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Unequal Protection: How Corporations Became "People" - And How You Can… (edition 2010)

by Thom Hartmann

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172568,635 (3.78)6
Member:Schmerguls
Title:Unequal Protection: How Corporations Became "People" - And How You Can Fight Back
Authors:Thom Hartmann
Info:Berrett-Koehler Publishers (2010), Edition: 2nd, Paperback, 360 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***
Tags:politics, corporations

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Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights by Thom Hartmann

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This is really a 2.5er, given the deeply unengaging writing style that Hartmann employs, but I rounded up given the importance of the topic. The content is surprisingly boring most of the time, and only infrequently great. Highlights are the discussion of the history of the 1886 Santa Clara decision and its implications, the background of how the Founders felt about corporations and the great lengths they went to in order to restrict their power, the chapter on the 2000 election, and the brief discussion at the end about changing local laws.

Unfortunately, much of the rest of the book was tedious, including endless documentation of corporate abuse, liberal block quotes of dozens of sources that gave the impression at times that Hartmann was using others' words more than his own, and a lot of repetition of the ways our democracy is suffering and how we need to remake a government "of the people" and "for the people." Perhaps a lot of this information seemed facile to me just because I've already read a lot on the subject (although I don't really believe that I'm necessarily better-read than the average anti-corporate crusader). But regardless, here I encountered a lot of tedious cataloguing of facts rather than the concrete action steps I had hoped to find.

For instance, after the ground-breaking revelation that the 1886 Supreme Court decision in no way, shape or form granted corporations personhood and protection under the 14th amendment, it would have been very useful to engage in a deep exploration of how this information might be used to overturn decades of court rulings. Instead, Hartmann cites a couple of lawyer acquaintances over the course of 2-3 pages and then moves on to documenting the history of our statesmen's attitudes toward corporations. Perhaps I'm misunderstanding or overestimating the importance of this information, but it does seem to be a rather significant point that should drastically color the entire debate over corporate rights, does it not?

Why isn't anyone doing anything about this? Why isn't Hartmann discussing why nobody is doing anything about it? In the course of writing this book, why didn't Hartmann try to contact important people who could explain why nothing was being done about it? Or if he did contact them, why didn't he write about it? Basically, it seems like Hartmann, after performing an impressive piece of investigative journalism, sort of stops right when he gets to the big reveal. It makes me think one of two things: either he's not telling us everything about this revelation and it's not as truly impressive and earth-shattering as he implies just pages before, or. . . I don't know, he's incompetent? I mean what's going on here?

Then again, at the end, the section on "Restoring Personhood to People" consists of only one solid, concrete idea (imploring local government to pass anti-corporate legislation with the hopes of taking a challenge up the judiciary chain). The rest of the nearly-50 pages is just daydreaming and repetition, to put it bluntly. People who are reading this book are ready to act, but Hartmann gives us precious little idea of what to do. I hesitate to bring it up because it's quite antagonistic in tone, but something like Derrick Jensen's [b:Endgame, Vol. 2: Resistance|60975|Endgame, Vol. 2 Resistance|Derrick Jensen|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348655934s/60975.jpg|59303] is much more satisfying on this level.

Those are the major issues I have with it. A minor complaint concerns Hartmann's organization, which seems sort of slipshod. Not only did he continue to bring up issues in later sections that he seemed to have already touched on, say, in the part about our Founders, but neither could I detect a coherent order within the chapters themselves, or at least nothing intuitive. I don't remember encountering this problem with Hartmann when I read [b:The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight: The Fate of the World and What We Can Do Before It's Too Late|2127|The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight The Fate of the World and What We Can Do Before It's Too Late|Thom Hartmann|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347578366s/2127.jpg|512882], but it was long ago so maybe I just wasn't aware at the time.

Ultimately, the book is pertinent and contains some very important information. It just seems a little superficial, at least in the places that count (i.e., it's definitely not superficial in the amount of corporate abuse that it catalogues, or the multiple sources that it quotes). I think it would be best appreciated by people who have not been exposed to a lot of literature on the topic, because then the whole thing would be sort of mind-blowing. For a more jaded reader it's only about a quarter to a third mind-blowing.

Ironically, my favorite single passage in the book was written by someone else and serves as the epigraph to Ch. 26 (a 1933 dissent by S.C. Justice Brandeis). It summarizes rather poetically not only the book's theme, but my own feelings on the matter: The prevalence of the corporation in America has led men of this generation to act, at times, as if the privilege of doing business in corporate form were inherent in the citizen; and has led them to accept the evils attendant upon the free and unrestricted use of the corporate mechanism as if these evils were the inescapable price of civilized life, and, hence, to be borne with resignation.

Throughout the greater part of our history a different view prevailed.

Although the value of this instrumentality in commerce and industry was fully recognized, incorporation for business was commonly denied long after it had been freely granted for religious, educational, and charitable purposes.

It was denied because of fear. Fear of encroachment upon the liberties and opportunities of the individual. Fear of the subjection of labor to capital. Fear of monopoly. Fear that the absorption of capital by corporations, and their perpetual life, might bring evils similar to those which attended [immortality]. There was a sense of some insidious menace inherent in large aggregations of capital, particularly when held by corporations.
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And that fear has undoubtedly been realized. ( )
  blake.rosser | Jul 28, 2013 |


Introduction


…..HISTORY!
……..DRAMA!
……..….RELEVANCE!

What more could you possibly ask of nonfiction?
This book knocked my socks off. In fact, as I was reading, I was thinking: "This is an amazing book; how can I get more people to read it?" So I decided to make an offer... sort of a "put my money where my mouth is" gesture. If I think the book is that great, why don't I buy it for people? Here's what I posted on 28 March:
======================================

I will buy a copy of this book for anybody currently (i.e. as of 03/28/2011) on my GR friends list who agrees to completely read it, and write a review of it on GoodReads within 1 year. Write whatever you want- no interference from me- promise. This is serious. Offer expires 28 April 2011.

UPDATES:
Natalie has taken me up on my offer. Look for her review! :)
Laura will read and review this too! Look for her review!
MyFleshSingsOut is on-board! Eager to see what he has to say!
Kat Kennedy has taken me up on my offer! We're going international!
Jennifer (aka EM) is in on the challenge!
Stephen's review here!
BeLL-Z started reading this before I did, BTW!
Lisa's review here!
Kathy's review here!
Jakob brings Iceland into the mix!
Sara is the latest person to accept my offer! Look for her review!
Jason is with us! This is awesome!
Reese has joined our ranks!
Miriam's review- coming soon to a webpage near you!
Werner has officially joined the fray!
Jen has signed up for the challenge!
Natalie is taking part- look for her review!
Brad's copy is in the mail! Look for his review!
Conrad has joined our ranks- welcome!
Jen has entered the building!
Cwn_annwn_13 has joined the group- look for his review!
Rusty Shackleford has accepted my offer- watch for his review!
Nick Black just hopped aboard!
Whitaker's review here!
Meredith's review here!
Manny's review here!
Ian's review here!
=========================================

The response has been more robust than I expected, and I am giddy with anticipation to read the reviews that will follow. (Whatever their contents may be; any serious discussion is welcome.) I wasn't sure whether I should post a review here or not. I don't want to unduly influence anybody... But I don't think I will. Experience has shown that GoodReaders generally aren't shy about their opinions, and that's what I love about them.

So for what it's worth, here's my review:
.
.
.
For all of recorded time (and a good portion beforehand), mankind has been the dominant species on this planet. That’s so fundamental to our view of things, it’s even written into some of our religious texts.

“…And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”
-Genesis1:26Well, there’s a new creepy crawler on the planet, and mankind’s days of dominion are gone. We now share preeminence with a species of our own creation: corporations. And just like happened when the Cane toad came to Australia, the newly-introduced creature is ravaging the old order, playing havoc with the environment, and out-competing the native breed (i.e. you and I).

Do you think I’m overstating things?

This is the story, painful and improbable, of corporate personhood, as expertly told by talk radio host and former CEO, Thomas Hartmann. If you’ve never heard that term before, corporate personhood is a legal principle which holds that incorporated businesses are the same as people, in the eyes of the law. As such, companies have a claim on the same inalienable human rights as you and I do.

Think about that for a second. When I first heard about this, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The American government is supposedly a government by and for The People… but now I'm supposed to believe “The People” includes corporations? That’s quite a stretch for the imagination, and it flies in the face of high school Civics class (if such instruction even exists anymore). Who believes our forefathers spilled blood on the field of battle so a corporation could enjoy its inalienable right to worship God, according to a tradition of its choosing? Yeah, that's what I thought. Ridiculous.

This subject is a legal and philosophical morass, and as such, I would expect a lot of readers‘ eyes to glaze over, right about now. Here’s the shocker: Thomas Hartman lights this subject on fire! He does such a fantastic job ferreting out the causes, and demonstrating the significance of it all, I was burning through Unequal Protection like it was the latest YA Harry Potter zombie sex mystery! That isn't to say the book is overly dramatic. Hartmann is in fact very evenhanded in his presentation, showing how corporate personhood is the unintended consequence of a collision of ideas. So what were those ideas, and how did they collide?

(A.) Corporations are people
WTF?? Did I just say that corporations are people? That defies all common sense, doesn’t it? Corporations are institutions. They’re run by people- human men and women, working together to achieve a goal (usually to make a profit), but they aren’t themselves actually people! Sorry- this is one of those instances where the legal definition doesn’t fit the common sense definition. In a way, it's too bad businesses aren't people. Consider:
- businesses don't get drafted into military service
- businesses don't go to prison
- businesses don't have to worry about what kind of world they will leave their children
- businesses don't get sentenced to lethal injection, or electrocution
- businesses don't breathe the air, or drink the water they pollute

If they did, they might behave better, but alas, they don't feel the risks or vulnerabilities that human citizens do. Before anybody gets all upset that I'm painting corporations as evil, I'm not. No more than sharks are evil. Sharks are single-minded predators who serve a useful function in the food chain. Corporations are single-minded profit-making entities. They are human inventions, designed to serve a useful function for humans. When the law is turned on its head to make people serve corporations, you know something has upset the natural order.

So how did the "legal fiction" of corporate personhood ever come to be?

The answer to that lay 400 years in the past, with the founding of the British East India Company (BEIC) in December of 1600. It was arguably the world’s first modern, multinational corporation.

Before BEIC, most businesses were small concerns owned by individuals, families or partnerships of a few people. Businesses themselves didn’t own property; their property was merely the personal property of the business owner. It worked out fine, so long as commerce was conducted on a small scale. Things got more complicated when Britain acquired colonies in India, China and North America. British merchants were making a killing in the import/export business, which attracted the attention of Queen Elizabeth I (QE1) and some related nobility. She wanted to get in on the profits, and she wanted to operate on a large scale… maintaining a dedicated fleet of ships, port facilities, warehouses and a large staff of employees. Keeping track of which of these belonged to her, and which to her partners, and how much each item contributed to the overall profit was going to be a logistical nightmare. The solution was to say that the entire operation was an entity unto itself, which all the investors owned shares in, which could then be bought, sold and traded. Thus read the “Articles of Incorporation” for the British East India Company. The crown had just created a new power for itself: the right to charter corporations. Take a look at that word for a minute. It has the Latin root “corp” in it, from “corpus” which means “body” (as in corporal punishment, etc). The wording is intentional. By the letter of the law, corporations are fictitious people recognized by the crown for the purposes of owning property, transacting business, and performing administrative and legal functions. It’s a very efficient way to conduct business on a large scale. It certainly solved the BEIC's logistical problems. In fact, the BEIC is one of the all-time most profitable businesses in human history. Once it got its fingers into markets around the world, it became an aggressive competetor with small merchants, particularly in Britain’s North American colonies. Hartmann shows how BEIC abuses inflicted on colonial merchants were the driving force behind the Declaration of Independence, and eventually the Revolutionary War. His narration through this part of the book is masterful. I had never heard American history framed in this context, but it checks out, and makes perfect sense. It’s a bit painful to read at 42, knowing that in a better world, my public school education would have filled me in on this stuff decades earlier. Better late than never.

You can savor the details on your own. What we’ve got so far are corporations as artificial people. Think of them as golems (or andats, if I correctly understand Eh!'s review of A Shadow in Summer); we breathe life into them, and they roam the Earth, doing our bidding… or not.

(B.) As “people”, corporations deserve the same rights and protections as you and I
Jump ahead eighty years from the Revolutionary War to the American Civil War. The Union had been preserved, and the slaves had been emancipated. To protect the former slaves from discriminatory practices, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment. Essentially it states that all people shall enjoy equal protections under the law. (you lawyers and law students out there can feel free to help me refine this paraphrasing, but it’s something thereabouts) In any case, the intent was to make our society more equitable for all; to do away with the legacy of slavery and all its attendant injustices. I think it is safe to say the Fourteenth Amendment was not written to improve the lot of corporations… but that’s one of its unintended consequences. In truth, courts have heard more Fourteenth Ammendment cases from corporations asserting their personhood rights than from former slaves seeking equal protection under the law. A few practical sequellae of this (and there are a ton, but I'll just list a few examples) include:
- corporations can't be taxed differently from humans
- attempts to limit corporate campaign contributions are construed as "interfering" with their "right" to political expression
- when regulatory agencies show up unannounced at factories for the purposes of inspection (e.g. to assess compliance with pollution or worker safety standards), this is taken as a breach of privacy, the same as if that government agency showed up at your house, demanding access.

How did things get so out of hand? It wasn't like this at first. For the first twenty years after the Fourteenth Ammendment passed, judges did not interpret the law this way. Unlike most citizens, however, corporations had the resources to keep trying… to keep litigating every case they could (sometimes over matters of just a few dollars)… looking for that one favorable decision they could use ever-after as a legal precedent to rule in their favor. In this sense, the justice system is not an even playing field. Having the resources to keep litigating counts in one's favor. Obviously, only the very wealthiest human beings can afford to keep hammering away at the system until they get their way. For companies though, that is the normal gameplan. Corporate lawyers got the ruling they wanted in 1886. The case was Southern Pacific Railroads v. Santa Clara County, CA

What exactly happened with this case is unclear. The judges did not rule in favor of corporate personhood, but a court recorder made it seem like they did, and that was good enough to secure future rulings. [ASIDE]At this point, let me call on some of the legal professionals out there: does this seem plausible? …that a misunderstood ruling could still set a precedent the rest of us would have to live with? If I had the standing, couldn’t I bring a case challenging the idea of corporate personhood, and citing the actual ruling of Southern Pacific Railroads v. Santa Clara County, CA as my basis?
What Hartmann describes here is an ugly pattern we see oft repeated: corporations never have to take "no" for an answer. If they are defeated in court, they just keep coming back, undeterred, like zombie hordes. I guess the rest of us can just put our hands on this frosted glass window and wonder what happened to a government by the People, for the People...



The last hundred years have been an almost uninterrupted string of courtroom victories for corporate personhood, so by the time we get to present day, things sound pretty bleak. We're in the part of the movie now where there's just a nucleas of main characters left, trapped in the last safe building. The zombies outside are everywhere, and they've started to find their way through the remaining fortifications.

Present Day
I'll be honest. This part is difficult to review, because it splits off in a hundred different directions, every one of which is fascinating, but there's too much to try to summarize here. Hartmann cites example after example of corporations exploiting their personhood to dodge taxes, to bully people who oppose them, to avoid (costly) improvements which would make factories safer or reduce pollution, and to suppress wages. Any one of these tangents opens up into a larger topic worthy of exploration. The wage suppression, for example, is a great introduction into how the World Trade Organization (WTO) forces workers in the developed world to compete with political prisoners in China, and child labor in Indonesia... while also keeping consumers ignorant about the contents of many imported items (e.g. lead in painted objects, genetically-modified food products, etc) These things will make your blood boil, if you let them. As I keep saying, consumers and workers increasingly find themselves on the underside of a political and economic system that purports to serve them. I was particularly irritated to read how corporations have passionately defended their own personhood on one hand, but have successfully litigated to prevent trade unions from obtaining similar status. For the record, I'm not in favor of recognizing any institution as a person, but the boldfaced hypocrisy of this is outrageous nonetheless. That leads well into my final thoughts on corporate personhood: that it has made a complete mockery of our legal system... a malignant joke that continues to ravage peoples' lives.

You Got the Power!
If the book ended there, readers would be left feeling helpless and enraged. Fortunately, Hartman outlines ways people can turn things around, both as consumers and as voters. Forget about changing Washington; meaningful change comes from the local level: in you local government, and in the stores where you shop. That's important to realize, because it will save activists a lot of wasted time and effort. This is part of the hidden appeal of Unequal Protection. Grass roots stuff always feels so petty ante, but the broad base of society doesn't live in Washington D.C. "All politics is local", as they say.

Read this book. It is wonderful.
Get involved. Not for my sake, but for your own.

-Good Luck!

UPDATE: BREAKING NEWS! This just in! ( )
  BirdBrian | Apr 2, 2013 |
This is an impassioned book by an author who is apparently big in talk radio, though, since I don't listen to talk radio, I have never heard of him.. He says that the Supreme Court Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific did not say that corporations were people and he is right about that since the headnote to the case has not basis in the opinion of the Court/The author says a lot of tru things in the book. He is not a lawyer, and sometimes his coimments are a bit jumbled, but in general he makes sense. ( )
  Schmerguls | Jan 13, 2013 |
After a run of quality (and not so quality) brain candy books, I turn my attention back to serious and sobering reading with Hartman's political essay of how corporations came to be defined as persons and gained the rights protected for humans in our constitution and laws. Hartman traces the history back to the East India Company and the colonial rebellion against unfair advantages granted to that corporation by the crown (the Boston Tea Party). Hartman then traces the story of the benchmark Santa Clara case which is cited as granting personhood to corporations and thus protection under the 14th Amendment. Hartman proves that is all a horrible - albeit well-calculated - mistake. Next, the author shows the incredible disadvantage humans have when corporations are granted full protection under human rights. Hartman also provides many ideas and examples of what can be done to change the situation as it today and restore the full ideals of democracy.

"In the early 1990's, Paul Hawken, author of Ecology of Commerce, found data indicating that the nation's corporations were net consumers, rather than producers of tax monies." p. 178-9

"I care not how affluent some may be, provided that none be miserable in consequence of it." Thomas Paine, p. 201

"In a free trade world dominated by corporate values instead of human values, social stability is not a consideration unless or until it affects profits. This is the lesson of unequal values. And when a country becomes socially unstable, rather than working to restore the stability of the nation, multinationals simply leave town and go somewhere else, as Asian nations learned in the 1990s and Argentina learned in 2002.

This is not a new model, by the way. It's how the East India Company treated India, the early American colonies, and numerous smaller countries they considered its property. It reflects the mentality no of communities but of pirates, a mentality that gives birth to phrases like 'corporate raider.'" - p. 217 ( )
  Othemts | Jun 25, 2008 |
Gives a concise description of how corporations obtained their protection under the same amendment written to "Free the Slaves"; In this case the authorship of a Supreme Court decision is "trumped" by the clerk's authorship of its heading. It was mistaken, but through the persistence of corporate attorneys and their (harangueing?), it was accepted as truth. ( )
  RustBelt | May 29, 2008 |
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Synopsis: Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights. Was the Boston Tea Party the first WTO-style protest against transnational corporations? Did Supreme Court sell out America's citizens in the nineteenth century, with consequences lasting to this day? Is there a way for American citizens to recover democracy of, by, and for the people? Thom Hartmann takes on these most difficult questions and tells a startling story that will forever change your understanding of American history. He begins by uncovering an original eyewitness account of the Boston Tea Party and demonstrates that it was provoked not by "taxation without representation" as is commonly suggested but by the specific actions of the East India Company, which represented the commercial interests of the British elite. Hartmann then describes the history of the Fourteenth Amendment created at the end of the Civil War to grant basic rights to freed slaves and how it has been used by lawyers representing corporate interests to extend additional rights to businesses far more frequently than to freed slaves. Prior to 1886, corporations were referred to in U S law as "artificial persons" but in 1886, after a series of cases brought by lawyers representing the expanding railroad interests, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations were "persons" and entitled to the same rights granted to people under the Bill of Rights. Since this ruling, America has lost the legal structures that allowed for people to control corporate behavior. As a result, the largest transnational corporations fill a role today that has historically been filled by kings. They control most of the world's wealth and exert power over the lives of most of the world's citizens. Their CEOs are unapproachable and live lives of nearly unimaginable wealth and luxury. They've become the rudder that steers the ship of much human experience, and they're steering it by their prime value-growth and profit and any expense-a value that has become destructive for life on Earth. This new feudalism was not what our Founders-Federalists and Democratic Republicans alike-envisioned for America. It's time for "we, the people" to take back our lives. Hartmann proposes specific legal remedies that could truly save the world from political, economic, and ecological disaster.… (more)

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