Monday, September 10, 2007

Go, Humboldt County!

Nothstine's Law: Every bad law began life as the solution to a problem.

In my high school econ class, at about the time of the Boer War, we learned about state laws governing the chartering of corporations. I still remember reading about Article 16 (in our state), concerning Resident Agent for Service of Process. The point, our econ teacher (now a circuit court judge) drummed into us, was that corporations couldn't simply scatter responsibility for their actions among their many stockholders. Corporations were legal fictions created to accomplish a purpose, but the corporation itself could and should nevertheless be accountable for its actions.

In the eyes of the law, a corporation is a juristic person. It's treated as if it were an actual person--at least in specific, limited ways. Or at least, in the original theory, those ways are specific and limited. It can own property, it can enter into contracts, it can hire people to represent it, it can sue in court, and so on. Also, significantly, suit can be brought against it. These arrangements create advantages for businesses (and other incorporated entities) that are considered to serve the common good.

But the whole point is that a corporation is not a natural person. So every single right enjoyed by flesh-and-blood persons like you and me is not, and need not necessarily be, extended to a corporation. Many of these "personhood" conditions were imposed upon corporations during the Progressive Era as a means of reining in their power.

In a feat of political ju-jitsu, modern corporations have stood the Progressive Era arguments for their own limitation on their head, turning them into reasons to expand their own power. Nowhere is this more evident than in the twin claims that corporations in America enjoy the same rights to free speech that natural persons do, and that money equals speech.

Anyone who's grown tired of watching corporations invest in political candidates, like owners investing in NASCAR entries, knows these twin arguments well. A few hundred thousand dollars invested in political donations can reap billions in return as deregulation, relaxed regulatory enforcement, changes to patent and intellectual property laws, and so on. Under these conditions, a corporation would be crazy not to "invest" in Senators and Representatives.

Same goes with "investing" in the state initiative/referendum process. Currently, R.J. Reynolds is outspending supporters of Measure 50 (which would fund an Oregon childrens' health plan with a stiff increase in tobacco tax) by about four to one. A similar fight in California ended up costing $60 million. (Most of that $60 million, of course, went to buying ads at local television and radio stations, and in local newspapers, a fact which casts serious doubt on the commercial media's ability to be an honest broker in the discussion of campaign finance reform, but that's for another time.)

All of this is defended in the name of free speech. By denying corporations the right to spend a fortune influencing our elections, goes the argument, we are abridging their right to free speech which they are guaranteed as "persons."

The bottom line--so to speak--is this: Corporations, through the overwhelming influence of their "speech" (i.e., the money they spend on political contributions), own our political campaign process, and that means they own its product, too.

You'd have to look hard to find a stronger supporter of the First Amendment than me, but to defend this arrangement in the name of "free speech" is perverse in the extreme. A system that pits you, as a citizen, against the tobacco industry (for example), forcing you to match them dollar for dollar on every issue or election in order to be heard, cripples your ability to participate meaningfully in the political process--which makes it the very antithesis of what "free speech" is about.

All of which gets us to this story:
In 2006, Humboldt County, California, became the latest, and largest, jurisdiction to abolish the legal doctrine known as "corporate personhood."

Measure T was successful because our all-volunteer campaign came together to pass a law that bans non-local corporations from participating in Humboldt elections. The referendum, which passed with 55 percent of the vote, also asserts that corporations cannot claim the First Amendment right to free speech. […]

This effort did not spring up out of thin air. It was the result of years of old-fashioned community organizing by Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County that included workshops and educational programs explaining how corporations have acquired more rights under the law than people have.

We designed the campaign with "big picture" goals in mind from the beginning. We knew we wanted to claim for our campaign the best and most noble ideals of American history--especially self-governance and protecting people's rights against abusive power. We realize that the founding of this country is deeply flawed, but we used the national creation story to put Measure T on the side of truth and justice.

To that end, our PAC was named the Humboldt Coalition for Community Rights, and our website was Our primary outreach tool was a tea bag that reminded voters of the proud history of the Boston Tea Party as an act of rebellion against the most powerful corporation of the day, and called for a modern-day T(ea) Party of our own.

Like the populists of the 19th-century agrarian movement, we believe that genuine change cannot be imposed from the top down. It must proceed from the ground up, and the battles must be waged in local communities.

I confess I'm not terribly encouraged for the future of this law; even if it survives initial appeal, once the inevitable legal challenges to it are brought high enough to get to the conservative, pro-corporate judges that Republican administrations have been methodically installing for almost 30 years (see above, re: corporate return on investment), it'll be overturned quickly and with gusto.

In fact, it's probably only a matter of time until some anti-tax pundit compares the outre nature of the Humboldt County measure with the widely-touted effects of Humboldt's leading cash crop--if that link hasn't been made somewhere already. And that will be one of the nicer things that'll be said about it.

Nevertheless, the idea is absolutely right. "Corporate citizenship" is not a political/legal ideal; it's a public relations metaphor. Money is not speech; it's commerce.

Good luck to Humboldt County.

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