A review of Corporations Are Not People: Why They Have More Rights Than You Do and What You Can Do About It, by Jeffrey D. Clements
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
If you’re like most Americans, you may think that the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is the root cause of the stranglehold on U.S. elections by major corporations and the 1%.
If you follow public affairs more closely than most, you’re aware that the situation is more complicated than this — that the misbegotten principle of “corporate personhood” that underpins Citizens United is a major element in the picture. I knew that much before I read Jeffrey Clements’ eye-opening book, Corporations Are Not People – but I didn’t have a clue where that concept came from, how it grew into one of the dominant judicial doctrines of the last several decades, or the truly pivotal role it has played in recent American history.
In fact, Citizens United was only one of the latest episodes in a four-decade-long history of legal, political, and social change that has moved the center of gravity in public discourse in America so far to the right that our last two Democratic Presidents can only be seen in global context as moderate conservatives, while today’s Republican leaders hold such extreme views that to term them “conservative” is a gross misuse of the language.
As Jeffrey Clements tells it, the story begins in 1970 with the first Earth Day. The mobilization of more than 20 million Americans in that masterful organizing effort led to the passage of a long series of laws that established the basis for long-overdue environmental regulation: the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Health and Safety Act that created OSHA, the Clean Air Act, and a host of others.
Then the corporate world struck back.
A soft-spoken Southern attorney named Lewis F. Powell, Jr. led the charge. Powell was defending Philip Morris in the growing wave of lawsuits about cigarette smoking in the 1960s and sat on its board. Shortly before accepting his appointment to the Supreme Court by Richard Nixon in 1971, Powell wrote a now-infamous memo to a friend at the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, the bastion of corporate America. The “Powell Memo” kicked off the four-decade assault by the corporate elite and the 1% that stifles American democracy today.
Under the title “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” Powell explained, “‘No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack.’ In response, corporations must organize and fund a drive to achieve political power through ‘united action.’” As a lawyer, Powell naturally saw the courts as the centerpiece of the pro-corporate strategy he advocated. “Activist judges” on courts throughout the land, and especially on the U. S. Supreme Court, would roll back legislation such as the flood of new environmental laws.
The corporate campaign rolled out in the years after Powell’s memo in spheres of activity: lobbying Congress, state legislatures, and the public through industry front groups such as the Tobacco Institute and the Edison Electric Institute; electing or appointing pro-corporate judges such as Powell himself; and influencing public education and shaping public opinion through a flotilla of Right-Wing think tanks including the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and many others.
Since Powell’s memo circulated in the upper echelons of corporate America in 1971, corporations, primarily the large transnational companies that dominate the Chamber of Commerce, have poured billions of dollars into these activities. However, until his death in 1998, Lewis Powell continued to lead the pro-corporate effort from his seat on the U. S. Supreme Court. In the early and mid-1970s, Powell was thwarted by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, but the tide turned in 1978 when Powell prevailed over strenuous objections from the Chief in a case that firmly established the “right” of corporations to flaunt laws passed to keep them in check by establishing the principle of corporate personhood.
Corporations Are Not People is an activist plea for readers to join the gathering movement to overturn Citizens United, wrest political power from the corporations, and put it back in the hands of people. As Jeffrey Clements sees it, there are “three essential steps to roll back corporate dominance of government: (1) a twenty-eighth amendment to the Constitution that will overturn Citizens United and corporate rights and restore people’s rights; (2) corporate accountability and charter reform to ensure that corporations better reflect the public policy reasons for which we allow the legal benefits of incorporation, such as limited liability, in the first place; and (3) election law reform, including increased public funding, greater transparency, and an end to legal political bribery.”
As an advocate for public funding of elections since 1972 and a long-time participant in electoral politics at every level – local, regional, statewide, and national – I find Clements’ three steps to be right on target. The structural reforms he proposes would strike at the heart of the forces that are strangling our political rights and advancing the interests of the 1% against those of the 99%.
Much of Corporations Are Not People is devoted to the many resources offered readers at the back of the book: the wording of the proposed 28th Amendment; a draft resolution favoring passage of the amendment that organizations and local governmental bodies may adopt; and contact information for the growing list of organizations that are coming together in the new movement to roll back corporate power.
Jeffrey D. Clements is an attorney in Concord, Massachusetts. A former Assistant Attorney General of his state, he cofounded Free Speech for People following the ruling in Citizens United.
Ten Big Issues Washington Is Ducking
This is the time of year when most of us record the New Year’s resolutions that will load us with guilt throughout the year because we never follow through with them. So, for a change this year, I decided to take stock not of my own life but of the state of our nation. What follows is my best effort to list (in no particular order) the ten most significant issues that the White House and the Congress should be addressing – but aren’t, and maybe never will. I write in the wake of a long-delayed compromise between the two parties, a deal that nobody likes and that, in its superficiality, illustrates just how far off the mark our elected leadership has strayed.
1. Public corruption
The dominance of money in politics is the root cause of much that ails us. Massive campaign spending, combined with lavish lobbying efforts, is largely responsible for corporate welfare, our shockingly inequitable tax code, the dangerous bloating of the financial sector, and the corporate dominance of the news media. It’s also a major factor in the country’s continuing dependence on fossil fuels. Every one of these issues cries out for systemic change, but in a society where the U.S. Supreme Court’s outrageous Citizens United decision holds sway, it’s difficult to see how any meaningful change can be enacted. The source of the problem lies deeper than policy, in the values that corporate money has sold to the public – at heart, the delusion that freedom means independence from government oversight, that society offers a level playing field to all comers, and that success can only be fairly rewarded if the winners take all. In The Self-Made Myth (reviewed here), Bryan Miller and Mike Lapham expose this value set for the illogical and self-serving approach that it is.
2. Military overreach
The United States spends more than $700 billion annually on what is characterized with Orwellian skill as “defense.” This amount is reportedly greater than the combined military expenditures of all the rest of the nations on Earth and is certainly larger than the total spent by all our potential adversaries combined. It’s also mostly money that could be so much more productively invested in advancing our true national security – upgrading our educational system, restoring our once-undisputed lead in science and technology, combating global poverty, and tending to our long-neglected public infrastructure. The late Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback series – Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis – illuminate the extent of U.S. military overreach, and the steep price we pay for the dubious privilege of maintaining nearly 1,000 military bases around the world. We put Imperial Rome to shame.
3. Secrecy in government
Most of what we read about secrecy in our federal government concerns the “classified” documents such as those unearthed by Wikileaks not long ago or the information turned up by investigative reporters, often after years of pursuing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits. Sadly, hiding mountains of written records behind a cloak of secrecy, reprehensible though it is, should be the least of our concerns. Far more threatening to our liberties and our future as a democratic nation are the top-secret operations of the National Security Agency, the CIA, and the Special Forces, as well as numerous other activities carried out both at home and abroad in our name under the veil of black budgets for agencies that have never seen the light of day or through seemingly innocuous contracts with private companies. The Washington Post’s Dana Priest and William M. Arkin did a spectacular job of reporting about this tragically overlooked phenomenon in Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State (reviewed here).
4. Overspending on healthcare
The U.S. currently spends an unsustainable 17% of GDP on healthcare – about one-half more than the second-highest spender in the world (Switzerland, at 11%). Americans frequently brag that we have the finest healthcare system in the world, but that’s true only for those who can afford to pay millions for the most advanced care when a health emergency strikes. Ours is the world’s most expensive healthcare system, not the best. Most of the rest of us would be far better off in France or some other industrialized country where government covers all costs and negotiates fair prices with pharmaceutical companies and other healthcare providers. And all the current talk about “reining in the deficit” is so much pointless chatter without two straightforward policy changes that could make a truly big difference: a drastic reduction in the Pentagon budget, of course, and adopting Medicare for All, otherwise hideously labeled “single-payer healthcare.”
5. Mass incarceration
One of my greatest disappointments with the Obama Administration is its continued prosecution of the so-called War on Drugs, the congeries of policies, police practices, and court decisions that has resulted in locking away more than two million Americans and subjecting our inner cities to a profoundly racist police regime. Michele Alexander’s landmark study, The New Jim Crow (reviewed here), lays bare the startling dimensions of these problems and their deeply rooted origins in the politics of the Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton administrations. That such policies could persist two generations after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is abhorrent.
6. Global warming
Rarely do political issues rise to the level of existential crisis. Here’s one that does. As Mark Hertsgaard illustrates in Hot (reviewed here) through interviews with leading climate scientists, the scientific consensus about the impact of climate change has become more extreme with every new report – but has never caught up with the private projections of the most knowledgeable experts. Absent dramatic policy shifts on a global scale, which are unthinkable without strong U.S. leadership, it’s possible that Planet Earth will eventually become unlivable for the human race. We’re already destroying a million species a year, and climate change is compounding the problems caused by human encroachment on animal habitat. With or without human civilization, our global environment will be very different in the 22nd Century from what it is today – at a minimum, far less hospitable to homo sapiens.
7. The culture of violence
In the wake of yet another horrific mass murder that took the lives of so many innocents, public debate is focusing on such “solutions” as banning assault rifles and reducing the number of bullets permitted in an ammunition clip. Even if such measures could be written into law, which is unlikely, they would be laughably ineffectual. More than 9,000 people die every year of gunshots in the U.S. – rarely from assault rifles. Americans possess more than 200 million guns, most of them handguns, and can easily buy more at 51,000 licensed retail firearms dealers (compared to 36,000 grocery stores). None of this should be a surprise in a society that glorifies violence in film, television, video games, and comic books and obsesses about football, one of the most violent of contact sports. It’s time for America to grow up!
8. Chemical pollution
Most of the 9,000 or more synthetic chemicals now used in everyday products in the U.S. were introduced after World War II. Hundreds of them leave residues in our bodies with largely unknown consequences. (Only seven percent of “high-production” chemicals have been fully tested for toxicity.) In other words, we have been carrying on a dangerous biology experiment with our lives and our children’s lives for more than two generations. What we do know is that health problems that were once unknown or rare are becoming common, including asthma, reproductive abnormalities in infants, many forms of cancer, and autism. A simple idea – the precautionary principle – could address many of these unwanted consequences by stipulating that the burden of proof about the safety of any product falls on its producer. Nearly half a century after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, isn’t it astonishing that we should still have to make this argument?
9. A dysfunctional education system
For decades, it’s been widely recognized that many high schools are simply warehousing young people to keep them off the job market. Now it’s beginning to seem as though that’s the case with so-called higher education as well at many colleges and universities. When employers (myself included) complain that some recent college graduates can’t write or spell and either can’t read or simply choose not to do so, you’ve got to figure there’s some truth to these observations – and that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way our country educates its youth. Whether the root cause is that schools teach the wrong things, that they teach in the wrong ways, or that the wrong people are doing the teaching is impossible to tell, but clearly the truth lies in some combination of these notions – dramatically compounded by our society’s failure to invest enough money to do the job right. Taking into account the number of hours that American teachers work, they’re paid far less than teachers in almost any other industrialized country. Shame on us!
10. A costly and dangerous food production system
An occasional outbreak of e coli infections or a newsmagazine exposé on the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in farm animals reminds us that all is not well with the way we Americans produce and procure our food. However, truth to tell, the scale and extent of the problem is far bigger than most of us understand. Ninety-nine percent of the meat we eat is produced in ways that are inhumane, ecologically unsound, and dangerous to our health. Our unrelenting hunger for meat is responsible for producing more greenhouse gases than all modes of transportation combined and is thus one of the single most significant factors in global warming. Pollution from factory farms is poisoning the water table in agricultural areas throughout the United States, and the dramatic overuse of antibiotics in farm animals that aren’t sick is exposing us all to ever more deadly antibiotic-resistant diseases. Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent book, Eating Animals (reviewed here), exposes these and other truths about our food production system.
If any of the above leads you to believe that I think the United States is in worse shape than other countries, you might consider the neglected issues I’d identify, say, in Bangladesh or Tanzania. If you don’t know from direct observation, take my word for it: they’re in far worse shape than we are.
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Tagged as citizens united, climate change, corporate dominance, corruption, current-events, defense spending, financial sector, FOIA, global warming, government, Jim Crow, money in politics, national security, Nonfiction, Pentagon, politics, public corruption