Open mouth, remove silver spoon, insert foot. Regardless of whether Mitt Romney was speaking from the heart or got jittery and shot from the hip, his Iowa State Fair quip that "corporations are people" set a lot of teeth on edge. For Romney, perhaps, it was a glib critique of tax increases. But it was also a sign of how closely political fortune is tied to corporate rule and corporate cash.
Romney might be correct in that the money corporations make eventually get paid out to some individuals--employees or stockholders. But to say that corporations are people, and especially to endow corporations with constitutional personhood rights, as court decisions have steadily done, endangers our nation and our democracy. Corporations have no loyalties to any concept other than making a profit. If the good of an individual, a family, a community, or even the nation gets in the way of a strong bottom line at the end of the quarter, there's no question that real people--you and me--will take a back seat to profit.
You don't have to look much further than Romney's own business career to see this concept in action, courtesy of leading political commentator (sadly, we're not being ironic) Stephen Colbert:
“You see, Romney made a Mittload of cash using what’s known as a leveraged buyout. He’d buy a company with ‘money borrowed against their assets, groomed them to be sold off and in the interim collect huge management fees.’ Once Mitt had control of the company, he’d cut frivolous spending like ‘jobs,’ ‘workers,’ ‘employees,’ and ‘jobs.’ […] “Because Mitt Romney knows just how to trim the fat. He rescued businesses like Dade Behring, Stage Stories, American Pad and Paper, and GS Industries, then his company sold them for a profit of $578 million after which all of those firms declared bankruptcy. Which sounds bad, but don’t worry, almost no one worked there anymore."Romney's rep as a job killer led to his Senate campaign being bird-dogged by a "truth squad" ‘of striking workers from a Marion, Indiana, paper plant who had lost jobs, wages, health care, and pensions after Ampad, a Bain subsidiary, took control. Ampad eventually went bankrupt, but Bain walked away with $100 million for its $5 million investment.
The threat of profit-before-people corporate deeds are why in the early days of this country corporations were kept under tight legal restraint: chartered for a specific public purpose, dissolved when that purpose was accomplished, their books subject to inspection, and conglomerates of corporations owning other corporations forbidden. But thanks to a slew of court decisions, we've swung the other way, to where corporations are legally immortal, dedicated only to profit, and "human" enough to have the same free speech rights as individuals, although their "voice" is amplified a thousand-fold by the money they have on hand to buy, bribe, or influence the candidates of their choice.
So while the Democrats have jumped all over Romney's remark, don't believe their hype. For DNC Communications Director Brad Woodhouse, for instance, Romney's remarks amount to little more than a lack of sympathy: "There's a great message for people struggling to get by and trying to make ends meet. Don't complain -- corporations are people too!"
Here's news for both parties: it's not just the folks who are struggling who are mightily ticked off at the attitude that Romney's quip represents. It's everyone who questions whether our elected officials are more loyal to their funders than to their constituents. It's everyone who sees elections as a public good that should be publicly funded, just as our police, fire, and libraries are, to ensure every voice and every vote counts. It's everyone who sees the Citizens United decision as the ultimate auction of constitutional personhood rights to the highest bidders. We're the majority, we're the citizens, we're the voters, we're the people, and we want our democracy back.