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Corporations Gone Wild

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It's a magnificent time to be alive -- if you're a giant corporation, that is.

Spring is here, and after a deep chill, the mighty mega-businesses are not merely reborn, but blossoming. "Big U.S. companies have emerged from the recession more productive, more profitable, flush with cash and less burdened by debt," swoons the Wall Street Journal.  The seductively sweet smell of speculation -- in mortgages, derivatives, oil, wheat -- once again fills the air. Amidst the giddy exuberance of the stock market, why dwell on the dreary conditions among the human population, where one out of every six Americans lives below the poverty line, one of every ten is out of work, and one of every five homes are worth less than the loans that secure them?

Oh to be young, free and incorporated -- preferably in an island like Bermuda.

Being a Big Business wasn't always so much fun. For a long time, corporations had to obey the same rules as the rest of us. And after Wall Street drove America into a ditch four years ago, Corporate America was hurting, too. True, many of us never really thought of inanimate objects as capable of suffering. And come to think of it, I never did meet a homeless corporation (though I've encountered many a crooked one). But with bailouts, special tax breaks, and the ability to borrow taxpayer money from the Fed at .05 percent interest, that painful period didn't last very long.

And then, in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court decreed in the infamous Citizens United case that under the U.S. Constitution, corporations are the same as people and spending money is a form of free speech. So when corporations write checks, it's the same as you and me speaking. And corporations have the right, under the First Amendment, to use money to buy public officials and purchase elections.

Corporate America's been partying like its in Ft. Lauderdale on spring break ever since.

As you might expect from a climate of unrestrained corporate debauchery, there've been some ill-fated hook-ups, like AT&T and T-Mobile (the annulment cost $4 billion). But don't worry about a newly rejuvenated Ma Bell not having any BFFs. Its 100 million customers literally cannot dump the company, at least not without paying a massive "early termination fee." AT&T's allies on the Supreme Court ruled last year that the company can strip you of your right to take it to court, leaving you no way to sever the relationship if your service fails, your "unlimited" data plan gets throttled, or you get overcharged.

Big businesses were screwing people way before Citizens United and Concepcion v. AT&T, of course. But those decisions fundamentally altered the balance of power between citizens and corporations in the courts, Congress and the executive branch.

Philosophers, scientists and science fiction writers have long predicted that the moment would come when artificial creatures, created by humans, would become more intelligent than humans -- a technological "singularity" projected to arrive later this century. But no one would have guessed that 2010 would become the date of the political singularity -- the year in which a legal construct -- a corporation -- would become more politically powerful than humans.

That corporations don't yet have all the benefits of personhood misses the point. Justice Stevens' dissent in Citizens United warned: "Under the majority's view, I suppose it may be a First Amendment problem that corporations are not permitted to vote, given that voting is, among other things, a form of speech." But corporations don't need to vote. Corporations decide who gets elected simply by dumping vast quantities of cash into elections on behalf of candidates who will do their bidding.

As a student of American civic life named Tony Montana once explained, "In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power."