Corporatist Dawn

I remember how I felt when the media announced the fait accompli that W would be the next president. Twice. This is worse.

I knew W’s presidency would be bad to live through, but with one abstract exception, I didn’t expect this one bad man and his handlers to have too sweeping an effect on my eventual grandchildren. He was obviously dangerous, as he had begun his first campaign by announcing that his mere being would restore honor to America and the office simply through the act of being sworn in as President. While we knew more or less what he would begin to do, his gang was clearly too incompetent to do much more more than a generation’s worth of damage to the planet, the people on it, and their economic and cultural civilization. All are resilient. The greatest lasting danger would be from his effect on the Supreme Court, but there was no way to tell exactly how that would play out. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

The morning of 9/11 was a moment to remember, as was the news of my company’s layoffs that I heard sitting at the same desk later that year. I remember crying when I heard about the engineer that kept the radio working at the top of the tower, and who went down with the building, and the same for those who lived through their posts in flooding pump houses in New Orleans. I was concerned for my best friend and family, who lived and worked in Manhattan, and later creeped out when I found another friend (his college girlfriend) had inexplicably stayed in bed that day rather than taking her scheduled weekly flight from NY to LA. These were affecting, but my feelings on such occasions were things that my grandchildren wouldn’t know for themselves until I would tell them the story.

My best friend is a great guy. Fun and funny, generous, caring and modest, smart as heck and talented.
The wedding guests in New Jersey’s most expensive country club all thought it was ironic when I toasted the groom as having been voted “Most Brain-damaged Freshman”. He was soon to be the youngest director at an investment bank on a meteoric rise. He was responsible for all the infrastructure that enabled a new kind of highly successful financial instrument — mortgage-backed securities. Sixteen years later, when the failed bank was bailed out by us all and then bought by one of the world’s biggest banks, he didn’t lose his job. He was promoted to be an even bigger exec at the new bank.

To me, he’s not a faceless monster. He’s my friend and I love him. His kids are brilliant and deserve to go to the best school in the city. He gives to charity. He vacations around the world — even brought me on a trip for my birthday. Living in Manhattan, he’s got two Ferarri, and he races one of them.

You see, a lot of investments aren’t performing well enough right now. There’s still a heck of a lot of money coming in, and it’s gotta go somewhere, so might as well spend it. Same thing, on a much bigger scale, for his bank. The bank is bigger than most countries. It may well be a monster: In my cable-company-like dealings with it, it certainly hasn’t treated me with anything like the dignity and respect with which my friend treats people.

This morning the media told me that the Supreme Court had overnight done away with a hundred years of precedent, and allowed corporations to fund political campaigns. They can’t be jailed, they operate in whatever country they approve of, run their own armies, and each corporation’s stated single responsibility is to accumulate power for itself. As of this morning, any one of them alone wields more political cash than can be raised by the entire voter majority combined. My best friend and his handlers are now running the planet. Remember the part in the first Terminator where it is explained that after being let loose, it only took the machines a millisecond to decide humanity’s fate? My eventual grandkids are going to know how I feel this morning, because they will live their entire lives in the corporatist world that begins today.

Also this morning, my wife received a chain joke emailed by her well-loved mother. It was in the form of a letter from a company owner announcing hard times. Distraught over how to choose who would be laid off, the owner went to the company parking lot and gave pink slips to those who had Obama campaign stickers. Funny, no? Here’s the thing: my wife’s parents just laid off a lot of people from their own company, and there’s no ambiguity about their own political views.

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.


  1. Howard, I think I see what you’re saying. Advertisements can change people’s perceptions, and big money advertisements can make bigger impressions.

    But I don’t understand the concern about corporations. If you and I wanted to pool our money and buy an ad, why should we be denied that freedom of speech just because we’re united as a group? To single out a group for fewer rights… that sounds like discrimination to me.

  2. Howard,

    I agree with you. But I think you let your friend off the hook too easily. (I have a brother who pretty much matches the description of your friend. I let him off the hook too, I guess. But I don’t make excuses for him.)

    Yes, this is part of Bush’s awful legacy. And yes, it’s about the destruction of government of the people, by the people, for the people.

    Perhaps I’ll add more when I’ve processed it a little more. But that’s all I’ve got for now.

  3. Thanks, both.

    Ken, before the decision, you and I could put our money and talent together to form a group, such as a PAC. Our purpose, actions, and money would be subject to public review. There are no such restrictions for you and I individually, as long as we keep our contributions small enough. With this ruling, a very small number of individuals have comparatively unlimited power. I believe there are corporations whose smallest annual report line-item is bigger than all the PACs put together. Freedom from discrimination does not mean that there are no controls on anyone or anything. Discrimination is having unequal freedoms or limits on people. The ruling gives orders of magnitude more freedom for action by my friend than for me. Nor is this radical, activist decision about free enterprise — it is about closed enterprise for only the most massive.

    John, I think I think we are too soft on our loved ones. I couldn’t even bring myself to tell my mother-in-law any of the many ways in which her letter was a bad choice. If we cannot bring ourselves to tell them they are being an ass, what voice of conscience do we imagine is whispering in the ear of the faceless few behind the board room door?

  4. If corporations are “people” how do you feel about the death penalty for wrongdoers?

  5. I think the Second Amendment for corporations next. All corporations should have a personal right to bear arms.

  6. And if corporations are people, why won’t they have the same caps as other people? If they aren’t capped the same way as people, why not just let them vote directly, and similarly disproportionately to other individuals?

    The silliness goes on, and quite deep.

    As I understand it, the concept of corporations is an urban legend come true. The original (defamation?) case did find for the corporation, but a reporter could not understand from the written description what precedent or governmental philosophy it was based on. (I’d love to follow the money on that one!) The decision never said anything about corporations being like people, but the reporter made it up in an effort to explain. It caught on, and was often cited by other writers as though it were actual legal precedent. I gather that eventually, even lawyers and judges cited the concept so that now maybe it really is a kind of legal precedent for ad hoc use.

    The constitution, as amended, specifies rights for people – specifically for adult citizens. Many people, including me, feel that other things should be protected as well, such as cats, mountains, or companies. I own some of these. But not everyone agrees on whether or how much such non-people should be protected, and it changes over time. We arrive at rules on such things by political means, not by our constitution. Indeed, the politics get very messy when we try to determine how to weigh rights of one people versus another, or how to expand the scope of protections to such as foreigners, criminals, children, and potential children. With one huge exception, the constitution has always stayed away from prescribing rights for anything that couldn’t vote or which could be owned or directly controlled by voters. But we amended that costly mistake in 1865.

    But this is a first. We have actions of congress in which representatives have explicitly concluded that the rights of real voting citizens are not served by corporate funding of campaigns. The court has now explicitly disregarded that. We have a hundred years of legal decisions that do give many protections for corporations, but which confirm limits on that protection in accordance with a stature of not being a constitutionally protected entity. The court has now explicitly disregarded that, too. I should say, the sub-court, as the decision was made entirely by five men appointed by one family — in two cases as a Bush was Vice President at the end of an aging President’s term. This from a family that despite common perceptions, made its fortune on Wall Street and which has through three generations persistently abandoned it’s public political philosophies of the time to make behind-the-scenes deals to expand its own pockets with public money. What is the political philosophy by which these five have set aside congress and the constitution and precedent? It’s unexplainable. In the vacuum, reporters are going to throw in the same old nonsense about corporations being people.

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