Let Corporations Be (Just) Corporations

Politics has gotten so expensive. It takes a lot of money just to get beat!

–Will Rogers

When Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton implausibly claimed during his 1992 presidential quest that he’d tried marijuana but never inhaled, Johnny Carson quipped that Jerry Brown, Clinton’s quirky rival, appeared never to have exhaled. Clinton, of course, went on to win the presidency that year thanks in no small part to the largesse of corporations like Tyson Foods, Archer Daniels Midland and investment banks like Goldman Sachs.

Today Brown — still without significant personal wealth or corporate backing — seeks the Democratic nomination for the California governorship. If he gets the nod, his Republican rival may well be billionaire and former eBay chief Meg Whitman, who’s already out there mining the trope that skill in helming a business qualifies you run a government. So what if she’s never contested an elected office before and didn’t even vote until she was 46? Before eBay, she worked at Hasbro, where she played a key role in the success of Mr. Potato Head, and perhaps voters will feel this gives her an edge in understanding California’s child-like state legislature.

It might take someone who’s inhaled and exhaled a few too many times to truly believe that running an online auction company qualifies one to manage a state with the world’s sixth-largest economy and a plethora of crises that go way beyond business and finance. But Whitman has pursued her party’s nomination by acting just like a CEO, vowing to fire 40,000 Californians and pledging to spend as much of her own money as necessary toward a $150 million campaign war chest.

Then there’s Carly Fiorina. She wants to represent the Republicans in their sexennial bid to replace U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer. Fiorina’s campaign slogan: “Carlyfornia Dreamin’!!!” One hopes John Phillips’ estate will have the same reaction as Bruce Springsteen and James Taylor did when they refused to let Ronald Reagan and John McCain co-opt their songs in previous elections. (If Carly needs to regroup, she could always petition Showtime to let her use “Carlyfornication.”)

Fiorina — who also has rarely voted; what is it with these people? — previously ran Silicon Valley giant Hewlett Packard. When an unhappy board of directors forced her out in 2005, she collected in excess of $20 million. John McCain tapped her as his chief economic spokesperson in last year’s presidential race until she told the inconvenient truth that neither McCain nor his running mate Sarah Palin was qualified to run a major American corporation. But she, who presided — with questionable skill — over a tech company is fit to be a United States Senator? That, as they say in Silicon Valley, does not compute.

Corporations are dictatorships, with everyone ultimately reporting to the CEO. Governments are vast cooperative bodies with legislatures, courts and other institutions without which chief executives can’t get much done. Corporations exist primarily, if not solely, to enrich shareholders. Even most conservatives don’t argue that government’s primary purpose is to make money.

The conceit that “business” equals “sensible,” “rigorous,” and “lean” does not, to put it kindly, comport with the evidence. Do we really want our government run by the financial wizards and corporate honchos who brought us the current economic meltdown, laughing all the way to their own banks while taking obscene risks with their shareholders’ money and their workers’ future?

Of course, big money dominates both Democrats and Republicans, while making it next to impossible for third party candidates to gain traction. And this won’t change until elections are, at least to some degree, publicly funded.

We can trace the need for reform back to 1886, when the Supreme Court granted corporations the same rights as living persons under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Now the Roberts Court is poised to expand on the incredible idea of “personhood” for corporations, giving them more “rights” than ever to influence campaigns. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/09/05/MN7K19INC8.DTL

National campaign finance reform isn’t even on the radar these days. But Californians next year will have the opportunity to vote for CFEA (California Fair Elections Act), which provides a test of a public financing option to even the playing field for candidates without the resources of a Whitman or a Fiorina.

This bill won’t pass unless activists can raise enough money to wage an effective grass roots campaign. To learn more and get involved, check out this link. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wendy-block/fixed_b_270123.html

Let’s get corporations to stop acting like governments or persons and go back to being just corporations. Then maybe we can all exhale.

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