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Plutocrats for Social Justice? WTF?

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In a recent post on the healthcare crisis and the movie SiCKO, I pointed out that an overwhelming majority of Americans have told pollsters they want a universal healthcare system even if it means raising taxes. With this kind of popular support, I concluded, if we don't pass universal healthcare "don't blame the victims. Blame the plutocrats."

But then a funny thing happened. I noticed several bona fide plutocrats were embracing progressive positions on all sorts of issues. Warren Buffett made news when he complained that his $60,000-a-year secretary's tax rate was nearly twice his own and argued that taxes have to go up on rich people like him. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein went even further: he said flat out that rising income inequality is "poisoning democracy."

What's going on here? Buffett and Blankfein are genuine plutocrats and they seem as angry as the rest of us about where this country is headed. It's similar to a phenomenon I noticed at the lower levels of corporate America as I researched my book. Corporate America is riddled with secret dissenters -- anti-corporate corporate lawyers, anti-consumerist admen, even healthcare company consultants who don't believe in our healthcare system. So if everyone except for the crew in Dick Cheney's bunker is on board for some serious reform, why does nothing change?

The reason, I've come to believe, has a lot to do with something called "corporate personhood," a legal concept obscure to many but pervasive in its effects. It stems from the last Gilded Age when corporation lawyers argued before the Supreme Court that the Fourteenth Amendment, which was written to guarantee "equal protection of the laws" to African-Americans, should be reinterpreted to apply to corporations -- and not to blacks. It sounds crazy, but it worked. And even after we repaired the damage by applying the amendment to the African-Americans it was intended for, we've never gone back and stopped applying it to corporations. (This is too long a story to tell in a single post but for a good primer check out the documentary, The Corporation, or the book, Unequal Protection, by Air America talk show host Thom Hartmann -- full disclosure: Hartmann has said some very nice things about my own book.)

The doctrine of corporate personhood allows corporations to assert that they have human rights just like people -- for example, the first amendment right to free speech. That's allowed them to get law struck down that were passed by We The People to bar them from using their wealth to control our politics. For example, in the 1950s, big business got a Wisconsin law overturned which had mandated, quite sensibly, that corporations shouldn't be able to buy influence by giving money to political parties or candidates. More recently, the Supreme Court applied the same logic to scale back federal campaign finance reform.

That means corporations are allowed to lobby "their" representatives in congress as if they were people. But unlike people, they are legally bound to look after their own narrow self-interest. People pursue politics as citizens -- with concerns not just for themselves but for the nation, the environment, and for social justice. That's why someone like Warren Buffett argues as a citizen that his taxes ought to go up. It's not in his narrow self-interest, but he understands it is in the interest of the country and in the interest of basic fairness. But corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profits even if it means betraying the nation, trashing the environment, or fomenting unconscionable levels of inequality. Nothing is unconscionable for a corporation because they don't have consciences; they're not really people, whatever the courts may say. Ironically, with this state of affairs there are surely scores of corporations in which Warren Buffett is the leading shareholder that have actively lobbied to cut the very capital gains taxes he believes should be raised.

That's how plutocracy works. Even if you convince the people -- and even if you convince the plutocrats -- that we need reform, there are wealthy, powerful non-human forces that will thwart those reforms.

So if things don't get better soon, don't blame the plutocrats. A lot of them are on our side. Rather, if nothing changes, blame -- and change -- the system.