Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Corporations as Voldemort

If corporations had a soul, the ability to love, i.e., if corporations were Harry Potter instead of Voldemort, would they need to be bailed out?

Following, please find a lightly edited discussion between Bob and Sarah regarding the idea of the corporation as Voldemort.

Bob: I think the question of "what is success?" seems to be an interesting one, a sort of secular version of "what is the right thing to do with one's life?"
Very deep.
me: I was just thinking about that in the context of the current financial crisis and Harry Potter.
Bob: You were thinking about "What is success?" in the context of the current financial crisis and Harry Potter? Like, clearly success defined as sheer financial excess doesn't work well for society, but success in the sense of killing Voldemort in a very surreal train stationy way does work well for society?
me: Not remotely.
More focused on the secular version of "what is the right thing to do with one's life?"
Can a corporation ever do the right thing?
The fundamental, and is some ways the only, difference between Harry and Voldemort is that Harry can love, his soul is intact. Corporations are like Voldemort because legally they are like people but they have no sense of right and wrong.
Bob: I like your corporations are like Voldemort metaphor.
me: But does capitalism essentially elevate the corporation as the model of how to lead one's life?
Bob: Of course, the legal fiction that corporations are people is just stupid.
me: Well, it's stupid, but it's entirely true.
Bob: True in what sense?
I mean, it's not true that corporations are people.
me: So is the reason corporate wrongdoing goes essentially unpunished, the reason this country feels compelled to bail out corporations that intentionally made extremely risky decisions because the vast majority of Americans no longer think what those corporations did was wrong?
Bob: My whole notion of what capitalism is has been a bit shaken by the whole bailout discussion of late. So answering your question about if it makes the corporation a model for ethics is tricky.
me: No, corporations are not people. But if you look at the origin of the corporation and the fundamental legal framework that underlies the corporation in America, it is all based on the idea that a corporation is a person without the person.
Bob: I don't think that's true. I think most Americans think the big corporate fatcats are bastards. They accept that Congress is going to bail them out, and maybe even accept that the bailout is necessary for their well-being, but I think they still think it's all the fatcats' fault and they should rot. But they aren't going to. Because life isn't fair and the rich always get richer.
me: They are blaming the individuals when they should be blaming the idea. If you make the people the scapegoat, then the corporation goes on unsullied.
If you can say, "Well, it's the CEO's fault," then you just cut of the hydra's head. It's still a hydra.
Bob: I see. So you're saying the very idea of a corporation developed as a sort of soulless zombie in legal terms, presumably for some economic purpose. The "personhood" of a corporation is integral to the idea of the corporation. But its falsehood is obvious on its face.
me: Yes.
Bob: Yes, I think you may be exactly right. But you are sounding a lot like a socialist, you pinko.
me: Essentially a corporation is a soulless person.
If someone could show me a way to imbue corporations with souls, I would be a capitalist.
Bob: So, isn't it necessarily true that a corporation could always claim insanity as a defense?
me: Fascinating idea.
This is one of the reasons I don't understand the criminal prosecution of a corporation.
Bob: So you might say that arguably capitalism is practically defined by the notion that somehow the workings of the market will go in such a way that corporations will "do the right thing", not through any soul of their own but because of their economic imperatives?
me: Yes, capitalism functions on the notion that the will of the free-market is good.
Bob: That does sound weird. Other than fines, what can you do to a corporation? I think of criminal law as involving punishments like jail, and you can't put a corporation in jail.
me: Nothing but fines. And that is part of the problem.
Bob: I mean, courts can do all kinds of crazy injunction stuff, but they can do that in civil cases.
me: Corporations consider those fines the cost of doing business.
Criminality is part of their business model.
But if corporations could be dissolved, that might have some impact.
Bob: Huh. So you reject this capitalist notion that the market will is good, and clearly think that corporations are a mechanism that empowers people to do unethical things. You clearly belong on a kibbutz or something, ya tree-huggin' socialist.
me: Well, except for the association of some kibbutzes with the occupation of land that should be a new Palestinian state, yeah I do.
Bob: Also, this whole conversation should go somewhere.
me: Meh.
What about this conversation warrants blogging?
Bob: I think the whole corporate entity thing is interesting.
me: Cool. Thanks.
Bob: Particularly relating it to Voldemort to get the kids interested.
me: Yes, because the kids read our blog all the time.
Bob: For all we know, the 10 other people who ever look at the blog are under 15.

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Thalia said...

No, no, you blog these conversations because this:

"me: No, corporations are not people. But if you look at the origin of the corporation and the fundamental legal framework that underlies the corporation in America, it is all based on the idea that a corporation is a person without the person."

is precisely true, drives me batshit crazy, and indeed, allows corporations to inhabit this person/non-person -hood in the USA which allows them to live in a morally polluted Indeterminate Zone.

Right on with the Voldemort analogy. Now I need it on a T-shirt.

With trebuchets.

Terri said...

I agree. I have wondered about civil lawsuits on a large scale against the boards of directors and CEOs, though. Maybe even against the leaders in government as mismanagers of tax dollars. Although, can you sue politicians for something like that?

I'm not under any illusions that it would do any good in any short term, but I wonder what kind of precedent it would set? Probably a whole can of worms right there.

I agree with the soulless definition, but I also think of it in terms of strict behaviorism that you may use on a child without the development yet for empathy and long term planning. It seems that positive or negative reinforcement would be the only way to regulate the system as it is. Right now, the government seems to be giving positive reinforcement for screwing up, though. Clearly the wrong thing to do to change any behavior.

Then again, there's always overthrow of the system, but it historically always seems to be so messy and doesn't accomplish was intended.

Bah! Where's Hermione? She'd have some answers.