On Corporate Personhood (Finally)

On September 12 I headed over to Goergen Hall on the University of Rochester Campus for a panel discussion titled "Block that Metaphor? Corporate Personhood Before and After Citizens United". The panel consisted of Lynn Stout from Cornell Law School, Greg Urban of the University of Pennsylvania, and Elana Shever from Colgate University. It was moderated by Robert Foster at the University of Rochester.

Lynn Stout studies corporations from a legal perspective. She started off by emphasizing that corporations are real, not a metaphor. The term "personhood" refers to a set of legal rights that allow a corporation to, for instance, have the right to own property in its own name. She's enamored of the idea of corporations which give people the ability to perform long term projects that human beings would never do.

The key to this is the ability to lock up capital assets — the ability to hold money indefinitely, and prevent any stakeholder from reclaiming any part of jeir investment. As such, they need some first amendment rights to protect their property from expropriation. But, she added, corporations should never have the right to vote, for instance, and should not have a right to privacy.

As such, it is not simply an association of people: it is a separate kind of entity. And being a unique kind of entity, it does not have the same rights as an association of people.

Greg Urban brought an anthropologist's view of corporations. To him, they are cultural constructions that look like tribes or social groups and act as powerful agents or actors. They are part of a broader human tendency to form groups such a guilds, universities, and towns. He agrees, therefore, that a corporation has a right to exist as an entity unto itself.

Historically, corporations were once chartered which required political clout. And like other kinds of human groupings, they have rituals — business meetings, for instance.

Viewed from the outside, social groups appear as agents: things which exist in perpetuity. This is similar to things like family groups (i.e. family names) or clans which are comprised of — but separate from — their constituent human beings. Precedent exists for treating a group in place of the actions of an individual, for when a group acts, we do not look to the individuals in that group. They are agents with practical efficacy. And for any of these groups to move, it must be done so by discourse and agreement.

Economics had a hard time dealing with corporations what with being a new and separate agent, and in finance they are commodities with assignable values. In neither model are corporations considered persons. The concept of personhood is only in the popular culture and in the legal culture. And the corporate metaphor is dangerous when it is comprised of a single person rather than an aggregate for how would such a corporation exist separate from its sole constituent?

Elana Shever began by noting Michael Polan's work on examining himself as a group of organisms rather than a single entity, coining the term "first person plural". For what is an individual? Theoretically it is that part that remains constant in an ever-changing group. Thus, we can think of both humans and corporations as "ecologies" that contain organisms as well as goods and byproducts. As such, it's a false belief that shareholders define corporate action. Stout responded favorably to the "super-organism" model, adding that it is damaging to think of corporations as the property of shareholders.

Urban spoke of the Shell corporation in Argentina. Internal to Shell's management, there is a belief they are doing good, but many layers away, the people who operate the plants see the external populace as a nuisance. There are actually a series of separations — divisions between managers and workers — that cause this. It is an efficiency in the system that makes good business sense but it is not allowing Shell to work towards a unified goal.

Activists opposing Shell were often strongly reinforcing the idea of it as an individual citizen, and this popular idea is influential in increasing corporate power. So to take a different tack, could it be politically beneficial to rethink "personhood" as it relates to humans?

He said that there must be some kind of communication and common goals within the "divided corporation" model, adding that corporations should benefit society.

People from the audience had a chance to ask questions. Would more regulations be helpful? It seems that corporations are like a "monster that will devour the planet": do we have a super organism that can combat it?

Stout responded, noting that it's common to blame problems on the misbehavior of human beings, but we behave differently inside a group, and institutional environments create bad decisions. Government is probably more broken because lobbying can buy a corporation new rights yet the government needs to be a check on power.

The event organizers began taking questions three at a time (which I thought to be a mistake). I asked, given the way people's behavior changes inside a group, is there a way to make better members of corporations? Another person asked about ontology: if a person is an actor, then what about thinking of functional assemblages, since the parts may change but the unit endures. It seems transparency is key, but giving free speech rights to groups inexorably creates obfuscation. And finally, another person noted that it's less about rights than about responsibilities: how far does responsibility go?

Stout noted that sometimes an individual commits a crime as part of a group, but often it is the organizational design that causes an undesirable behavior. We need to view them as assemblages. How do we keep the useful ones? Should we have a corporate death penalty? Currently, if you want to sell stock, you need to disclose certain financial information, but we should add a requirement to have political disclosure as well.

Urban responded that he is not so excited about laws. For instance, rating agencies (forged organically) work well, but once the quality of the ratings become law, the goals change and the ratings companies just sell good scores.

Shever added that thinking of corporations as "assemblages" means it can easily become disassembled which is dangerous.

The final question that because of discussion of corporate personhood, are people are starting to think of themselves as little corporations? Urban noted that medieval Italy saw families this way. Stout noted that any thing before the law is some kind of person, and a corporation's property and the human agents that represent it are not invisible.

This discussion certainly offered some new information, but I found it lacking.

Stout expressed a belief that corporations let us make great things like railroads and bridges — things that would be impossible if it were attempted by human beings. I was skeptical that the corporate landscape is dominated by such beneficial behavior. And even when something is a benefit overall, it still has numerous negative repercussions.

In an ideal world, when a corporation is founded, it would have a specific benefit to society that serves as its operating goal — and "to make a profit" is not a concept that should be part of that goal. Making a profit should simply be a side-effect of providing a benefit, or a means to an end where providing the beneficial behavior necessitates continued existence.

Also, it seems to me that the only way to circumvent poor behavior of groups is to have a very shallow hierarchy. It seems necessary to have a small group of people whose sole function is to disseminate and clarify the goals of the corporation. The minimal case beyond that would be an anarchistic group that would organically form around tasks to achieve those goals. As layers of management are added, the communication of the goals is necessarily muddied.

Afterward, Stout encouraged us to look into the American Anti-Corruption Act. Echoing Stouts explanation, I'll quote the website:

The Act was crafted by former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter in consultation with dozens of strategists, democracy reform leaders and constitutional attorneys from across the political spectrum.

The Act would transform how elections are financed, how lobbyists influence politics, and how political money is disclosed. It’s a sweeping proposal that would reshape the rules of American politics, and restore ordinary Americans as the most important stakeholders instead of major donors. The Act enjoys support from progressives and conservatives alike.

It is an impressive list of ideas that appears to have been vetted by legal experts to ensure it can be passed. If all the line items are passed, it would indeed mean a tremendous positive shift in the way elections are held and how the country is run.

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Ten More Movies: September–October 2013

So here's the last 10 movies I watched …

  1. Blue Jasmine at the Little, September 11: I'm no sycophant for Woody Allen, and I find his films distinctly big-hit and big-miss, but damn, Blue Jasmine is genius. It broaches an incredibly challenging subject: humans are ill-equipped to deal with the infinite possibilities of choice we have in the world today. It centers on Jasmine who is a hot mess after she loses everything her life once was — a nearly absurd life of incredible wealth and jet-setting with her husband — to move in with her step-sister living in near-poverty we call "middle class". Jasmine is an unlikeable nutcase for whom Allen carefully sketches so (while staying wholly unlikeable) we learn enough about to at least be sympathetic.
  2. City Girl at the Dryden, September 24: I greatly enjoyed this tale of city girl/country boy romance that revolved around some incredibly well-formed characters. What with being among the last silent films ever made, it is certainly a testament to the advanced story-telling possible with the movie camera.
  3. Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel at the Dryden, October 3: A rather gushing documentary about Roger Corman (arguably, deservedly so.) He seemed like a nice enough guy who got into making inexpensive, successful movies and launching the careers of numerous now-famous actors and directors.
  4. A Bucket of Blood at the Dryden, October 3: A really quote good film from the 1950's about a lousy artist who gains admiration when he presents a clay cat. The film is a condemnation of bottom-tier, classist art-culture where an undefined thing called "art"—and recognition of said art—is revered at the expense of all else.
  5. 16 Photographs At Ohrdruf at the Little, October 6: Despite the Little's complete apathy (grrr … not even mentioned on the website), I found out about this film through Jenn who knew the filmmaker. Matthew Nash's grandfather took 16 photographs when the U.S. Army discovered the Nazi concentration camp at Ohrdruf. It was the first camp discovered by the U.S., following legends of camps after the Russians found Auschwitz earlier the same year, and the only camp visited by President Eisenhower. Yet it's not a name well-known. Anyway, Nash interviews some former GI's who were in the same division as his grandfather and paints a personal picture of what it was like to witness the Nazi atrocities. I have a very hard time emotionally connecting to the true horror of the Holocaust (since she sheer scale is impossible for me to comprehend) but these personal tales made it that much more real to me.
  6. The Way, Way Back at the Cinema, October 8: I was skeptical but saw good reviews, and Jenn moderately wanted to see it as well. In all, it's a really nice coming-of-age story. At first I found some of the characters a bit grating, or played too broadly, but in the end it all seemed adequately realistic and touching.
  7. In A World… at the Cinema, October 8: Ok, this one counts as half. I persevered for the second film in the double-feature and actually wanted to see it … pretty much only because of watching too many "Honest Trailers" by ScreenJunkies on YouTube. The gist is that Don LaFontaine was the guy who popularized the phrase "in a world…" as the way to begin nearly every movie trailer for decades. He's a real guy who really did die in 2008. So the film is a fictional account of Carol—the daughter of a voiceover artist gifted similarly to LaFontaine—who wants to break into the world of voiceovers, particularly for film trailers, and become the next LaFontaine. It's written and directed by Lake Bell who also stars as Carol. I found that every single character was written as a shrill fast-talker no matter their age, gender, or background. It was insufferable, and the cheap writing continued: pivotal plot points hinged on unrealistically stupid coincidences. For instance, Carol can't get a date with the guy who has a crush on her ("Mary Sue" much?) because someone interrupts her cell phone call and he's confused about who she's talking to. Just dumb, lazy writing. I left when her sister's boyfriend finds the [telegraphed] evidence he didn't want to know. That's when my refills of popcorn and "Arnold Palmer" ran out and I left. (And I should point out that the film is doing very very well in reviewer circles like RottenTomatoes: is everyone blinded by Bell's "brave" choice to consider women for voiceover work? Her point is certainly valid, but just because she's among a mostly-male group of writer/director/stars doesn't mean I'm going to grade her writing quality any less stringently.)
  8. Elmer Gantry at the Dryden, October 9: I kind of love the tale of a charismatic sociopath. I couldn't help make a comparison to A Face in the Crowd which I saw last year since I enjoyed that story a lot. This one was a little more subtle, but its steady pace revealed a desperate man. A slimy salesman becomes a preacher for a traveling evangelical group, firstly for his own gains. Glimpses of compassion in him may be genuine and may be calculated, but nonetheless allowed me to empathize with him.
  9. X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes at the Dryden, October 10: Roger Corman directed this tale of a man who gives himself the ability to see through solid matter: a change that gradually increases in strength. It starts as scientific curiosity, and he exploits it largely for good, but by the time all of the world is invisible to him, it essentially drives him mad. The story is solid, and overall worth watching, but by no means a masterpiece.
  10. The Vampire at the Dryden, October 22: This was the first of a pair of related silent films shown. The titular "vampire" is not a bloodsucker, but a woman who preys on men who are attracted to her. It tells the tale of a small-town farmer trying his hand at big-city life, only to fall for the lure of one such woman. It has a steady pacing and tells an interesting story. Among the interesting notes is the use of title cards to introduce action and events — apparently early filmmakers were not ready to rely on narrative structure alone at this time. Another interesting element is that the production company saved money by building sets outdoors and using natural light, yielding some bizarrely breezy interiors.
  11. As in a Looking Glass at the Dryden, October 22: This one should count as half as well since tiredness got the best of me and I wasn't able to stick with the film for its short duration. What I can say is the story is not unlike "The Vampire", but told from the perspective of a woman who falls into the trap of living off men who are attracted to her. I recall it had some unusual structures that weren't clear: cuts to what may have been a second storyline, or an abstract alternative.

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Tales of Subsidized CoffeeCare

So I saw that Bob Martin—someone I don't personally know—posted a note from Dana Puopolo—a person neither of us knows—which he in-turn copied from Brian Krewson's status. I thought it was pretty good, but I changed it from a soda machine to coffee to try and make it just a little more relevant. I rewrote the story a bit, but it's largely Krewson's work.

So imagine you are working for a company that doesn't have coffee on the premises. Instead, there are vendors outside that sell coffee and, if you want it, you get your coffee from one of them.

Jane posts a suggestion: all the other companies give their employees coffee so why can't we? Management asks people and nearly all your colleagues say they want coffee inside, but some don't want it for free because some people drink more than others and they would rather have higher pay than to have it free for everybody. Also, the coffee vendors get wind of this idea so they go to management and suggest they sell coffee inside instead of on the street.

Management likes this suggestion. To appeal to supporters of Jane's original suggestion, they add that the lowest-paid employees will get reimbursed 80% for one cup a day of the cheapest coffee, and everybody else will need to buy their own. (And, since coffee makes everybody more productive, people who don't want any coffee will have to pay a fee for their lower productivity.)

Once again, they put it to a vote, and when the poll came back, the majority of your colleagues said "yes": this was an acceptable compromise. So management sets up a department to handle the coffee vendors, and within a few weeks, there's coffee for sale in the break room.

Among the people who said "no" was Bill in accounting. He felt that this went too far: offering coffee inside was a waste of company resources, and worse, giving a discount to low-pay employees discouraged them from working harder. He campaigns throughout the office to get the coffee vendors kicked out.

Well, management decides "OK, we'll ask again" and again, the majority of people say "yes, lets keep the coffee for sale inside just as we agreed." Bill continues to campaign, and management continues to ask the employees, and every time, the answer is in favor of the coffee. This happens, lets say… over 40 times. Eventually, Bill says "OK, I'M NOT PROCESSING PAYROLL ANYMORE UNTIL THE COFFEE IS REMOVED", so nobody will get paid unless management removes the coffee vendors.

What should we do?

Answer: Fire Bill and get someone who will do the fucking job.

Bonus: Bill tells everyone that he was willing to "negotiate", to come to a solution where everyone got their payroll checks, but only so long as that negotiation capitulated to his demand to remove the coffee vendors. Bill is clearly an asshole.

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