One of the most peculiar and fractured conversations underway in America involves the role that corporations play in our lives. This week, the US Supreme Court allowed that in some cases, certain types of large companies may in fact hold religious values. That is to say, they are allowed to conduct their affairs and even ignore laws that other companies are subject to, if their managers believe collectively certain things about God or the supernatural.
This development builds on recent court rulings that allow corporations to exercise a kind of “free speech” in our politics, a civic involvement that generally translates into the spending of large amounts of cash. During the last presidential campaign, Republican Mitt Romney, himself an experienced corporate executive, declared famously that “Corporations are people, my friend.”
When a member of the crowd protested, Romney was insistent: “Of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. Where do you think it goes?”
This growing sense of a meaningful corporate “identity” sharing space in our democracy with living, breathing humans comes at a time when corporations are also increasingly powerful.
Top executives that run these firms control a huge and growing percentage of total American wealth. The famous 1% of Americans now control roughly a fifth of all wealth in our society. That’s almost twice the wealth held by the “bottom” fifty percent of our people. As cash competes with activism in our political process, it’s clear who will be able to speak the loudest.
It’s also a fact that more and more of us draw our livelihoods from these “mega-meta-individuals.” Roughly seven million Americans work for just ten companies, including Wal-Mart, GE and McDonald’s.
Factor in their spouses and children and that’s a huge slice of our population dependent financially on a relatively small group of firms. In the Gilded Age, those workers might have identified with a Rockefeller or a DuPont or a Vanderbilt, an actual person. But now the buck usually stops not at an individual, but at a corporate gestalt identity.
Big companies are owned and run by collective and relatively anonymous boards and committees, with decision making and accountability diffused over an army of attorneys and executives and middle managers. A vast pool of shareholders. A sprawling corporate bureaucracy.
Which leads us to the dilemma that we face. While we know a great deal about the moral and ethical behavior of individuals — and have a system of laws designed over decades and centuries to govern that behavior — we’re still struggling to understand how these new corporate personalities will function in our lives. And there’s strong evidence that we have reason to be nervous.
To be sure, enlightened self-interest and a reasonable profit motive often inspire healthy corporate behavior that many Americans find praise-worthy. Disney and other companies are on the forefront of including same-sex families, in part because they see gays and lesbians as good customers. Our ATM machines and our cable TV channels offer services and programs in a convenient variety of languages, even as our political culture dithers and feuds over immigration. Many corporations give vast amounts of money to charity and good causes.
But there are also endless examples of corporations behaving in ways that critics have described as essentially sociophathic.
Responsibility and moral blame are so diffuse, and the risk of individual penalties so slight, that companies wind up making collective decisions that are, bluntly, reprehensible. We know beyond any doubt that Big Tobacco continued to poison American consumers without informing them of the risk long after executives understood that their product was a deadly killer. It took Ralph Nader to push American car companies to build automobiles that weren’t “unsafe at any speed.”
Before the economic crash of 2008, Wall Street firms began bundling essentially worthless real estate into trade-able commodities, which could then be marketed to hoodwinked investors. If an individual set up that kind of scheme, he or she would go to prison for deliberate fraud. If one individual trashed the global economy, they would be a pariah. But in the vast majority of cases, the executives working within the gestalt identity of those big trading firms made huge profits and walked away unscathed. Most of the companies, meanwhile, paid minor, wrist-slap fines.
It’s also a reality — I know this from personal experience as a journalist — that corporations regularly substitute “public relations” and “crisis management” for actual moral accountability. When the Gulf of Mexico is clotted with crude oil, when cars burst into flames or when baby cribs turn out to be deadly choking devices, the collective “person” that is a corporation often has no clear motivation to search its soul and improve its behavior.
On the contrary, there is a powerful collective incentive to minimize responsibility and shift blame elsewhere. A sense of shame and culpability are necessary equipment in the moral life of any adult individual, but for the corporation those things are risk-factors threatening the “brand” and the potential for growth and profit. That’s why whistle-blowers are so often punished and marginalized. That’s why executives involved in horribly immoral decisions are so often given bonuses and promoted.
So we have stumbled into a situation where companies have a growing number of rights, without an equal expansion of responsibility.
Consider Hobby Lobby. The corporation is, according to the US Supreme Court, free to express its religious freedoms when it comes to the narrow question of providing contraceptives as part of its health insurance package. But will the company also be expected to treat its workers with the broad range of Christian values long shared by Protestant and Catholic congregations?
This is a firm that has a strong record as a good employer, with decent wages and benefits. But will workers be considered part of the “Hobby Lobby Christian community” during an economic downturn, for example, and allowed to keep their jobs? Will they be the beneficiaries of family values in terms of child care, maternity leave and other benefits? Will the firm act in the full range of Christian love and charity that inform that faith’s teachings over the long term?
The truth is that most companies won’t take those steps. The profit motive will cause them to continue seeking as much “individual” power and freedom as possible, influencing our politics and avoiding regulation, while incurring the least burdensome range of legal and moral obligations. We see this expressed vividly in the number of “corporate American people” who in fact have no material loyalty to America. They regularly ship their jobs and their technology overseas without discernible regard for values such as patriotism or home-town pride.
While traveling in Europe recently, I was naively startled to find that Coca-Cola broadcasts nearly the same flag-waving commercials in Portugal that it airs here in the U.S. Only there, the flag being waved is the Portuguese flag and the “We’re Number One!” jingoism is referring to Portugal, not the United States. That’s great company policy. Firms want their products to be accepted as familiar and even “home-grown” in as many places as possible.
But in a real individual we would never accept such disingenuous behavior or such clearly divided loyalties. Senator Ted Cruz, the Republican from Texas, recently felt compelled to abandon his dual Canadian citizenship. It was a demonstration of his undivided American-ness. But those same corporations that are gaining more and more rights as “Americans” can carry as many passports as they like. Wal-Mart is often branded as the quintessential American-rooted firm, but as of 2010 it operated in 27 countries under some 55 different names.
So what do we do about entities that want to be treated as “individuals” but don’t want to face the same civil and criminal laws and obligations that the rest of us face? What do we do about big companies that lay claim to civil rights and free speech that the rest of us enjoy, without accepting the full duties and obligations of citizenship? What do we do about firms that want to be selectively Christian (or Muslim or Hindu or Jewish) when it allows them a “religious freedom,” but have no interest in taking on the broader moral obligations of those faiths?
I suspect first of all that there will be refreshed debate over whether any of this makes sense. The idea that corporations “are people” remains, after all, widely controversial. Even many libertarians, who prefer that companies be allowed to operate with little regulatory oversight from the government, are leery of the concept that firms are, in some meaningful sense, citizens. There is no evidence that the founding fathers contemplated anything like this when writing the Constitution or Bill of Rights.
This conversation is already underway. In our own 21st district congressional race, the role of corporate money flooding the airwaves with campaign ads has already emerged as a major part of the discourse. Even some Republicans and fairly conservative newspaper editorial pages are voicing qualms or openly crying foul about Karl Rove’s American Crossroads super-PAC, which pipelined hundreds of thousands of anonymous corporate dollars into the North Country.
To that end, my guess is that people will, at the very least, question more and more aggressively whether corporations that wish to be viewed as equal players in our society should be allowed to do so secretly. Under current law, the “free speech” granted to these firms often comes too often under the cover of a mask. In our democracy, we hear the megaphone but we don’t know who is actually behind the words. Is it a living, breathing individual, a firm based here in the US, or perhaps even a corporation based largely overseas and operated by foreign executives?
Right now, those lines are blurred and often invisible. In a nation of ballot boxes and government that purports to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people” that’s a dangerous thing.