Monday, October 7, 2013

The Myth of the Evil Corporation

Let me just put this out there flatly before I explain myself. There is no such thing as an evil corporation.

I can hear you scream, perhaps even naming names. What about Monsanto, JP Morgan Chase (and all the other Too Big To Fail banks), BP, and any number of other corporate criminals? How can you say that they aren't evil? Because in order to be evil, you have to have evil intent. And corporations cannot have intent because, Citizens United notwithstanding, corporations are not people.

Corporations are operated by people. And those people, it is true, sometimes do evil things. But we have come to think of corporations as people, even in our everyday language, and in the language of our news media. "Today Wells Fargo said ...." Wrong, wrong, wrong! Some person working as an employee of Wells Fargo said, probably ordered by some other employee of Wells Fargo. These are people saying these things, and doing other things, and ordering other people to do other things which some of these other people do to save themselves from unemployment.

But none of it comes from the corporation itself, because the corporation has no brain. (Some might say that many of the people who work for the corporation also have no brain, and there might be a good point to that, but it's beyond the scope of this blog post.) All the horrible decisions that are made on behalf of corporations are made by people.

This is not just a matter of semantics. It's important to remember that there is no such thing as corporate wrongdoing. Corporate wrongdoing is the wrongdoing of people. There is no set of handcuffs big enough to go around the corporate headquarters of, say, JP Morgan Chase, and even if there were you couldn't haul the thing to jail. CEO Jamie Dimon, on the other hand, has wrists just the right size for a pair of iron bracelets. All those bogus securities and abusive loans and robo-signed court papers were not generated by a nameless, faceless corporation; they were generated by people.

When we hear that the Justice Department is investigating Bank of America, we shouldn't get too excited, because the best the DOJ is going to do is hit them up for a few billion out of the profits they made. Even if the DOJ wanted to arrest BofA, they can't. Now, if they really wanted to do something about the many criminal acts perpetrated in the name of the Bank of America, they would start going after the people in the company.

There are many legal problems with this, having to do with intent, and who know what and when. But really, it is the only effective and logical way to approach the problem. Assuming that anyone in law enforcement is serious about approaching the problem.

But that's where the notion of the corporation as a person gets in the way (all the way up to the Supreme Court). Since it is not a person, it seems too monolithic to do anything about. It's like any problem, though: you have to break it into its constituent parts, and go after the people who do the evil deeds, even if they are doing it behind a corporate shield.

Because as long as you allow them that corporate shield, as long as you attempt to punish the monolithic corporation for what amounts to individual deeds (even if they are done in concert with other individuals—by the way that's called conspiracy), those individuals will continue to perform those criminal deeds because there's no incentive not to.