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Follow Up: Corporations Are People Too…

January 21st, 2010 · 12 Comments
Follow Ups · Policy

…except that they are way harder to punch in the face when they do stupid s**t. The good news is that the Supreme Court apparently understands the concept of speaking via dollars. (If you are not familiar with this notion, consider that I make a statement every time I refuse to shop at Wal-Mart because I do not like its receipt-checking policy or whatever.) The bad news is that Wal-Mart has a lot of dollars. I wrote before about the controversy surrounding whether corporations should have the same rights as individuals when it comes to voicing opinions via dollars. The original post outlines the history of the issue, but I will repeat here the part that you are probably most interested in:


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Wellllll…it turns out that Stephen was pretty much on target, since the Supreme Court (SCOTUS, to us policy wonks) ruled today that the government can’t ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections, and cited the First Amendment as the basis for the decision. Now, the court itself was very divided on this issue, and a lot of people aren’t pleased with this decision. From The New York Times:

President Obama issued a statement calling on Congress to “develop a forceful response to this decision.”

“With its ruling today,” he said, “the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics. It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

Hm. I am torn here. I don’t necessarily disagree with the second part of the statement above, but I would like to point out that, for better or for worse, that’s not really the Supreme Court’s problem. Last time I checked (which may have been during high school civics class, but go with me here), the Supreme Court’s job was to decide whether or not things were constitutional, not whether or not they sucked. One would hope that, in most cases, those two qualities are well-aligned, but there is no reason that they need be. The reasons given by the majority and minority are also interesting along this dimension:

The ruling was a vindication, the majority said, of the First Amendment’s most basic free speech principle — that the government has no business regulating political speech. The dissenters said allowing corporate money to flood the political marketplace will corrupt democracy.

It seems here that the majority took the position of “it’s not constitutional” and the dissenters took the position of “but the alternative sucks.” I do think that this decision is in line with the function that the Supreme Court is supposed to have, and I do think that corporations that are affected by U.S. government policy should have a say in who makes that policy, but I can’t help thinking that Wal-Mart and its receipt-checking gestapo are going to have policymakers in their back pockets, which could lead to all sorts of raucus.

In principle, this doesn’t HAVE to be a problem. In a perfect world filled with puppies and rainbows and unicorns, company executives would put corporate dollars towards those candidates who would most benefit employees, shareholders, etc., and as such the “speaking” of the company would just be as a representative of its stakeholders, who may or may not have the inclination to contribute themselves. But, until I neet a unicorn at least, I am well aware that we don’t live in this world.

Lest you think that this issue is settled (and you probably didn’t, since Obama led you to believe otherwise above), just wait until people start pointing out that this ruling in and of itself potentially gives MORE say to corporations than to individuals, since individuals are limited in various ways in how much they can contribute to a campaign. From what I read in the NYT, all the court said is that bans on spending are unconstitutional, so it’s unclear how the rules are ultimately going to play out. My hope is that, if corporations are allowed to speak with their dollars, that shareholders wise up and start doing so as well.

I’m going to go prepare for life in the United States of Halliburton now, I’ll talk to you later.

Tags: Follow Ups · Policy

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Matt // Jan 21, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    I wonder if there could be some argument that the obscene amounts of money crowds out individual and small organization funding, and thus ifringes on the first amendment rights of *actual* people.
    I suppose I could make some economic model to back this up, but not while I’m at work >.<

  • 2 Christian G. // Jan 21, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    Pretty interesting, but really, Ms. Beggs? I’m a little bit disappointed.

    Wal-Mart brought cheap goods to millions of Americans and provides the market to highlight comparative advantage in a globalized world. I agree that they’ve done some pretty crappy things before, but I’m not so sure I’d say they’re entirely bad for the American people.

    What about U.S. Steel? With the work of the company, their union, etc., the U.S. government put a 30% tariff on foreign steel. Wouldn’t that be a better example of corporate money screwing over the American people?

  • 3 Mark // Jan 21, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    The “speaking with dollars” is all well and good if you happen to believe a corporation is a “person.”

    I’ll believe a corporation is a person once you can show me its spleen.

  • 4 econgirl // Jan 21, 2010 at 6:27 pm

    @ Christian: I don’t think I have the beef with Wal-Mart that you think I do, since I 100% agree with your statement. I used Wal-Mart in this example because it comes across as a company that would spend money to support the political ideals of its management rather than keep the decisions based on business concerns.

    I do appreciate what Wal-Mart has done in terms of economies of scale and lower prices for the consumer. I do not appreciate a lot of what they have done in terms of shady labor practices, and I do not particularly like that they run competitors out of business (therefore denying consumers other options) and then act as a moral authority in terms of what products should and should not be sold. I’m not saying that they aren’t within their rights to do so, I’m just saying that it’s more than a little crappy.

  • 5 holmegm // Jan 23, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    I’m so glad people remain vigilant about this whole money in politics problem … we really suffered under President Forbes, after all.

  • 6 Don Gooding // Jan 24, 2010 at 11:12 am

    While I’m no constitutional scholar, my understanding of the process that granted corporations equivalent rights to people was extremely casual given its consequences. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corporate_personhood_debate

    Given that corporations are not explicitly granted personhood equivalency in the US Constitution, this whole issue is much more subject to ideological bias than it should be.

  • 7 Rev. Pfloyd // Jan 24, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    I’m not sure I agree with the “Wal-Mart runs the competition out of business” argument. Corporations don’t run small businesses out of business, consumers do.

    My stance on the main topic, however, has largely been a “goose and a gander” argument. I’m really not a fan of rent-seeking on any level (though that’s a pretty oblique statement, I admit) but if political activist groups can pool money together to try and decide morality for me, for example, I think it’s only fair if corporations can.

    Personally I’d just rather see some other means of campaign finance (I don’t have any magic idea for that though).

  • 8 Burge // Jan 26, 2010 at 10:25 am

    I don’t think this is that big of a deal. First off, the politician cannot ask for support from the corporation. It merely is going to show a little bit better who is supporting who. For example, a large farming group is considering running ads supporting one of the republican candidates for senate who is against the cap and trade bill. It’s not just about big business and wall street, there are many other organizations who can utilize this decision. Another point- by the way select members of media and government speak, don’t they make it sound like big business/big oil/big insurance already has all mighty control over government? All the criticism is coming from the “business is too powerful, too corrupt” crowd, and I ask them: if business are already too powerful, then how much is this bill going to change, is is that enough to really support the outcry? Also i’m a firm believer that it’s the judges job to interpret the constitution, and if something sucks, well then let the legislative branch correct. I gave credit to a judge who upheld a convicted arsonist’s pension (the arsonist was a fireman) and who said somthing along the lines of “I know it doesn’t make any sense, but with the way the law was wrote (the arsonist) has every right to receive his (fireman’s) pension.”

    Ohh and sidenote-On walmarts I don’t completely disagree with you, there have been shady practices with labor in walmart; personally I havn’t seen it at the walmarts around me and being that I’ve worked in a Walgreens, the company that was sued for racism, I can wholeheartedly say that, coming from corporate, there is no racism problem at Walgreens and that case, which the group filing the lawsuit won, was BS. So when I see all the allegations of shady labor practices, but when I talk with people who work there who agree its a crappy retail job, all grocery retail jobs are crappy, I’m very skeptical. 2- I completely disagree that Walmart forces people out of business. Walmarts actually cause more foot traffic in areas and can help surrounding businesses since people have more money to spend after shopping at walmart. The message Walmart sends is diversify your product, because we will beat you on price. If you’re a small meat store, for example, it just means you need to start selling high quality meats, which are more expensive however not available in bulk at the Walmart.

  • 9 Don Gooding // Jan 26, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    Burge – you point out some interesting issues, but don’t seem to realize the facts aren’t what you think them to be.

    “if business are already too powerful, then how much is this bill going to change” – we’re talking about a Supreme Court decision overturning a bill, which undermines your point “i’m a firm believer that it’s the judges job to interpret the constitution, and if something sucks, well then let the legislative branch correct.”

    The problem is precisely that the legislature thought corporate influence sucks, and it was restricted for decades, until the judges overturned it. When such a decision is 5-4 (as it was here) you can bet that the constitutionality is highly ambiguous.

  • 10 Tim Cullen // Jan 31, 2010 at 3:15 am

    I don’t think that this case rests upon corporate persons having free speech rights, but rather that individuals have free speech rights and corporations are just voluntary associations of individuals. The constitution also doesn’t distinguish between speakers, but just says congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, the right of people to peacefully assemble and to petition the government. That is what a corporation is, an association of individuals who have decided to speak out on matters relevant to them.

    What much of the mainstream left and the press have missed entirely is the fact that the corporation that brought this case was a non profit corporation specifically formed to engage in political speech, not Wal Mart, and that it was supported by similar non profit corporations like the ACLU and NRA that also considered aspects of campaign finance to be unconstitutional. http://www.aclu.org/files/pdfs/scotus/citizensunited_v_fec_acluamicus.pdf

    It just isn’t factually accurate to discuss this issue solely from the perspective of what Wal Mart might do with this ruling, if anything Wal Mart is more bound by the concerns of its customers and employees than a group like Citizens United, a union, or the ACLU since were Wal Mart to take a stand on a controversial issue it could stand to lose customers the way many liberals boycotted Whole Foods when John Mackey criticized the Health Reform Bill. Whereas advocacy groups like the ACLU or the NRA get money precisely to influence policy in a way that many people on both sides might not like.

    Maybe we could or should distinguish between Wal Mart and the ACLU, but campaign finance reform didn’t do so and that was one of the reasons a part of it was struck down no matter what entertaining strawman Steven Colbert can conjure up and use to play to his audience Glenn Beck/Rush Limbaugh style. I challenge anyone to tell me how Colbert’s misrepresentation of the issue to put on a good show is any different from what Beck and Limbaugh do to up their ratings.

  • 11 Tom // Jan 31, 2010 at 11:13 am

    Mark, I can’t say you’d see a spleen in today’s top ten donors

    1 ActBlue $7,822,143 100% 0% Solidly Democratic
    2 AT&T Inc $2,443,010 46% 52% On the fence
    3 Intl Brotherhood of Electrical Workers $2,138,430 97% 2% Solidly Democratic
    4 Operating Engineers Union $2,013,050 88% 12% Strongly Democratic
    5 Comcast Corp $1,761,003 72% 26% Strongly Democratic
    6 Honeywell International $1,719,525 56% 41% Leans Democratic
    7 American Bankers Assn $1,641,350 42% 56% Leans Republican
    8 American Assn for Justice $1,601,000 94% 5% Solidly Democratic
    9 National Beer Wholesalers Assn $1,585,491 58% 41% Leans Democratic
    10 Lockheed Martin $1,473,182 56% 43% On the fence

    http://www.opensecrets.org/overview/topcontribs.php

  • 12 Consumer Advocate // Feb 4, 2010 at 12:23 am

    This may be a bit of a tangent, but why boycott Wal-Mart to protest the receipt checking policy? Seems to me a better and bolder way to get your point across would be to continue shopping there and simply refuse the receipt check. Store policy or no, state law allows merchants to detain customers only when they have probable cause to believe you’re stealing. In retail loss prevention, PC pretty much requires ironclad proof. (See http://www.crimedoctor.com/loss_prevention_3.htm). The bottom line is that store employees have no legal right to search you or to hold you against your will if you didn’t steal.

    Sure, the greeters can ask to see your receipt or look in your bags. They can also ask you to strip naked and sing the Star-Spangled Banner. Doesn’t mean you have to oblige them. Just politely decline the searches and continue on your merry way!

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