Mitt Romney got a lot of press for telling a heckler at the Iowa State Fair that "corporations are people." He did not go on to sing that Patti Smith song, "People Have the Power."
But corporate "people" certainly do. Their power was on display this week, both in Washington and among the Republicans campaigning for the nomination.
Here's Romney's quote in context:
"Corporations are people, my friend... of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to the people. Where do you think it goes? Whose pockets? Whose pockets? People's pockets. Human beings my friend."
There's an interesting parsing of language going on here. Corporate money does eventually go into some people's pockets, of course, but Romney said "everything corporations earn ultimately goes to the people." "The people" is a phrase that refers to everyone -- the citizenry, the polis, the masses... Romney's implying that corporate earnings go to all of us. The truth is that executive compensation has never been greater when it's compared to worker pay or average family incomes. That's one reason why we've been experiencing a massive transfer of wealth from the bottom 90 percent of Americans to the top 1 percent.
But that's not the sort of thing you want to say at a state fair, is it? In that setting it's better to speak of corporations as "people" -- or, if you prefer, as "jes' folks."
But if they're people, why don't you ever see them at state fairs? After all, people love fairs, so why don't they ever go? And when they do go to the fair, shouldn't they be allowed to participate in fun events along with all us other people? Halliburton should be able to swing that big mallet and make the bell ring. Exxon Mobil should be able to enter the 4H drawing and win a side of beef. And Blackwater should be able to shoot the popup prairie dog and win a stuffed animal for its date.
And if you don't feel that way, Mitt Romney's implying you're a bigot. You think some people are better than others. You don't want to be a bigot, do you?
Power to the People
Funny thing is, Romney's questioner wasn't asking him about corporate personhood. He was asking why Romney wants to cut Social Security while preserving corporate tax breaks. It seemed as if Romney had already memorized this little speech and was looking for a chance to trot it out. He probably had.
Here's the paradox in this whole concept of "corporate personhood." When it comes to rights, Republicans say corporations are people. But when it comes to the responsibilities of personhood -- like paying taxes, being sued for negligence or criminal manslaughter, that sort of thing -- their response is "Are you crazy? We're talking about corporations here, not people."
The right-wing radicals on the Supreme Court demonstrated this definitional two-step beautifully at the end of the Court's last term. In a pair of decisions that received very little attention, they managed to allow pharmaceutical companies the rights of personhood without the responsibilities. In Sorrell vs. IMS Health, the Court ruled that states couldn't stop drug companies from collecting prescription patterns for individual physicians and then using that data to encourage them to use more expensive drugs. Corporations are people, after all, and that's infringing on their freedom of speech.
But in a second decision, Pliva v. Mensing, the Court ruled that manufacturers of generic drugs had no obligation to tell people about the adverse reactions other people have had to the drug they're selling. If the brand-name manufacturers didn't tell people about those reactions, then the Court said the generic manufacturers don't have to either -- even if they know those reactions could lead to death, or to terrible reactions like tardive dyskinesia.
Corporations are the kind of people who get to say whatever they want to whomever they want -- unless they don't want to say anything. People like you and me might not be allowed to collect data on our neighbors and then use it to sell them stuff. And people like you and me would get our butts sued if we sold you something we knew could hurt or kill you. But apparently some people are more equal than others.
Adverse drug reactions cost an estimated $177 billion per year in 2000, according to a well-researched study. Because of medical inflation, that figure is much higher now. It's higher, in fact, than the total cost of cardiac care or diabetic care. Drug reactions also cause one out of every five injuries or deaths to patients who are in the hospital. You'd think there would be an obligation to disclose any information that could reduce those figures and save lives.