Friday, August 12, 2011

What Does it Mean to Say that "Corporations Are People"?

Some lefties hoot at Mitt Romney for saying that  "corporations are people."   Others say it's cheap shot.  I  lean towards the cheap shot faction.  Taken in context, he wasn't saying much that was very controversial, or even interesting--i.e., he was saying that in the end, the tax on the corporation ultimately comes out of the pocket of some human being.  His mistake was that he said it in the kind of MBA jargon which usually protects him via its implacable dullness-, but this time transmogrified him a moment of harmless merriment.  The charge sticks to him (if it sticks at all) not because it is true or even important, but because it crystallizes something we already believe and already dislike about him--like Al Gore and the internet, or Michael Dukakis and the tank. In Romney's case, the insight bears the suggestion that people are not people, which is precisely what his critics think he may in fact believe.

But what I'd really like to know his just what, in detail, Mitt Romney really believes about the people-ness of corporations?    Nobody (I think) believes that "corporations" are "people" in every way.  E.g., illegal to murder them?  to abort them after they become viable?--etc.  I think I know the correct answer to those questions; meanwhile  I have been telling my bankruptcy students for years that the buzz the hear in Palookaville on a hot August night is not, in fact, a cicada infestation; rather it is the souls of undead corporations that have been abandoned but never terminated, seeking their final home. I sometimes get a laugh for this one.

 Some people--unfortunately, some people with robes, believe that corporations are people to the extent of enjoying First-Amendment rights.  Me, I'm one of those who thinks the whole thing is a wild hare.  I think Citizens United, the free speech case, was a terrible decision--it is people and not corporations who have a just claim on First-Amendment rights.  The corporation is a convention, and a distraction.

 But for the same reason, I'd get rid of the corporate income tax--shifting the burden over to the individual investors.  I concede there is a whole thicket of sub-issues there as to just what gets shifted and how.  But I think that shifting the tax to the investor at least clarifies the point that it is the investor and not the corporation who is a "person."

Would Mitt Romney agree?  Of course not.  When he (or any other GOP Presidential candidate) talkes about getting rid of the the corporate income tax, he doesn't have the slightest intention of trying to replace it with anything comparable but more coherent.  He's just saluting the GOP gonfalon of never paying for anything, ever.     When he says "corporations or people," the unspoken corollary is "and people shouldn't have to pay taxes."

So if Romney really wants to treat corporations as "people," I'd say he's still got some work to do.  But he's a bright guy, and he can afford good staff; any day now he may be telling us how the souls of corporations are eligible for retroactive baptism.  But get your money in front, guys; remember that it is Republicans we are dealing with here.

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