As I watch the situation with AIG and Congress unfold, I can’t help but think about the nature of corporations, and what will happen to people like Edward Liddy – the CEO who authorized $4 million bonuses for the executives in charge of the insurance company despite the failure of the corporation. Is it really so surprising, though, to see business executives spending your tax dollars to benefit the majority shareholders of a company? We should expect corporations to keep their own interests in mind over that of their employees and the public at large in the country that spawned entities such as IBM – who made the punch cards the Nazis used to keep track of concentration camp prisoners – and the United Fruit Company – who took over the banana republics, controlling their governments to open their low-cost plantations – or even allegations, unproven though they may be, that corporations like duPont have actually tried to overthrow our government to install a business-friendly fascist.
Businesses exist to make a profit; CEOs of corporations are supposed to keep the interests of their shareholders in mind over just about anything else. Of course they will do what benefits those people who own the majority of a corporation. The problem is that we have set up and accepted, for far too long, a system, a relationship between government and business, that is fundamentally flawed – we have created the corporation as a whipping boy of the executives who run it, allowing them to act for profit regardless of law or morality.
The nobility of Europe often had a privilege for their children that was not at all extended to the common man: the whipping boy. The children of royalty could not be touched, upon penalty of death, and so their parents – terribly concerned with proper child rearing – created the whipping boy as a way to punish their children’s misbehavior without actually punishing their child. Instead, their kid would grow up with a good buddy – some commoner – who would take the beating for the noble child any time they acted improperly.
Now, this seems like a bizarre idea to those of us in America, who live without divine rights and nobility and class divisions (don’t we?). Unfortunately, it’s a concept that is still in practice, except it’s not the children of monarchs who benefit from it; instead, it is the board of executives of national corporations. The corporation actually exists, legally, as an individual, a person – they have the same property rights as you and me, they can sue or be sued, and, more importantly, they can be charged with crimes.
Unfortunately, charging an imaginary scapegoat with a crime doesn’t do too terribly much for the executives who are actually making the poor decisions and breaking the law. It is not the individuals making these decisions who face the consequences of their actions, but the corporate whipping boy – the imaginary ‘person’ the corporation represents. Well, you can’t send an imaginary person to jail. The most you can do is chastise them, and maybe issue a fine.
Thus, we have a corporate system where there are actually business executives sitting around a table with a cup of coffee, discussing whether it is more profitable to break the law and pay a fine, or to follow the rules and regulations passed by our government. Is there any wonder we have places like Cancer Alley in Louisiana, where oil refineries and chemical companies have polluted the water and air to the point that the cancer rate is astronomically high? If I stand to lose $4 million by implementing the proper safety procedures to keep those pollutants out of the water, and only $40,000 if I break the law, dump my chemicals in the river, and get busted by the EPA, of course I’m going to break the law!
Of course, it’s no wonder businesses have adopted an idea from the nobility we decided to throw the hell out of this country during the American Revolution, when you really consider where some of these wealthy corporations originated. For one thing, some of them are the same people who ruled Europe as monarchs. Next week, we’ll take a closer look at some of corporate America’s richest, and we’ll see how much we really have done to divorce ourselves from the same people who have been running the show since they called themselves barons.