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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.