Businesses occupy a unique place in contemporary America. “Corporations are people!” Mitt Romney famously cried out during the 2012 Presidential campaign, illustrating a continued history of the US government’s protection of corporate personhood. What does that even mean?
It’s meant different things to varying degrees over the course of this nation’s history. Most recently, the Supreme Court ruled in its infamous Citizens United case that corporate political spending is protected as free speech, just like it is for an individual. That’s opened up the doors for the Super PACs, for the ridiculous amounts of money generated by wealthy donors.
Whatever, agree or disagree, that’s currently the law as it stands. Corporations are people, fine. So when I try to imagine most corporations as if they were individuals, why do I always picture them as huge jerks?
Maybe it’s because, time and again, I see businesses and the ethos of profit at all costs as being in the way of building a progressive society. In the debate leading up to Obamacare, we were warned that health care reform would be bad for business. When workers march for an increase in the minimum wage, we’re similarly told that higher pay would be too burdensome for job creators. Comprehensive maternity leave, flexible scheduling, more overtime pay, the answer is always the same: no, this is a business, we’re not in business to make life easier for our employees, we’re in business to make money.
And, with a few notable exceptions, that’s how business is done in this country. Unless the government mandates a certain wage or specific benefits, businesses in this country are hardwired to give their employees exactly the bare minimum. Because why not? They’re not beholden to their employees, they only owe their shareholders a documented increase in profits. If that means staffing a mostly part-time workforce with inflexible schedules to deter protected overtime, then that’s what they’re going to do to make sure they don’t have to shell out more money on the workforce.
My thing is, why does this have to be how businesses are run? Costco famously pays its employees a high hourly wage, and they’re a successful business. CVS recently said no thanks to its two billions dollar a year profits when they stopped selling cigarettes. Starbucks gives its employees free access to online universities. Say what you want for or against any of these examples, I’m just trying to point out that there doesn’t have to be only one way to run a business.
Because, and let’s get back to corporate personhood here for a minute, if businesses are people, what does that say about the kind of persons we value in society? Do we want people to grow up valuing money and profit over all else? Do we want individuals who look to exploit their surroundings for maximum personal gain? Do we want people that consolidate their wealth and power and use it to manipulate the rules for their advantage?
Maybe I’m being a little simplistic here, but that kind of a person sounds like a huge jerk. If corporations really are people, maybe we should be reevaluating what it means to be a good person, and apply some of that to the business world. Do successful people really march through life narrowly focused on making a profit? I guess it depends on your definition of success.
But I see how the profit-first mentality exists in the corporate world, and I see how it’s sort of accepted, sometimes celebrated even, as the foundation of all that’s good in America. When complaints arise over tiered pricing at amusement parks, or the discrepancies in airplane seating, or when families lament the exorbitant costs of simple pleasures like movie passes or tickets to see professional sports, the response is always as swift as it is uniform: this is a business. Businesses aren’t looking to give you cheaper seats. Businesses aren’t in business to make your flight more comfortable. Businesses are out to make money. Period.
Again, if businesses are people, that type of a person sounds like a jerk. And that’s just business as usual. What’s the solution? I don’t know. Probably some sort of governmental regulation, some type of legislation that forces businesses to give up more of what they want to keep to themselves. But wouldn’t it be nice if more corporations were in the business of looking out for more than just themselves? Wouldn’t it be great if governments didn’t have to force companies to pay their staffs a decent wage?
More importantly, when you have someone like Mitt Romney or Donald Trump or any of the 2016 Republican hopefuls running for President, and you hear them throw around loaded terms about job creators and job killers, what does it mean when people on the right say that the government should be run more like a business? What kind of business?
Do we want the government to be in the business of trying to maximize its profits? If so, why is it always public institutions that lose funding? Or public sector unions that lose their lucrative contracts? Where is the country’s money being spent? Why are trains more expensive yet the service is underfunded? Why does the government subsidize certain industries while letting other sectors of society languish in poverty?
I could go on all day. All I’m saying is, individuals are more than just self-interested moneymakers, even if they think they’re not. People live in communities, they owe their existence and prosperity to the mutual benefit of everyone. If corporations are people, they owe a debt to their communities greater than the relentless pursuit of profit. Because it’s not working. The inequality in this country is too high. The disparity of wealth, of opportunity, it’s too much. It’s not enough that our businesses act like people, they’ve got to act like good people.