More than six years ago, on the occasion of my 20th anniversary in the newspaper bidness, I wrote, among other things, the following:
One of the two biggest battles of the 21st century will be defining the role of the corporation in our society. The other will be liberal democratic values vs. medievalist religion.
This week, Barry Ritholtz, a tad late to the party but with a far larger audience, concurs:
The new dynamic, however, has moved past the old Left Right paradigm. We now live in an era defined by increasing Corporate influence and authority over the individual. These two “interest groups” – I can barely suppress snorting derisively over that phrase – have been on a headlong collision course for decades, which came to a head with the financial collapse and bailouts. Where there is massive concentrations of wealth and influence, there will be abuse of power. The Individual has been supplanted in the political process nearly entirely by corporate money, legislative influence, campaign contributions, even free speech rights.
This may not be a brilliant insight, but it is surely an overlooked one. It is now an Individual vs. Corporate debate – and the Humans are losing.
• Many of the regulations that govern energy and banking sector were written by Corporations;
• The biggest influence on legislative votes is often Corporate Lobbying;
• Corporate ability to extend copyright far beyond what original protections amounts to a taking of public works for private corporate usage;
• PAC and campaign finance by Corporations has supplanted individual donations to elections;
• The individuals’ right to seek redress in court has been under attack for decades, limiting their options.
• DRM and content protection undercuts the individual’s ability to use purchased content as they see fit;
• Patent protections are continually weakened. Deep pocketed corporations can usurp inventions almost at will;
• The Supreme Court has ruled that Corporations have Free Speech rights equivalent to people; (So much for original intent!)
None of these are Democrat/Republican conflicts, but rather, are corporate vs. individual issues.
If slavery was this country’s original sin, then what sold us into bondage far from the lands of our fathers was the 1886 Supreme Court case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. The substance of the case is a mundane tax matter. But because of a clerk’s note (follow the link for details), corporations ever since have been treated in American law as having pretty much the same 14th Amendment rights as human persons … and even fewer responsibilities and obligations. True, corporations cannot vote. But neither can they be forced to kill or die for their country, not can they really be held accountable for the crimes they commit. And when, as a result of the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, it’s now legal for corporations to effectively buy congresscritters, voting seems gratuitous.
Next year will be 125 years since Santa Clara, and we remain in bondage with no Moses on the horizon. It is theoretically possible that we could remove our yoke by amending the Constitution to restrain the rights and privileges of corporations, but in the universe we actually inhabit, the likelihood seems exceedingly small.
But the battle lines between the two groups have barely been drawn. I expect this fight will define American politics over the next decade. Keynes vs Hayek? Friedman vs Krugman? Those are the wrong intellectual debates. Its you vs. Tony Hayward, BP CEO, You vs. Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs CEO. And you are losing . . .
Actually, I think there are at least two more likely scenarios than the decade-long battle Ritholtz predicts.
In one, the battle goes on much longer, as I predicted six years ago.
In the other, with Citizens United decided, the battle is already over and the corporations have won.
And these days, I fear the latter is closer to truth.