support and pass a constitutional amendment declaring that corporations are not persons and do not have any constitutional rights. Starting at the grass roots, MoveToAmend.org is working with individuals, town and county councils, and state legislators to pass ordinances calling for an amendment that would do away with corporate personhood. Fort Bragg, Calif., Essex, N.Y., and Lincoln, Vt., have passed ordinances declaring that corporations are not persons, and the state of Vermont is well on its way to making that same declaration.

It’s never been easy to amend our Constitution, and it shouldn’t be. But with such strong public disapproval for the concept of corporations being people, of businesses not paying taxes and receiving, in some cases, huge subsidies, a “move to amend” seems like a no-brainer. How else do you fix problems if not by taking action?

Corporate power over government (read: “we the people”) is ascendant. We ignore it at our peril.

John Greenman of Old Town is a member of the WERU-FM board.

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