Allan Powell: Are corporations really like a person?

April 12, 2013|By ALLAN POWELL

What kind of person do we have? This question is raised when someone is asking another person to seriously judge the conduct of an acquaintance who has stepped over the line of propriety or failed to carry out a duty. The delinquent is assumed to possess several faculties, more or less operative, in a living person. That person could feel, deliberate, learn, become socialized and show evidence of (or lack of) moral sensitivity. David Cay Johnston, author of “The Fine Print,” takes a critical look at the idea of “personhood” since it is important when writing about an artificial entity (the corporation) that has been elevated by our courts to the status of a “person.”

He notes that our courts have been very generous to corporations — some would say pampered. Are corporations really like a person? Real persons have a conscience. Does a corporation? A real person can show loyalty to a country. A corporation is loyal only to money. A real person faces an inevitable exit from life, but a corporation can be granted earthly immortality. A person is liable for damages to the property of other people. Corporations can be granted limited liability. Adam and all of his offspring didn’t get the same benefits as this artificial “person.”

This is important because the purpose of this book is to show how large corporations use this combination of powers and characteristics to take advantage of consumers. Johnston is one of the most qualified, thorough and compelling writers I have read with respect to our commercial and financial activities. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who teaches at Syracuse University College of Law. The subtitle, “How Big Companies Use ‘Plain English’ to Rob You Blind,” tells what we can expect.

Johnston takes whole industries, one at a time, and shows how they dominate that market, manipulate prices in their favor, use money to influence politicians and scare regulatory agencies into submission to assure large profits. All of this greed is clothed in the smooth talk put forward by the Chicago School of Economics led by Milton Friedman, the prophet of “free markets.” He argues that, “There is one and only one social responsibility of business, to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game which is to say, engage in open and free competition without deception and fraud.”

There are many ways to circumvent these qualifications. If you become a monopoly, you are free because there is no competition. But Johnston is mostly concerned with how fine (small) print can be used for exploitation and control. Johnston exposes what goes on in banking with the management of credit cards. He then moves on to how railroads manipulate the rates when hauling freight. Carrying coal in Wyoming and grains in the Dakotas and Montana, miners and farmers are at the mercy of these economic giants. In the management of pipelines that carry natural gas, there has been a continuing laxity in safety rules at the expense of workers.

What these cases have in common is the ability of corporations to “take as much money as possible out of your pocket by avoiding the rigors of market competition, inflating costs, avoiding taxes, shifting the costs of safety and environment protection on to you, and making the billing as complex and incomprehensible as possible.” Could some of this scathing indictment apply to Warren Buffett when he brought 77 percent of the BNSF (Burlington Northern & Santa Fe) Railroad in 2009 for $44 billion?

Only four years later, it was reported in the Wall Street Journal that Buffett had purchased H.J. Heinz Co. (a very successful foods company) for $23 billion. Can one be forgiven for having the thought that there might be a psychiatric consideration in the wish to add another commercial giant to one’s conquests?

Johnston does a good job of explaining one of the underlying causes of this latest meltdown. Much has to do with the failure of the Federal Reserve to enforce Rule 23 A, which specifies the amount of collateral that banks are required to guarantee the security of loans. Banks took advantage of the laxity by permitting the use of risky collateral such as credit default swaps and bundles of very risky mortgages of uncertain value. Having taxpayers bail them out was labeled “corporate socialism.” Would he be amiss if he suggests that a corporate “person” has a great potential to behave like an immature adolescent — out of control?

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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