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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Corporations are People Too?

Just what we need, an increase in the ability of corporations to exert political influence:

Justices Overturn Key Campaign Limits, by Adam Liptak, NY Times: Sweeping aside a century-old understanding and overruling two important precedents, a bitterly divided Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections.
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.
The 5-to-4 decision was a doctrinal earthquake but also a political and practical one. Specialists in campaign finance law said they expected the decision, which also applies to labor unions and other organizations, to reshape the way elections are conducted. ...
Justice John Paul Stevens read a long dissent from the bench. He said the majority had committed a grave error in treating corporate speech the same as that of human beings. ...

[Here's more on this topic from a previous post.] If a legislator votes for health care reform, to limit greenhouse gases, to impose tough regulations on banks, etc., there is nothing to stop corporations from using their billions in profits to target that individual with a blitzkrieg of negative ads. Legislators from small districts cannot match the resources that corporations have at their disposal, and even legislators from large districts would be quite vulnerable. As Andrew Leonard notes:

If the president follows through on his promises to limit the size of financial institutions and to prevent banks from using federally insured deposits to make bets on securities, the banks will fight him with everything they've got. That much we already knew. But now the Supreme Court has handed Wall Street a huge club with which to thwack Obama or any other politician who dares to try to restrain the likes of JPMorgan and Goldman-Sachs. And you can bet they won't be shy to use it.

If we going to allow corporations to participate in this way, we also need accountability. It's bad enough to have a tilted playing field in favor of corporations when they are playing fair, but when they are allowed to make false charges against candidates or about issues and not be held accountable, that's a big problem.

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Update: Daniel Greenwood, a professor of law at Hofstra University, emails his response to the decision. One part says:

...We need immediate action to reverse this decision. Even with the Supreme Court's appalling re-write of the First Amendment, the Congress and the state legislatures are free to change corporate law. Every state and the Congress should immediately enact legislation to guarantee that corporate decisions to affect government are made according to democratic and republican norms. This would do it:
Any corporate decision or expenditure that might affect the American political process, or the rules governing corporate behavior, which is made in this State or would affect the political process in this State, must be approved by a majority vote of every human corporate stakeholder who is a US citizen and might be affected by the decision or expenditure, including directors, managers, employees, human investors (or the human beneficiaries of institutional investors), customers, suppliers and taxpayers who might have to pay additional taxes to replace taxes corporate taxpayers avoid or to clean up messes that such decision might allow. The human beings involved may delegate this decision to elected representatives, including the board of directors of a corporation, so long as the elections of those representatives are held on a fair basis according to democratic norms including one human one vote, limited terms of office, and enfranchisement of all adult humans who are seriously affected by the representatives' actions.
This is one of several responses the White House is considering (though if they go this route, the White House version is unlikely to be this restrictive). Another potential response it to require the ad to include the CEO of the corporation saying that the company he or she represents paid for the ad, and that the company stands behind the message of the ad and the claims that it makes. This gets at the accountability issue, but I'm not sure it has much bite.

    Posted by on Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 10:52 AM in Economics | Permalink  Comments (136)


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