MaxBarry.com
no, the other one

Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.

Blog

Fri 22
Jan
2010

The Lawnmower People

What Max Reckons I was all set to do a blog about how using Windows is like growing evil tomatoes, then American corporations became real people. They’ve been people for a while, of course: they have the right to own things and sue you and claim they’ve been defamed. Your chair can’t do that. A corporation can, because it’s a person.

But they weren’t enough of a person, apparently, so now they have First Amendment rights. In particular, they have the right to spend as much money as they like on political advertising: airing ads in favor of anti-regulation candidates over pro-regulation ones, for example.

I find it helpful to think of corporations as lawnmowers. Lawnmowers are good at cutting grass. It’s all they want to do. They’re not very concerned about what gets in the way of cutting grass. If, for example, we discover that one of the lawnmowers sometimes kills people, the lawnmower would rather pretend there isn’t a problem than stop mowing lawns. It seems callous to us. But you have to remember, it’s not a person. It’s a lawnmower.

Corporations pursue profit; the fewer people watching, the more ruthlessly they do it. It’s not coincidence that Apple is a relatively nice corporation and Halliburton is not. It’s not that Apple was raised right while Halliburton had a distant father. It’s that Apple’s profits depend more heavily on consumer opinion. It can’t make money unless it’s likable, so it is.

I think lawnmowers are useful. I don’t want to get rid of them. But I very much want to keep them on the lawns.

The Supreme Court has let them into homes: now the lawnmowers will speak to us through TV, radio, internet, print, and tell us who to vote for. That might not seem like a problem. After all, you are a smart person. You’re probably not persuaded by advertising. The thing is, everyone thinks that, and advertising is an $600 billion industry. Someone, somewhere is getting $600 billion worth of persuasion.

It’s pretty obvious that lawnmowers will back pro-lawnmower candidates. They are functionally and legally prevented from doing anything else. In fact, now that the opportunity exists, lawnmowers are compelled to exploit it.

Honestly, I had started to think that the world of Jennifer Government was getting far-fetched. It seemed like corporations were not overpowering the government at all; instead, the two were slowly merging into a govern-corp megabeast. But this changes things. Until now, corporate lobbyists have essentially stood in opposition to voters: politicians wanted lobbyist money, but resisted giving in too much for fear of being punished at the ballot box. Now corporations can work it both ways. They can buy off the politicians and sell the voters on why that’s A-OK. They won’t have to come up with the media messages themselves. That’s a job for the ad agency. All they’ll do is write up the ad brief, spelling out what they want people to think, and sign the checks.

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, in handing down a dissenting decision, raised the prospect of corporations being given the vote. Since, after all, they are people now. We might as well. A single vote is nothing compared to what they’ll do by bringing their wealth to mass persuasive political advertising.

It’s interesting to note how corporations get to pick and choose the good parts of being a person. They can own property but can’t go to prison. They can sue you into bankruptcy, which you have to live with for the rest of your life, but if you win a big case against them, you get nothing while they reconstitute their assets and arise, Phoenix-like, under a new name. If you misbehave, you are personally responsible; a corporation jettisons a minor component it says was to blame. There is no ending them. This is the kind of personhood you would choose, if you could. It’s what happens when people making laws about corporations are themselves beholden to corporations.

It’s not evil, exactly. It’s just everyone doing their jobs. It’s just the way the system works: the system that is increasingly designed by lawnmowers.

Comments

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Daniel Rose (#1367)

Location: Sydney, Australia
Posted: 1647 days ago

Amazing!

Machine Man subscriber Stygian Emperor (#2947)

Location: Austin, TX
Quote: "Hope is but the first step down the path to disappointment."
Posted: 1647 days ago

Aw man, I was just feeling good about today too. Why do you scare me like this?

Machine Man subscriber fred (#3690)

Quote: "well thats weird. i was under the impression that you were incredably stupid."
Posted: 1647 days ago

Right on. Liked it.

Machine Man subscriber Electrichead (#3898)

Location: Toronto
Posted: 1647 days ago

You hit it on the head, Max. It's really disconcerting what is happening over there when everyone is a slave to the corporations.

Perrorist (#3640)

Location: Central Coast, NSW
Quote: "No flow, no go."
Posted: 1647 days ago

An articulate rant, Max.

This issue spoilt my day yesterday when I read about it. The fact that it's John McCain's law that's been overturned just shows how pro-corporate this ruling is.

America continues to devour itself from its extremities.

Billy McMahon (#4690)

Location: Variable
Quote: "revolution"
Posted: 1647 days ago

Seems like they've brought back soft money in elections. "Now, the Senator from Coca-Cola has the floor. Senator, your corporation is the chief sponsor of the Coke & Sprite Quench Off Congressional Debate Forum, so you'll be accorded the most speaking time."

Arancaytar (#2358)

Location: Frankfurt
Quote: "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself. -Sagan"
Posted: 1647 days ago

[quote]It’s just everyone doing their jobs.[/quote]

The temptation to invoke Godwin's Law on that one is almost irresistible.

Abgrund (#3357)

Location: Atlantis
Quote: ""Redeem your mind from the hockshops of authority." - Ayn Rand"
Posted: 1647 days ago

Corporations already get whatever they want, so there's no practical difference. What's interesting about it is that trying to limit political spending constitutes an admission that democracy does not work.

The only way that advertising can "buy" an election is if the bulk of the population is hopelessly gullible, which means they're unfit to make political choices. If they aren't dominated by tv commercials, their minds are just being controlled by someone else - media conglomerates, the school system, churches, even celebrities. No matter the amount of direct spending involved, power still rests with the elite which controls public opinion.

Machine Man subscriber Adam Willard (#4231)

Location: Madagascar
Quote: "What unseen pen etched eternal things in the hearts of humankind... but never let them in our minds?"
Posted: 1647 days ago

Really great article... I had many similar thoughts. For one, I was also beginning to think the world of Jennifer Government was fading behind, never to be seen. Lately however, I've been reading the "Red Mars", "Green Mars", etc. series by Kim Stanley Robinson and he seems to be the only other author who (very seriously in his books) foretells the rise of mega-corporations that rule the world. So, I was starting to wonder again. And then I heard this news a couple days ago... very obvious that corporations are beginning to run things out in the open in our gov't. And your blog is dead on. I especially like the last part, about how corporations get the chance to choose all the best parts of "being a person", and ignore any negative parts. That just sucks, but at least it makes it easy to visualize what's going on.

Lawnmower people. Like the Lawnmower Man taking his lawnmower to someone's brain, corporations are mowing down the masses.

Machine Man subscriber MAK (#4066)

Location: Los Angeles, CA
Quote: "Be silly. Be honest. Be kind. -Emerson"
Posted: 1647 days ago

Great piece. Though I realize this has the makings of a battle among Titans in which individuals have even less significance than is currently the case, I am retaining hope that labor unions will be able to counter some of what the corporations do. Then, at least, there will exist some competing interests.

Jane (#321)

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "Which is worse: Ignorance or apathy? Who knows? Who cares?"
Posted: 1647 days ago

My lawnmower is a push-mower... a real person, a human being, has to push it along for it to work. Maybe the problem is that now there are too many powered mowers: electric ones, petrol ones and great big ride-on ones. The person who makes these power-mowers work doesn't even really need to know what they are doing, just switch it on and cut away.

PS. Great post Max. I wish you were in charge of the world.

Machine Man subscriber Russell (#3897)

Location: USA
Quote: "O Lord, Protect us from those to whom you speak directly"
Posted: 1647 days ago

Who's to say that lawnmowers runnings things would be so bad?

I'm not a fan of restricting first ammendment rights, which the act which was constitutionally pwnt was doing. I'm also not a fan of lobbying, which the lack of act allows. I sense changes come 2012. this isn't a permanent thing.

its also not a bad thing.

in my opinion, at least.

still a fantastic post, thanks max!

Machine Man subscriber gStein (#585)

Location: 127.0.0.1
Quote: "That's not change! That's more of the same!"
Posted: 1647 days ago

oh lord, i was halfway through the third paragraph before i realized that Max was talking about the lawnmower machine, not the person you pay to mow the lawn. (i've been watching too much tv based around rich suburbanites)

Linnea1928 (#2654)

Location: Rosemount, MN
Posted: 1646 days ago

I like it when you boil things down to the simplest form for me. I think the analogy is true, helpful, and goshdarnit if it isn't fun. Thanks Max!

RayRay (#3747)

Location: Texas
Quote: "Sometimes late at night Wearing a cat on my head I get transmissions."
Posted: 1646 days ago

Makes sense.

Machine Man subscriber Adam (#24)

Location: Morristown, Indiana
Quote: "Why do I blog? Simple, because Max Barry blogs."
Posted: 1646 days ago

Sat Jan 23, 2010

GRID IRON? AFL? and FOOTBALL?

An Aussie exchange student from Brisborne has moved in. I now have my first Australian friend. His name is "Daniel". He says things like "Mountain Jew" instead of "Mountain Dew". And if he is hungry, he might want a "Cheeseburgah". Daniel talks incessantly about GRID IRON, AFL, and FOOTBALL. What the what? Three different versions of fusion rugby football?

Aussies think they are really tough, having three manly sports. We sent an Ambassador from the house to challenge Daniel in wrestling to settle this dispute...Daniel, with all of his prideful Brisborne surfer attitude, accepted. But even with his Australian flag boxers, he lost. America wins!

Proving once again, "quality over quantity". One football is better than three.

Also, why do Ugg boots come from Australia? Does it even snow anywhere in Australia?

-adam

Just Desserts (#3482)

Quote: "And then they had just desserts..."
Posted: 1646 days ago

It is not only corporations that can now spend unlimited money before an election on ads (within that 30 day window), now unions, green earth groups, student groups, even writers who have an opinion about something concerning the election.

Do not forget that one thing that started this lawsuit was the prohibition against a film some considered to be too political to be released and shown to close to an election day. The corporation who want to show this film was prohibited from having a platform in many places because the film was deemed political.

Imagine a filmmaker and his film company being prohibited from screening a film in several venues because the topic of the film is considered political. So much for free speech.

I am not disagreeing on the idea of corporations being considered a full citizen (that would be strange), but think of a corporation as a group of citizens who have every right of free speech in our US democracy. If the company officers decide to spend money to promote their speech and view, why should we in a free society prevent them from doing so - merely because they are incorporated? And by the same rule, apply the prohibition to unions and other groups of free and like minded people who exist in an economic alliance?

Isn't better to err on the side of too much speech? Instead of erring on the side of restricting speech - because you think that side might have too much money or influence?

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 1646 days ago

@Just Desserts: Good arguments, but I don't believe that denying First Amendment rights to corporations restricts anyone. It restricts corporations, but corporations are not an anyone; they are an anything. Any individual person within a corporation, including company owners, should of course remain free to express their political opinions however they like.

Corporations are not people. They're just not. They don't get free education. They don't get healthcare. They can't be elected to office. They have been granted personhood in a limited legal sense where it makes economic sense (easing capital-raising, for example) and this should in no way imply they are morally entitled to all the other rights as well. They are a thing.

Karan (#1376)

Location: Sydney, Australia
Quote: "Quid Quid Latine Dictum Sit, Altum Viditur - Anything said in Latin sounds important"
Posted: 1646 days ago

Nicely said Max! Tangentially, I assume you watch The Daily Show? I think there's a sense of frustration amongst many, like Jon Stewart's barely contained rage at what is happening in the US, similar to the feeling this piece gives.

p.s.:

Arancaytar wrote:
<quote>The temptation to invoke Godwin's Law on that one is almost irresistible.</quote>
Is there an equivalent of Godwin's Law for invoking Godwin's Law on a non-explicit reference? ;)

Adam wrote:
<quote>Also, why do Ugg boots come from Australia? Does it even snow anywhere in Australia?</quote>
It does, but it's mostly because we can't stand cold weather that most in America or the UK would hardly call "brisk", and we don't give two hoots for fashion :)

Abgrund (#3357)

Location: Atlantis
Quote: ""Redeem your mind from the hockshops of authority." - Ayn Rand"
Posted: 1646 days ago

In point of law, the right of free speech (and the press) does not inhere in persons, whether real or fictitious (corporate). There are Constitutional rights which are granted to "persons" or to "the people"; free speech is not a specifically personal right. If it were, it would protect only "live" speech, since broadcast, printing, internet, etc. are delivered by organizations, not individuals.

If a corporation has no freedom of speech, they have no right to publish books, either. If you think it's a personal right, try writing every copy by hand.

Hugo Edwards (#3925)

Location: Philadelphia
Quote: ""Science!""
Posted: 1646 days ago

Excellent essay. As said, you pretty much nailed it. Bullseye.

Other than that, not much to say. Been feeling under-the-weather lately. Once again, excellent write-up.

Edouard (#4596)

Location: Auckland
Quote: "Working on the next medium sized thing"
Posted: 1645 days ago

Well obviously it makes no sense for a corporation to have have just a single vote - that makes a mockery of capitalism.

I think the best way to proceed is for a massive advertising campaign to swing into place promoting the idea that your vote is in proportion to the amount of tax you pay. Everyone benefits; the middle classes vote shares increase (you get 2.4 notes now), and tax payers get more say over how their tax dollars are spent (clue - a lot less on the people who now don't vote!). And corporate tax evasion will plummet! It's win-win (for everyone that matters).

There's an end-game with all this, but I don't have time to think about it with all the warm fuzzies I'm feeling now. I'm sure it will all work out great for everyone.

Edouard (#4596)

Location: Auckland
Quote: "Working on the next medium sized thing"
Posted: 1645 days ago

Oooo - and of course the next step after corporations get the vote is, of course, that they also get the right to be candidates. Halliburton for president!

Machine Man subscriber Ben (#3924)

Location: Alberta, Canada
Quote: "I don't wanna ride the elevator."
Posted: 1645 days ago

Just wait until they run for election too. We can have the President of United States Halliburton or Apple (to use the examples from the blog.) Being people, corporations now have the right to bear arms as well, and that could be seen as the right to create armies. Corporate battling could leave the legal field and enter the field.

As with all major civilizations dating back to the beginning of humanity, each is met with collapse. These collapses can be traced back, sometimes hundreds of years, to certain events starting a slide to chaos.

Chaos theorists like to speak about entropy and how it builds in systems and compare that to life. Really the comparison is at best a metaphor, but a good one. Humanity is hard wired with certain principles of survival. The need for companionship, the need for food and water, the need to procreate, to protect those we care for, to discover, to learn, to gain power, etc. These needs work to our individual gain but for a society they can contradict due to our higher functions like religion, politics, friendships, etc. When too many enter a situation with a high enough contradiction between beliefs, people die. Eventually this tension builds to a level that can topple not only governments, but entire societies and civilizations.

I believe this is an unavoidable situation, we cannot prevent this from developing. We can't partly because we can't accept differences. The bigger reason is because people are stupid. We will gladly surrender ourselves to madness on the assurance we will find safety in doing so, even if we lose our ability to change our minds, and even if that assurance is unproven and lacks guarantee. Until we find stability we will continue to follow this cycle, learning about our past does not prevent it from repeating, that belief is a blatant lie.

Just Desserts (#3482)

Quote: "And then they had just desserts..."
Posted: 1645 days ago

@Max

I do not mean to argue that corporations are people, but they - like any other group of people - should have the right to express their viewpoints in a free society.

You do not seem to have an issue with unions or green organizations or any other entity spending unlimited sums (at least you do not mention it). If corporate people are should be limited in their free speech activity, then any other group should be as well.

We cannot say that some groups can spend money when they want and then say that other, favored groups get permission to spend with abandon before an election. The law should apply equally to all, regardless of finances (or lack thereof).

Assigning personhood to a group (corporate or otherwise) does not seem right, but denying any group or limiting any group the ability to share their views and practice free speech does not bode well in a free society.

Just Desserts (#3482)

Quote: "And then they had just desserts..."
Posted: 1645 days ago

Clarification -
"We cannot say that some groups canNOT spend money..."

I need to learn to proofread.

SoylantGreen (#4693)

Posted: 1645 days ago

The First Amendment prohibits the government from making any laws abridging the freedom of speech. It says nothing about people in the section of the amendment regarding freedom of speech. Glenn Greenwald put it well when he wrote:

http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2010/01/22/citizens_united/index.html

"f the Constitution or other laws bar the government action in question, then that's the end of the inquiry; whether those actions produce good results is really not germane. Thus, those who want to object to the Court's ruling need to do so on First Amendment grounds. Except to the extent that some constitutional rights give way to so-called "compelling state interests," that the Court's decision will produce "bad results" is not really an argument.

More specifically, it's often the case that banning certain kinds of speech would produce good outcomes, and conversely, allowing certain kinds of speech produces bad outcomes (that's true for, say, White Supremacist or neo-Nazi speech, or speech advocating violence against civilians). The First Amendment is not and never has been outcome-dependent; the Government is barred from restricting speech -- especially political speech -- no matter the good results that would result from the restrictions."

Machine Man subscriber branden (#2100)

Location: northern california
Quote: "...and this is how you betray me!?"
Posted: 1645 days ago

I won't say that I always agree with the opinions you've written here, but I will say that I don't remember a time when I've disagreed with you.

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 1645 days ago

@SoylantGreen: You are absolutely correct. Strictly speaking the Bill of Rights does not actually grant rights at all, but prevents the government from making particular kinds of laws. I still find it deeply troubling that its protections have been extended to corporations, though. It's the Bill of Rights. It's meant for people.

The Greenwald article is a great one, thanks. Lots of intriguingly sticky arguments. I'm no Constitutional scholar; I don't know how to straighten out the legal issues he raises. (Neither does he, I gather.) But I really take issue with this:

> I'm also quite skeptical of the apocalyptic claims about how this decision
> will radically transform and subvert our democracy by empowering
> corporate control over the political process. My skepticism is due to one
> principal fact: I really don't see how things can get much worse in
> that regard.

Really? He cites the fact that corporations often skirt existing laws to support the idea that we'll be no worse off if we throw out all such laws altogether. I find that mind-boggling. It seems unbelievably short-sighted, like someone who thought in the 1950s that advertising couldn't get any more pervasive.

That's not the core of his case, of course; as you say, he's arguing that whether or not this will produce "bad results" is irrelevant. Which is frickin scary, by the way. Supportable, but scary.

My position is that we need a separation of state and commerce. The power used to be religion, and we recognized that we needed to separate that from government; the same principle should apply to corporations--for the simple fact that unless it is prevented from doing so, any self-interested body with sufficient power will bend the government to act in its favor.

SoylantGreen (#4693)

Posted: 1645 days ago

@Max: The money is already in the system; this ruling won't change that. Corporations have been funneling cash through 527s and advocacy groups like the NRA and Moveon.org. I don't think abridging the free speech of Exxon or the ACLU will solve that problem.

I sympathize with how scary it appears but we can't sacrifice the rule of law just because it may produce "bad results". It might seem scary but I think the alternative would be scarier. Who's definition of "bad results" should apply? If you want to argue that rights outlined in the Constitution can be abridged if there's a "compelling state interest" (as the 4 dissenting justices do) then you can't object to that argument when it's used to justify the torture, indefinite detention and denial of due-process of prisoners. Forgive me for quoting Mr. Greenwald again but he describes the issue much better than I could:

"One of the principal accusations made over the last eight years from Bush followers -- directed at those like Turley and the ACLU who objected to Bush terrorism policies on legal and Constitutional grounds -- is that they were caught up in "legalisms," absolutism and dogmatic purity at the expense of addressing a 'real-world' crisis: the threat of Terrorism. 'People are trying to KILL US and you're worried about due process.'"
http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2010/01/23/citizens_united/index.html

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 1644 days ago

@SoylantGreen: I get the feeling you're mostly (or entirely) arguing that the Supreme Court did not make an error of law, while I'm mostly arguing that corporations shouldn't enjoy the same rights as people. Which is not necessarily contradictory: I'm happy if the great gaping hole opened by this decision is closed via new legislation, for example. For all I know, the court reached an entirely appropriate result based on prevailing law. It's just produced a horrifying situation.

The "bad results" argument is reasonable. But I strongly disagree with this sentiment:

> The money is already in the system; this ruling won't change that. Corporations
> have been funneling cash through 527s and advocacy groups like the NRA and
> Moveon.org.

... at least insofar as it appears to imply that we have reached the bottom, so there is really nothing to lose. That argument I think suffers from a serious lack of imagination. Tobacco companies (to pick one) routinely exploit every possible avenue to market product; however, if bans on their advertising are lifted, their voice will become a hundred times louder. So too will the sums of money spent in the political game by corporations vastly increase if the gates are thrown open. It doesn't just acknowledge what's already happening: it creates vast new opportunities for the entire corporate set, and legitimizes what was previously dubious. At the risk of stretching an analogy too far, it sounds like, "Murders already happen every day; there's nothing we can do to stop that so the law against murder is pointless."

> I don't think abridging the free speech of Exxon
> or the ACLU will solve that problem.

I object to that notion: "the free speech of Exxon." You're not talking about the free speech of the employees of Exxon, or of the CEO, or the majority owner, or any number of actual beings. You are talking about a legal entity that was granted a specific set of powers and subject to a specific set of laws in order to grease the wheels of commerce. That legal entity exists only and entirely because it makes doing business easier.

Any group of people wants to get together, pool some cash, and make a political ad, I'm all for that. But corporations are not a group of people. They are a manufactured entity whose shape we choose to serve a purpose. They have zero moral claim to rights and should never be equated with real human beings.

I'm supposed to be cooking dinner so sorry if this response is more rushed than it deserves. I just wanted to say that Soylant Green may be people but corporations aren't.

A Free Man (#4694)

Location: Australia
Posted: 1644 days ago

Funny, that. The court decision brought your book - which I must have read ten years ago - immediately to mind. Prescient, sir, prescient.

http://www.afreeman.org

Rene (#2458)

Location: Austria
Quote: "To live is to die - Cliff Burton"
Posted: 1644 days ago

With the words of Metallica: Sad But True

Machine Man subscriber Barry Mitchell (#1001)

Location: Saukville, Wisconsin
Quote: ""A hamster's like a small camel" - Ben Katz"
Posted: 1644 days ago

Max:

You are a dirty, filthy, anti-oligarchy, corporation-hating, -ranter.

And I thank you for your rant!

Barry

jas (#4698)

Posted: 1644 days ago

"They [corporations] have zero moral claim to rights and should never be equated with real human beings."

Does that mean that you won't hold them to moral standards? If it's wrong to uphold a corporation's moral claim to rights, wouldn't it be equally wrong to accuse them of unethical practices?

When that happens, the accuser is usually referring to the corporation's management (a group of people), but if that group of people want to sponsor a film with political content it's alright?

I also noticed you took issue with "the free speech of Exxon" but not of the ACLU or unions. Those particular groups of people have access to vast amounts of money and won't be shy about promoting their political beliefs, especially if it's in reply to a message with which they disagree. Just think what this ruling will mean to George Soros.

jas (#4698)

Posted: 1644 days ago

I meant "if that group of people want to sponsor a film with political content it's alright to censor their speech?"

There seems to be a plague of inadequate proofreading. Hot issue=quick typing.

SoylantGreen (#4693)

Posted: 1644 days ago

@Max: I'm sorry but I don't see how our corporatist political system could become any more corporatist, fundamentally. Corporations own Washington; they had more than enough power, money, and influence to work around the limitations imposed by this law. I can't say the same for the non-profit advocacy groups and unions whose freedom of speech was also abridged by the law. Clearly this ruling makes things simpler and easier for corporations but I don't see it fundamentally changing the tremendous influence already have.

>At the risk of stretching an analogy too far, it
>sounds like, "Murders already happen every day;
>there's nothing we can do to stop that so the law
>against murder is pointless."

I wouldn't say you're stretching the analogy too far, I think you're looking at it the wrong way. To me it sounds like, "The 4th amendment makes it more difficult for police to solve crimes. Murders are especially bad crimes so we should let the police conduct warrentless searches and seizures when investigating them."

I totally agree that corporate influence is a huge problem. I don't believe it's worth abridging our freedoms for a law that doesn't do anything to fundamentally address the problem. I'd much rather see some sort of public financing of campaigns. I think it's an option that could properly address the issue without strangling the free-speech of advocacy groups. And I'm not just being hyperbolic when I continue bring up the ACLU and unions; this law applied to their speech in the same way it would have applied to Exxon.

I don't think corporations should be exactly equated with people (but again, remember that the free speech clause says nothing about people) but if you truly believe they have no claim to any constitutional protections then I'd be very interested to hear your answers to these questions:
http://bit.ly/6kluNF
>Could Congress pass a law tomorrow providing that
>any corporation - including non-profit advocacy
>groups -- which criticize American wars shall be
>fined $100,000 for each criticism? What possible
>constitutional objection could you have to that?

This post is getting to long already but I think we both see where the other is coming from.

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 1644 days ago

jas wrote:
> "They [corporations] have zero moral claim to
> rights and should never be equated with real human beings."
>
> Does that mean that you won't hold them to moral standards?
> If it's wrong to uphold a corporation's moral claim
> to rights, wouldn't it be equally wrong to accuse them of unethical practices?

I do find it a little odd to expect ethical behavior from corporations. And I see a clear correlation between how ethical a corporation acts and how strongly it is controlled by people. Small businesses, for example, or corporations where the Founders are still active, act a lot more socially conscious than larger, older corporations, which have outlived the people who begat them. I wrote a little about this in the blog I linked to above:

http://maxbarry.com/2005/01/20/news.html

... i.e. this: "(By the way, I suspect that the increasing personification of corporations might turn out to be their Achilles’ heel. The more society buys into the myth that companies are real people, the more we expect them to adhere to human-like standards of ethical behavior. People like me would allow corporations to get away with murder, because we expect nothing better. It’s the people who get shocked when they discover that designer-label clothing is manufactured for ten cents an hour by children in China who cause trouble for a brand’s image and force companies to improve their behavior.)"

Essentially, I'm glad people expect moral behavior from corporations, and I'll object to immoral corporate behavior myself, but I don't really believe corporations are moral creatures. They have morals exactly so far as their sales demand.

That aside: no, it wouldn't be wrong to simultaneously deny corporations moral rights and require moral behavior from them. Because they're not people! They don't get their feelings hurt, they don't get oppressed, they don't have an inherent claim to life. Is it morally wrong for lawnmowers to be forced to adhere to safety standards they don't even get to participate in drafting? Corporations are just a legal construction, assumed to exist because to do so benefits us.

@jas also wrote:
> I also noticed you took issue with "the free speech of Exxon" but not of the
> ACLU or unions. Those particular groups of people have access to vast
> amounts of money and won't be shy about promoting their political beliefs,
> especially if it's in reply to a message with which they disagree.
> Just think what this ruling will mean to George Soros.

I'm not sure of the organizational format of the ACLU or unions, but I sure don't see them in the same class as limited-liability public corporations. For that matter, I don't see non-profit corporations in the same class, or small corporations, because they don't share the same systemic qualities as a large, public corporation. They may be theoretically similar, but they're practically different: they do not behave the same way.

I didn't address this earlier because it's fairly irrelevant. I'm arguing that commerce must not get involved in lawmaking; the ACLU and (to a lesser extent) the unions are not commerce. They're only getting mashed together with corporations due to the legal objection of, "If we consider the First Amendment right to free speech as residing in people only, what about these organizations?" I just don't see that as a big deal. Let 'em speak, or require them to be non-profit; whatever. This is only a tough question if you think there are no legal protections except those in the Constitution.

But I definitely don't consider that the ACLU or unions have "vast amounts of money," at least not compared to corporations. There's just no comparison. The ACLU's revenues are $85 million. The 1,000th biggest corporation in the US has revenues of $1.7 billion. The ACLU would be... what? The 10,000 biggest? The 100,000th?

SoylantGreen wrote:
> I'm sorry but I don't see how our corporatist political system could become
> any more corporatist, fundamentally.

We've discussed this already, but until now corporate influence has largely been limited to lobbying, which works against public interest like a tug-of-war with the politician in the middle. If corporations get to influence the public as well, sapping the opposing force, politicians will experience a stronger force in the corporate direction.

No argument from me that corporations have too much influence over lawmakers already, of course. But I honestly see lobbying as a relatively weak political tool compared to manipulating mass public opinion. If you look at where corporations have been most effective in repelling the tide of overwhelming public interest (tobacco, asbestos, product safety, global warming), you'll see media campaigns aimed at citizens. I'm really starting to think it's possible to convince someone of anything, at least for a while, given sufficient resources. And there's not much that would be of more value to corporations than shaping the laws that govern them.

> I'd much rather see some sort of public financing of campaigns.

Me too, but any public financing scheme will be insignificant in comparison to the kind of spending you could see from an interested major corporation. If I'm ExxonMobil--a single corporation, albeit a very large one--a law that allows me to increase my revenues by 1% is worth $4 billion to me. If we're talking about a bill that would enhance corporate profits *across the board*, that's worth hundreds of billions of dollars--that is, it would be rational for corporations to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in order to get that bill passed. We have never seen political campaigning on that scale, and I really hope we never do.

> I don't think corporations should be exactly equated with people (but again, remember that
> the free speech clause says nothing about people) but if you truly believe they have no
> claim to any constitutional protections then I'd be very interested to hear your answers
> to these questions: http://bit.ly/6kluNF
>> Could Congress pass a law tomorrow providing that
>> any corporation - including non-profit advocacy
>> groups -- which criticize American wars shall be
>> fined $100,000 for each criticism? What possible
>> constitutional objection could you have to that?

I'll answer that, but first, I don't like how it smashes together corporations and "groups," as if a corporation was no different to any random collection of people. Second, it supposes that we have the Constition or nothing--that all laws other than the Constitution are suspect and could be corrupted; it is the only bulwark against bad government. Greenwald sets up an impossible premise: "Assuming the Constitution is the only reliable law, and it doesn't protect advocacy groups, how would you legally protect advocacy groups?"

Greenwald argues that unless corporations are given free speech under the First Amendment, no group can enjoy any of the current protections of the Bill of Rights, and that's only true if you suppose that we are incapable of passing new laws to provide the same protections. Now okay, there's nothing quite as solid as an Amendment. But I live in a country with no Bill of Rights. I would wholeheartedly support one, but I know we get good laws from the power of the people, not a 200-year-old piece of paper. In my Bill-of-Rights-less nation, the secret police still can't "enter and search the offices of the ACLU without probable cause or warrants, and seize whatever they want."

Greenwald says he will only accept "constitional objections," so I have none. I am A-OK with the entities construed under corporate charter law having no constitutional rights to reasonable search (nor, for that matter, the right to bear arms and run for President). That is not to say I am necessarily opposed to corporations having any protections; I just don't think, as Greenwald suggests, they must be derived from the Constitution or nowhere.

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 1644 days ago

Just to add, I think Greenwald's analysis of the Supreme Court decision is excellent and illuminating. I don't mean to imply that I disagree with him on any interpretation of the law. My objection is to the notion that we have to shrug our shoulders and accept corporations will get involved in political campaigns, no matter how bad that will be, because we can't figure out how to get the law right.

Machine Man subscriber dabbeljuh (#4114)

Posted: 1643 days ago

nice article, max and great discussion here in the talkback.

@ the perfect democracy argument: Id say it is pretty clear, that no western state has reached a perfect democratic representation nor the needed perfect information flow necessary. Still, our target SHOULD be one vote per capita, not one vote per euro/dollar/whatever earned, and while this ruling does not lead directly to such a situation, it shares the tendency.

I completely share Max position with regards to company rights, there are none per se, they are constructs for a certain purpose and if you need some rules to make your economic system work, then they can be defined by a society without first rights of any kind.


It really is a structural problem, that advertising makes direct democracy a hazard while representative democracy is more resilient but just not really .... democratic °

Just Desserts (#3482)

Quote: "And then they had just desserts..."
Posted: 1643 days ago

Just one more thought... Interesting that people keep talking about morality and corporations. Corporations only act within the guise of morality based upon the influence of those running the corporations to impose their moral structure upon the business they are managing. And morality and ethical behavior are perceived differently. What is a moral and ethical action to you may not be a moral and ethical action to me. Though if we refer to the law, it is clear (most likely - maybe according to a judge/ jury) when a law is broken.

In a culture where morality is increasingly a relative concept, how can we expect any group spending money to influence an election (or legislature) to act in a consistent ethical and moral manner - when many do not consider morals to be absolute? The only thing a democracy has to force consistency is law and regulation (the tyranny of the majority enforced upon everyone). Can we any longer appeal to ethics and morality?

Sometimes I think the question is not so much whether a corporation is a person, but how much political influence do we want to allow a group of people working together to increase their financial well being to have? And should we stop them from spending money because we disagree with their objectives? I can think of a few groups, aside from corporations, I would like to see shut down from the process as well. Though I hardly think that would be very democratic...

SoylantGreen (#4693)

Posted: 1643 days ago

@Max
>My objection is to the notion that we have to
>shrug our shoulders and accept corporations will >get involved in political campaigns
and
>until now corporate influence has largely been
>limited to lobbying...If corporations get to
>influence the public as well...

Again, we clearly differ on our opinions of how much corporations are *already* involved in the political process. I think it's worse than you're making it out to be. Corporations aren't largely limited to lobbying; they spend untold riches on PACs and 527s. All of this directly influences the public, so I'm not quite sure what to make of your "*If* corporations get to influence the public" statement. The only change from this ruling is that corporations won't have to funnel the funds *that they are already spending* through PACs and the like. Now they can just throw up their own commercials. Like I said before, easier but not fundamentally different. Here's an article that goes into some more detail on this.
http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0110/31878.html

I don't think the point of public financing would be to allow candidates to match corporate spending dollar for dollar (though I would argue with the idea that company would gamble hundreds of billions of dollars on a *chance* to pass legislation that's only also worth hundreds of billions of dollars). The point would be to allow candidates to adequately fund a campaign without having to resort to corporate funding thereby allowing the public to see and chose candidates who aren't on the corporate payroll.

>I'll answer that, but first, I don't like how it
>smashes together corporations and "groups," as if
>a corporation was no different to any random
>collection of people

We're talking about legal entities that have their own assets and resources; holdings that are separate and do not belong to any one individual. The ACLU and trade unions aren't just a group of pals that get together on weekends to have drinks and talk politics. The ACLU certainly wouldn't be able to do the work it does as just a loosely affiliated band of lawyers trading emails. Now, IANAL, (I'm just some dude with an CS degree and a penchant for books with flawed-yet-redeemable guys chasing strong, independent dames) so I don't know all the details that separate a party of five from a Seven-Eleven but I do know that these legal entities exist. Some make money and some are non-profit; some lobby for weaker environmental regulation and some lobby for net-neutrality. How do you separate one type of non-person legal entity from another? You might be able to differentiate between for and not-for-profit but that just gives us PACs and 527s which is where we're at now.

>that all laws other than the Constitution are
>suspect and could be corrupted; it is the only
>bulwark against bad government.

But that's *exactly* what the Constitution is!

>In my Bill-of-Rights-less nation, the secret
>police still can't "enter and search the offices
>of the ACLU without probable cause or warrants,
>and seize whatever they want."

And when your government passes a law authorizing exactly that against organizations that criticize it those organizations would have *no recourse* under Australian law. Your Constitution has often been criticized for its scant protection of rights and freedoms (according to my Wikipedia-brand Australian law degree) for exactly this reason.

Without a Constitutional protection, what stops a government from passing that law fining corporations that criticize the government? "Good laws from the power of the people" you say. Firstly, the people don't pass laws, the government does. Second, if the government has gone bad and passes that bad law, again, what recourse does the corporation have?

*yawn* up way too late again; was going to proof-read but I think I'll just 'Post'.

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 1643 days ago

@SoylantGreen:
> Now they can just throw up their own commercials. Like I said before,
> easier but not fundamentally different.

Well, compare the marketing from tobacco companies before and after advertising controls (or in advertising-controlled countries versus nations without controls). One is pervasive, the other is muted. You can certainly argue that either way, the public is getting persuaded, but the difference of degree is vast.

Will corporations throw open their treasuries tomorrow? No. It'll happen bit by bit, the same way every other form of marketing has. At first, the public will resist the idea of corporations messing in politics, because it's new, and because of that, it won't be very profitable. But as more of it happens, we'll become desensitized. Twenty years on, what would be shocking today will be routine. That's the way it happens.

> How do you separate one type of non-person legal entity from another?

You're asking the legal question again! The legal question is interesting. It's just not one I can answer. You don't want legal opinion from authors. There are smarter people than me to figure out the law. I just refuse to believe those smart people are incapable of distinguishing between a book club and Wal-Mart.

> Without a Constitutional protection, what stops a government from passing that law fining
> corporations that criticize the government? "Good laws from the power of the people" you say.
> Firstly, the people don't pass laws, the government does. Second, if the government has
> gone bad and passes that bad law, again, what recourse does the corporation have?

Our recourse against bad law is the ballot box. I don't argue that's superior to a Bill of Rights, just that it exists. Honestly, while I do admire the US Constitution, I really doubt it's the only thing preventing the US government from falling into dictatorship. People power does that. When you say, "What if the government goes bad," you actually mean, "What if the government goes bad in some respects but still respects the courts." Because if it went really bad, it wouldn't matter what the Supreme Court said, either. What would matter is who had the guns.

But again this is the legal question. I guess it sounds like I'm dodging the question to you, because I'm saying, "I can't tell you how you pass the right law, but I think it can be done." But I similarly think it's wrong to say, "Unless you can provide me with a legal framework consistent with constitutional law that provides the outcome you want, you may not argue that we need one." I can't tell an engineer how to build a bridge across a river, but I can argue we'll be better off if we have one. I don't think this debate should be closed off to non-lawyers, and I don't think the core issue is about the detail of the law (except to lawyers).

Abgrund (#3357)

Location: Atlantis
Quote: ""Redeem your mind from the hockshops of authority." - Ayn Rand"
Posted: 1642 days ago

If it comes (as it has) to the point of arguing about peripheral restrictions on the use of money to restrain the power of the corporations (i.e., of the wealthy), they have already won.

Money is power. There has never been any society in which this was not the case. If the rich have become too rich (i.e., too powerful) the /only/ remedy is to take away their money.

Putting restrictions on them not only doesn't reduce their influence - there is no way to stop money from buying influence - it actually helps them by fostering the illusion that meaningful democracy can coexist with extreme disparities of wealth. It can't.

Abgrund (#3357)

Location: Atlantis
Quote: ""Redeem your mind from the hockshops of authority." - Ayn Rand"
Posted: 1642 days ago

"People Power" prevents dictatorships? Quite the opposite. Popularity is the dictator's easiest route to power, and people of every nation have repeatedly shown themselves willing to accept dictatorship.

Nor does any constitution or law prevent dictatorship. Laws signify nothing without enforcement, and enforcers do as they wish.

Hotrod91 (#4564)

Location: Lubbock, Texas, United States
Quote: "I gotta feeling that it's gonna get cold tonight..."
Posted: 1641 days ago

Whatever happened to cavet empor?

Mike (#4711)

Posted: 1637 days ago

Good analogies - I agree with the main premise of what you're saying. My only issue is...

"Someone, somewhere is getting $600 billion worth of persuasion."

Persuasion? Unlikely. Attention? Possibly. Visibility? Surely. This is where the faction of the media that does their job comes in a points out the absurdity of it all and tries to flip your Apple/Halliburton analogy on its head - to get to a point where we recognize someone like Halliburton trying to influence us and ask whether we like them or not, affecting either agreement or blowback from the display of influence itself.

At this point it seems the most logical thing we can do on top of pointing out the issue (as you've done here) is to support those like Alan Grayson who is trying to come up with creative penalties like the 500% tax that would come with these kind of expenditures for corporations.


towr (#1914)

Location: Netherlands
Posted: 1637 days ago

> It’s interesting to note how corporations get to
> pick and choose the good parts of being a person.
> [..] This is the kind of personhood you would
> choose, if you could.

You could always set up a corporation of your own as a sort of shell around your own personhood. It'd cost a bit of money though, and probably a lawyer to work out a feasible construct.

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 1634 days ago

I wrote:
> But again this is the legal question. I guess it
> sounds like I'm dodging the question to you,
> because I'm saying, "I can't tell you how you pass
> the right law, but I think it can be done."

Maybe this is an answer:

http://www.callaconvention.org/pages/proposed-amendment/

Martin La Grange (#4717)

Location: Auckland, New Zealand
Quote: "Thoughts from the Antipodes"
Posted: 1634 days ago

With regards to corporations and lawnmowers (plus I'm too lazy to do much more than skim previous posts - forgive me Max !), Naomi Klein's comparison is apt - a corporation, particularly a successful one, is essentially a psychopath. Makes sense, in a way - I;v known plenty of psychopathic lawnmowers, the Flymo being my favourite example of an instrument designed to cut off your toe no matter where and how you stand. If that isn't psychopathological, I don't know what is.

At any rate, we can think of a few examples in many arenas of corporates with psychopathology. Microsoft is an obvious one. SCO, in attempting to 'own' Linux is a suitably swivel-eyed lunatic. But what about Apple ? 'Apple ?' I hear you say 'Aren't they nice friendly cool kids next door?'. Not so - Please have a look at the HBO film 'the Pirates of Silicon Valley' for a potted history of the PC juggernauts from 1967 - 1987. Apple is a bizarre psychopath.

But making these comparisons causes some further thoughts. A corporation is composed of people. Isaac Asimov noted that groups of people will have a different overall behaviour set when in large enough numbers, as compared with the individual. The resulting psychological statisitcs allows the mien, as well as the likely future behaviour of a group to be predicted, in a statistical way. The science has the name Psychohistory. What Asimov could not know is that Psychohistorical principles are applicable in groups with 1000+ members - large corporates, again. Of course the group under observation cannot be aware of the analysis, or else a Heisenberg determinacy allowing the collapse of wave functions eventuates, rendering the Psychohistorical analysis null and void.

That said - some perfunctory analysis of a company allows comparisons. The Soviet Republic analogy is apt - indeed, the top management of a company establishes its overall model - which is ultimately Pharaonic, with each little Pharaoh attempting to become a little god in his own right. This is a very repugnant model, but widespread. In addition, the psychopathology comes about from a company's 'biological imperative', i.e. earning money for its substituent human beings, and when large enough, fissioning like a bacterium to make branches, or sporulating, to produce franchises.

Within the financial/corporate ecosphere, companies occupy different niches. Organisations (analogous to species) occupy different niches. However, in the history of corporations as entities, we are in the equivalent of the Palaeocene Pre-Cambrian epoch, with new forms of corporate coming into existence, merging, sharing of management functionality (genetic information analogs), and merging to form new 'species', dying, and being respawned in a constant profusion. Sometimes, the new colony organism grows large, sometimes it remains vital and small.

In the way of all living things, a company has a birth, a maturation, a long period of growth and production, and ultimately a death - natural, or else gobbled whole by a larger organisation. Thus there is a natural biological cycle. Further, companys 'eat' money and resources, 'excrete' taxation, salaries, produce, and wastes. small companies can survive either commensally or parasitically with larger, and sometimes the other way round. On some odd occasions (very few), there will be a symbiosis.

Of course, Max, you have imagined two insidious cancers in JG, a natural consequence of a biological analogy in imagining the corporate ecosphere.

What are people's thoughts ?

Billy McMahon (#4690)

Location: Variable
Quote: "revolution"
Posted: 1633 days ago

The Bill of Rights is to stop the Government from creating laws that oppress the rights and liberties of the people. There are constant references to "the people." It was created to protect the rights that were declared in the Declaration of Independence, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." People, Humans, not corporations.

Here's the thing, corporations have one and only one goal: to make money. If they don't maximize profits, they get sued. It happened to Henry Ford. He made cars cheaper because he wanted everyone to have a car and raised his workers' wages higher than any other such company. The Dodge Brothers, then stock holders, sued him, got a bunch of money from the lawsuit, and started their own company. If a CEO wants to be more environmentally friendly, and it reduces profits even slightly, he gets fired and sued. The case is similar if they ignore an opportunity to increase profits. Thus, if it could be seen as in the best interest of making money to throw billions of dollars in full support of a pro-corporate candidate, they would be legally REQUIRED to do so.

Corporations are not people, they are an organization with the SINGLE GOAL of making money. Labor Unions are organizations with the goal of representing people, usually of the middle or lower class, too. This law, in addition to being wildly illogical, only increases the power of the super-rich. Now they can advocate a candidate with their own fortunes and the fortunes of their companies.

If corporations gain so much power that it will become impossible for the people to use the government to reduce their power, then there may be a revolution if enough people refuse to tolerate the pervasive power of corporations intruding upon their lives. This would be a tyranny of another kind, but a tyranny nonetheless.

To speak on the allegation that a corporation should be treated as a group of people and not a nonliving entity, well, if they wanted that, they'd be a proprietorship or a partnership. However, the goal of becoming a corporation is to have the organization ESCAPE personhood. The individual people who own the corporation have democratic freedoms, but it would be unfair to give them extra representation by allowing them to count as a person, AND through the corporation. It's like this, say there's this corporation. Let's say it's made up of 1800 owners, each holding stock in the company. We'll say each of the 1800 can and does vote. Thus, everyone owning the corporation, all 1800, have a vote. However, it would be screwed up to give the corporation itself 1800 votes. What if 3 men who hold 50.1% of the corporation between them are all conservatives (they want low corporate taxes, no environmental laws, things that maximize profits and give more to the rich), but the other 1797 people, who own 49.9% of the company between them, are all concerned about the workers and the poor, so oppose the candidate the big 3 owners want. However, in this case, the entire voting power of the corporation (the equivalent of 1800 people) would go to the candidate favored by only 3 of the 1800. However, given the recent decision, a better analogy would be that each corporation has votes according to their total profit, or maybe however much they want to allocate. $1,000 per vote? Then the government could get out of debt and corporations could have their candidates.

This is not what the decision would entail, but it is an appropriate analogy, and a way of continuing the idea. Oh, how I yearn for Socialism.

TotesEichhorn (#4757)

Location: Vienna - Austria
Quote: "marketing IS modern propaganda"
Posted: 1612 days ago

As being from a quite interesting country myself, i keep wondering.
) Why is it that we grant the media and corporations so much power?

It was a splendid plan selling legal drugs like sugar, coffee ( or rather caffeein) & tobacco to people. Now as the tobacco industry has reduced, cause it simply isn't "hip" anymore to infest yourself with cancer causing substances ( lack of advertising/marketing possibilities)... but well you know.... sugar and caffein... hmmm sits nicely bottled next to me here at my desk....
So good, well it tastes nice and has the effect of getting me hooked - and leads to diabetis but who gives a share what might happen in 10 years....

Well I guess we do that because we made the step away from any thoughts of regular warfare in 1st world countries... this is taking now place via corporations and influence on markets....

The idea:
If one country has a corp. that settles in another country, and lets money go to politics.... well you know what happens.

Just like the little fact that the US never bombed or invaded a country after the first big MacD opened... it's just somewhat ridicolous...

Well and that leads me to the thinking of the lawnmowers.... I guess they are driven, or pushed by someone. May it be a community of people, a CEO, the "richest of riches" or simply by a government.
That makes me the consumer, the customer, the normal working guy somehow sad.

In principle a democracy should be built by keeping 3 pillars apart.
Politic - Religion/Idioligy - Commercial Interest

Usually they are mixed, which brings corruption. That simply cannot be the idea. Any state should be able to rely on a democratic vote without being influenced by heaps of corruption.
Hell, even if the people in a country want a monarch to reign them, they should be allowed that. Why not?

Someone wrote that all people cannot be so blind, so influenced by media.... I regret to say so, but we ARE. Marketing is Propaganda! It works on the very basic human perception. I hate to admit, but there was this guy who said: "the large mass is stupid and blind" - and he had one hell of a "marketing" - machinery behind him.

We are not that far away from such obvious times. We just sell it more nicely, with that fake smile, and a "have a nice day" on our lips....

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