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March 30, 2014

Corporate model has benefits

I admit I read the reasoning behind Supreme Court decisions like others read paperback novels, especially those that delve into economic issues. 

Many of you probably followed the Citizens United case that was decided in 2010. The case was part of the longstanding debate over campaign financing. I’ve taken on that issue before. There is another interesting aspect of the Citizens United case.

In arriving at their decision, a majority of the justices relied on a long-standing artifact of jurisprudence called legal personhood. This principle of law was designed to afford corporations a limited standing as a person because contracts are enforced between people, and corporations must have the ability to contract and conduct business just as a person could.

This legal convenience may have been stretched too far in Citizens United. Does it mean corporations can vote? They pay taxes, and they can be tried, but they cannot go to jail, even if their managers or directors perhaps could. They don’t procreate, unless you call a corporate spin-off parenting.

And, if you prick them, they do not bleed. 

It is somewhat convenient to conclude corporations are not people. That way, we can rationalize that they need not be motivated by anything but profits, even if enlightened corporations try to incorporate into their actions the values of their shareholders.

Some shareholder groups insist that corporations function with ethics and morals, and with sustainability in mind. Other shareholder groups want profits and nothing else. This is the lowest common denominator among shareholders, and that is what we often get.

Society has accepted this ruthless pursuit of profits. So long as corporations don’t break the law, we at least appreciate their devotion to efficiency, even if we at times resent their tendency to monopoly.

The corporate model has resulted in some fantastic things and has presented some problems. It has created efficiencies that have allowed us to invent machines that can feed a nation with the efforts of only a couple of percent of the population. Its ingenuity has allowed us to travel to the moon and back, and its efficiency allows me to write on a laptop that has almost a million times the memory and a thousand times the speed of my first computer at a tenth the cost. Either are way better than the slide rule I used in high school.

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