This is why I teach…

 [As an online teacher of environmental economics, most of my time is spent talking about pollution, cap and trade, marginal social costs, and the like, with the expected student responses… But every once in a while there is an email exchange that makes it feel good to be a teacher, and influence someone’s life in a positive way: this was one of them. Below is a response I got from a student to a long response where I explained to him where corporate personhood originated and why it is so significant..]

[This was the student’s response: ]
Wonderful explanation, I am looking forward to becoming much more
informed and involved. This class has sparked a potential path for me to
follow in life at a time when I find myself searching as all I do is
plan with beer and I need to be a part of something more fulfilling. I
will check out those books you recommended as well, thanks for the tip.
Cheers,
[from one of my students

This was my answer that inspired the student…


Dear student],

Noble words, and well spoken. I can see that you have taken Mr Hedges words to heart…

But to effect change, communities will need to come together. Given
the way that corporations have so influenced federal politics  — there
is something like 40-60 lobbyists per legislator in the US
Congress, on whom our hapless representatives have become overly
dependent, for both specialized information and campaign funding — that
change will not come from the top down, it must come from the bottom
up, i.e. us. And I really mean that…

And this is what Mr Hedges is also suggesting, and why he so
passionately participated in the Occupy encampment in NYC a few years
ago: to  encourage local people to start doing something….but what exactly? This is where he is not so clear…and where I wish to chime in.

This is where I disagree with Mr Hedges statement that corporation
are “uncontrollable”. Corporations are simply legal entities, and they
can be controlled if they can be legally
controlled…but to be legally controlled it will take great political
change to support changes in the law that governs them — because
corporations have gained their power by dominating the legal processes
of our government. And this where greater public awareness and education
is needed; so here is your 2 minute lecture on how that might happen:

I studied this matter a great deal in the wake of the 2010 Supreme Court decision about the Citizens United
case, which gave corporations First Amendment rights to free speech.
That unfortunate court decision has caused huge amounts of corporate
money (potentially from overseas corporations, though that is difficult
to trace now) to flow into US political campaigns, which many believe
will be the beginning of the end of democracy in the United States. The
reaction against this has been intense..and the next few years, and
decades, will be truly historic in terms of which direction this country
goes: towards corporate tyranny, or if a groundswell of grassroots
democracy that challenges this direction. If you care about your
country, I encourage you to get informed and get involved.

There is grounds for believing corporations can be brought under
control, which is the point where I disagree with Mr Hedges. The key
point is this: corporations’ power is almost entirely based on the legal
doctrine that they are entitled to constitutional rights (vastly different from rights under statutory law). How did corporations get these constitutional rights? Only through the Supreme Court, starting with a key initial court case in 1886, Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad,
where a corporation was mentioned as a “legal person” (but only in the
headnotes), giving them rights under the 14th Amendment, legislation
which was ostensibly passed to free black slaves.
This use of the 14th Amendment by corporations to gain their initial
constitutional rights is a real travesty of justice, for which the
SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the US) must be held responsible: between 1886
and 1910, there were 302 SCOTUS decisions dealing with the 14th
Amendment. Twelve of them were about black men defending their rights;
288 of them were about corporations arguing they were “legal persons”.
(This is documented in the works below.) So, that is where this mess
started…

Ever since then, corporate lawyers have schemed and strategized, and
corporations have pushed and pushed to get judges onto the Supreme Court
that would make decisions in their favor, to the point that
corporations have gained constitutional rights under the 7th, 5th, 4th,
and now in 2010, the 1st Amendment.

How many of your fellow citizens do you think are aware of this, and
its significance? Precious few, I can assure you…yet, this is how
corporations have succeeded in creating a legal coat of armor that has
allowed them to flount statutory law, and escape or outright defeat
regulatory attempts to limit their behavior.

There are two excellent books to read on this topic, should you be
interested, which I’ve included below. If you are interested in this
issue, they are the best references I have found.
To wind up: corporations’ power is based on their legal defenses..but
this legal defense is based on constitutional rights. Where have they
acquired these constitutional rights? Only through the SCOTUS — giving corporations these constitutional rights has never been voted on by the American people, anytime, or anywhere.

And where do the ultimate legal rights reside, according to the
fundamental documents that established the legal foundations of our
country? In the people…NOT in some legal fiction like a corporation!

Well, that’s a pretty long-winded comment…but I mean through this
to communicate to the rest of the class where the real change needs to
come if we are going to save the planet: challenging the legal power of
corporations to come in and trash our local communities. If we can begin
to succeed at the local level, then, and only then, a sine qua non first step (Latin for without which nothing), can we start to challenge them on a global level.

Hope this helps,
–Rick

Gangs of America by Ted Nace
— An authoritative and entertaining explanation of the origins of
modern corporate power, starting with the English guilds, with an
emphasis on the birth and growth of corporate constitutional rights
under American law.
Unequal Protection by Thom Hartmann
— Another authoritative telling of how corporations have acquired so
much legal power, with a focus on corporate constitutional rights, and
an orientation to helping people organize to resist and overturn this
injustice.

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