Stephen Baker

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"Corporations are People": an op-ed

August 16, 2011News

Here's a piece I wrote for the L.A. Times after reading Mitt Romney's comment (below).

"Corporations are people, my friend." Mitt Romney, Aug. 11, campaigning in Iowa

I've been thinking about people I know. Apple comes to mind. It's terrific at electronics and has a great eye for design. It's far richer than everyone in my neighborhood. Another person I've known for years is General Motors. It almost died awhile back. Enron, which passed away in 2001, wasn't an especially nice person, or an honest one. But people will be people.

You might find this hard to believe, but these people — the kind with CEOs and corporate headquarters — need money more than we do. For them, money is like oxygen or food. If they come up short, they get eaten or die. So you really can't blame them for laying us off, slashing our medical benefits or moving our jobs offshore. They do it to survive. On the other hand, you shouldn't take them too seriously when they talk about, say, clean air or early childhood nutrition. If anything threatens to cost them money, they tend to line up against it, because every dollar they lose leads these people one step closer to extinction.

Now, there was a time that the government was considered a person, or at least "the people." It looked out for the population's welfare and education. It built roads and chipped in for retirement. This turned out to be an enormous and expensive job, and before long we began hearing that government was not the solution but the problem. Its taxes and regulations got in the way. If it didn't back off, people like GE and Exxon Mobil would take their jobs elsewhere. Government was not the people, it was a thing — a bad thing, at least for certain people.

Fortunately, government is run by politics, and politics run on the very stuff that these people are built to amass: money. So they can weigh in, advertising their agenda and investing in politicians who see things their way. Their argument is simple: If they aren't free to make lots of money, they'll go somewhere else where they can, leaving the rest of us in bad shape. One good way for them to make money is to shrink this thing — the government — that has its hand in their pockets and always seems to be writing irksome and expensive new rules.

Money is so important to these people, sad to say, that it can cloud their judgment. A decade ago, a number of them chased the illusion of ever-expanding wealth and ended up making a boatload of bad bets. Two of these folks, Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch, were eaten. A third, Lehman Bros., died. Others faced grave danger and threatened to carry the economy down with them. So the people held their noses and asked the despised government — that thing — to save them. The government borrowed trillions of dollars to do just that and avert economic collapse. Yet that rescue appeared to make the government even much more dangerous. It now was deeper in debt, which meant it might have to raise taxes on the very people it rescued.

Fortunately, these concerned people got relief from the courts. Early last year, the Supreme Court ruled that everyone — all kinds of people — should benefit from the 1st Amendment right to free speech, which included giving unlimited and secret campaign contributions. Given this opportunity, some people had more money to give to politicians than the rest of us. And naturally, the first Congress elected following this ruling tended to its patrons' interests. Who wouldn't? The politicians promptly carried the battle to their donors' enemy — the government — and came within a whisker of starving it of funding.

In the end, it appears, the government of the people, by the people and for the people, might not perish from the Earth. But it will at least be brought to heel — by and for a different kind of people, the kind with shareholders and CEOs. And now — wouldn't you know it? — as we emerge from the bitter battle over the government debt, some folks, like Exxon Mobil, Johnson & Johnson and Microsoft, find themselves with a higher credit rating than the battered United States government. You might call it the people's victory.

Stephen Baker, a former senior writer for Business Week, is the author most recently of "Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything."


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