There’s been a big kafuffle in the news recently about money and elections. Apparently an evil army is amassing in Mordor in the form of cheerfully-named organizations like American Crossroads, Restore our Future, and Priorities USA. These are the so-called Super Political Action Committees—“independent” organizations permitted by law to flood elections with cash provided they can plausibly deny they’re in cahoots with the campaign. Already they’ve been sighted swooping in like the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz and flooding close races with last-minute injections of capital. Meanwhile, most of Mitt Romney’s campaign funds come from checks made out by millionaires and finance firms, and saggy-faced geniuses like Karl Rove and Mitch McConnell gather in wood-paneled rooms to secure exorbitant pledges from businessmen interested in fostering symbiotic relationships with Republican elites.
This is all in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United case—that split Supreme Court decision that caused many politicians to rub their hands together and many political scholars to scratch their heads. The decision basically did two things. First, it asserted that “money is free speech.” Before, individuals were limited in the amount they could contribute to campaigns. No longer. Now casino owners and oil barons can fling buckets of cash in the direction of the candidate of their choice.
Second, it said “corporations are people.” Before, companies were limited in the degree to which they were allowed to use funds from their own treasuries to support candidates. Now they can dump money straight from their own coffers into the fattened treasure chests of the Super PACs.
There’s no way this isn’t a bad thing. Because if corporations are people, then they are a special kind of person. Most people, for instance, understand the difference between “can” and “should.” Just because you can walk out of a fancy restaurant without paying doesn’t mean you should. Just because you can leave the waitress a note with your phone number that reads, “You could stand to lose a few pounds—call me when you do” doesn’t mean you should. Just because you can, to gratify your own sadistic desires, desecrate the interior of the marble-lined bathroom by slathering every toilet seat with Kiehl’s soap, clogging the drains with paper towel, and creating pleasingly abstract patterns on the bathroom mirror with smears of your own feces—doesn’t mean you should.
Many corporations seem not to get this.
Imagine a company presented with analogous opportunities. Join me in envisioning, for a moment, a group of fattish men seated at a long glossy table near the top floor of a sterile skyscraper. This stuff actually happens, you know. A slightly younger, slightly thinner man is finishing up a sleek presentation at the front of the room.
“...and that, gentlemen,” he says winningly, “is why installing three new oil rigs in the Gulf could be extremely lucrative for this company.”
“I like it!” the fattest man at the head of the table says. Bald heads bob in agreement. “Let’s move forward.”
Someone coughs near the back of the room. Heads turn.
“Yes, Barnes?” says the fattest man.
“I dunno guys, I just...I just don’t think it would be nice, you know?” Barnes says. “Think of all the fishies.”
The fattest man says, “What, you mean that harming the marine life would tarnish the company’s public image? It is a concern, I agree, but I think Smith here’s done an excellent job of showing how the damage can be mitigated.”
“No,” Barnes says. “I’m talking about....I’m talking about the little fishies. Fishies, turtles, dolphins—I just don’t think it would be really nice, to, um, to do that to their habitat, you know?”
A pregnant silence.
“He’s right,” says the fat man at the head of the table. “Damn it. Barnes is absolutely right. It just wouldn’t be the nice thing to do.”
“But, sir...” someone begins.
“Shut up Kerns, I’m trying to think here. We stand to make billions on this deal. But, goddamnit, it’s quite selfish of us to think only of ourselves in this situation”
“It is true that each oil rig decimates the local ecosystem for a radius of about fifty miles,” someone offers.
“Scratch the plan. We won’t go through with it,” says the fat man.
A chorus of dissent.
“No, I’ve made up my mind. It’s simply not nice. Thank you Barnes, you’ve really helped me see the light of day.”
Absurd? Exactly. This, you'll agree, is something that would never happen.
Maybe the Supreme Court is right. Maybe corporations are people. But if so, then as I said, they’re a special kind of person. Come to think of it, there exists an excellent term that describes exactly this kind of person. It’s a technical term in the English language, not in everyone’s vocabulary, but it’s a term that in my opinion ably captures the unique set of qualities possessed by this sort of character—someone who, let’s see, thinks only of personal gain, profits at the expense of others, and operates with a shockingly short-sighted regard for the ramifications of his actions, both upon his future self and upon the people around him. I believe the term that best captures these nuances is “jerk.”
Yes; that’s right. People can be nice. Corporations are jerks.