The world just got some really bad news. It has cancer. On March 18th, reports of a new global sustainability study, that reads more like a doomsday report, hit the news cycle. The study, conducted in part with NASA’s Godard Space Center, concluded that we’re looking at about fifteen years before the total collapse of civilization. 15 years. (Yeah. Total bummer.) The earth has a slow form of cancer. The worst kind: people.
Obviously, the brains over at NASA can’t spy our future like it was some distant galaxy. They’re smart people, but they don’t know what’s coming next. However, for them to come out and say we have fifteen years until the total collapse of civilization is a pretty dire and bleak statement. It’s not an “Oh shit, my house is on fire” sort of an emergency, but it is a serious warning. Don’t get it twisted. I’m not suggesting you panic. And really, where would you go? Our whole planet is doomed, not just your neighborhood.
Other than the “total collapse of civilization” part, the most interesting part of the study’s finding was how NASA pinned the tail of blame for our doomed world on corporations and the super-rich. That’s the real news we should be talking about.
If you scratch an astrophysicist, you know what you find? A mathematician. The super-geeks over at NASA did the math and they found that corporations and the super-rich are terrible managers of a planet, especially, a planet of limited resources bound together by a dynamic balance. It turns out that letting corporations and the super-rich run the world was like the worst idea we ever had. No, like, seriously. The. Worst. Idea. Ever. We would’ve done better if we let New York cabdrivers and Chicago bartenders take turns running the world. So yeah, shit’s fucked up. And now, thanks to NASA and this handful of researchers we know whose fault it is.
These days, all around the world there is a sea of rising anger. At the moment, it’s not one unified global protest. There are lots of independent movements, but they all have one thing in common, they’re uniting the young and old, the professional and domestic, student and teacher, and they’re banding together against global corruption, the dangerous wealth inequalities that strangle economies, and all the other environment-ruining, society-eroding, effects of the greed of corporations and the super-rich.
The people already out marching in the streets apparently didn’t need NASA to tell them who’s to blame for the state of the world. They’re anger and fury is aimed at corporations for ruining their futures. They spit invective at those brand names we all know. I have activist friends who talk about some corporations like rapists, thieves and murderers. And I get why they feel that way. But to the folks who hate that the NSA is cuddle-cozy with Google-Apple-Facebook, to those of you who curse Monsanto and ADM, to those who despise Exxon-Mobil and BP, and to my faves the anarchists who flip angry fingers at Chase and dream of fire-bombing branches of Bank of America, to all of you, I say:
Stop hating corporations … it just makes you look silly.
You are focusing on the rabbit and not the magician.
You can’t hate a corporation. Unlike a politician, it doesn’t really exist.
Stop hating make-believe things.
(How much do you respect some idiot who tells you he’s protesting Klingons? You see my point?)
If you want to hate someone, hate the stockholders, hate the board-members (and if you have one, check your mutual fund statement, and make sure you don’t have to also hate yourself).
When I say corporations don’t really exist, I don’t mean they’re made up of nothingness. I mean they are 100% imaginary human constructions. Without us they would cease to exist, immediately and forever. A corporation is about as real as Santa Claus.
Even world-famous fuddy-duddy, Nobel winner and former head of the University of Chicago’s school of economics, Milton Friedman, the man that practically invented our modern economic reality, called corporations a “legal fiction.” As in, they are not real. He should know. He loved them. And if he wanted to spend his life making intellectual love to imaginary things, we should probably believe him when he says they’re not real.
If you’re the argumentative type, you might argue that a corporation’s headquarters exist. And yes, the building is real. But the corporation is the same sort of make-believe as ‘80s greed cheerleader, Gordon Gecko. It’s important we recognize corporations aren’t real, especially, since they’re ruining the planet for those of us who are real and live here.
A weird fact to consider: corporations aren’t real but they are U.S. citizens.
Typically, a citizen is a member of a democratic society who has full voting privileges. They’re franchised and invested in the democratic enterprise. They express their views and opinions with votes. They conduct fund-raising and engage in political action. Citizens were generally presumed to be oxygen-breathers. This is no longer the case.
In January of 2010, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in the landmark case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations have “personhood.” They’re not people exactly, but they are citizens, and thus, as this case determined, they have the same right of free speech any other American citizen enjoys. This is noteworthy because, although they may have fat wallets, corporations, despite their name, have no bodies. They can’t be killed. They don’t eat, breathe or sleep. They are clearly not living things. And as such, they don’t share the same values or concerns as other living things.
Let’s return to Milton Friedman to make sense of why that matters. In September of 1970, he wrote a very famous article in New York Times Magazine. The title was “The Social Responsibility of Business Is To Increase Profits.” That article shook up the world. He was like an economist with the swagger of a young Muhammad Ali. (Okay, not really. But notice that not only does Friedman plug his new book but he also quotes himself.)
“But the doctrine of ‘social responsibility’ taken seriously would extend the scope of the political mechanism to every human activity. It does not differ in philosophy from the most explicitly collective doctrine. It differs only by professing to believe that collectivist ends can be attained without collectivist means. That is why, in my book Capitalism and Freedom, I have called it a ‘fundamentally subversive doctrine’ in a free society, and have said that in such a society, ‘there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its proﬁts so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.’”
This argument states that a corporation’s only responsibility to society is to make a profit. That’s it. Over the ensuing decades, converts to Milton Friedman’s First Church of Perpetual Profits happily and easily adopted his mantra of “Profits! Always profits!” but you’ll notice they didn’t really balance that with his other advice of “staying within the rules of the game.” Modern prevailing business wisdom seems to think it’s not fraud until you get caught. In that same NYT Magazine article, Friedman defends his corporate ethos.
“What does it mean to say that ‘business’ has responsibilities? Only people can have responsibilities. A corporation is an artificial person and in this sense may have artificial responsibilities, but ‘business’ as a whole cannot be said to have responsibilities, even in this vague sense.”
So, in essence, corporations are citizens, but they’re not real. They’re “artificial persons” and thus we shouldn’t expect them to care about real concerns of real people. Got it? You should only expect a corporation to give a shit about any artificial responsibilities it may or may not have. (Hey, um, Milton … WTF is an “artificial responsibility?” Is that like a no-calorie responsibility and when you handle it, it doesn’t have any of the weight of a real responsibility? Whatever. Moving on.)
Let’s stick to the “artificial persons” part. What exactly does an “artificial person” care about? If corporations have no responsibility to give a shit about anything other than profits, what do we do if we have a crisis, such as the total collapse of civilization, looming in our very near future? Will these “artificial persons,” these profit-humping corporations, will they suddenly start caring about anything other than… you know what, I’m not even gonna finish that question.
When Milton Friedman first pronounced Thou Shalt Always Make A Profit as the holy law of corporations, there weren’t nearly the same number of trans-national and multi-national corporations in existence. Today we have a whole class of businesses that transcend national boundaries. They keep their headquarters in one country, their manufacturing is located in another country and they store their profits in a third “off-shore” country. These corporations represent the future shape of global business: trans-national umbrella corporations that penetrate into markets through smaller regional companies. So far, this model of profit-reaping has worked out really well for the “artificial persons.” Not so well for real folks like you.
Do you remember the end of the Wizard of Oz? [SPOILER ALERT] There’s the moment when Dorothy discovers that the Wizard of Oz and all his vast power is nothing more than a crafty little man behind a curtain, and he’s scared like hell that some bright girl like her will catch wise, and so, in his last desperate act, he demands that she “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”
This is the perfect analogy of our relationship to the modern corporation. They are the Wizard.
Rather than just one crafty devious magician rigging up displays of his incredible power it’s a clustered group of stockholders and board-members, all hiding behind that magic shower curtain. Corporations are designed to legally obscure people. The people that a corporation hides from view are, of course, the stockholders. Corporations create a wall where there was only air. They are a temporary way to conceal a person at a time they don’t want to be explicitly seen, like, when a person is voting to take profits and ignore social responsibility because, y’know, Milton Friedman.
What everyone overlooks with Milton Friedman’s economic advice is … a lot of people said all sorts of crazy shit back in the Seventies. And yes, some of them kept repeating that crazy shit well into the Eighties, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. This sort of thinking is why we still can’t get rid of Aerosmith. Sure, the Seventies seem like an interesting time. I love Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. But I’d hate for us to keep using products from the Seventies to run the world. What are we United Airlines?
Perhaps we need to remind our fellow citizens there are no corporations in the bible. Corporations haven’t been with us forever. It’s not like they came down from the mountain with Moses and he said, “Yo! Look at what I got! Some new laws and this really cool invisible shit God called corporations. He said we don’t need them now, but we’ll totally need them in the future … I don’t know. Was kinda hard to understand a burning bush!” No. That never happened. But we sure act like it did.
It’s important to keep fresh in our minds that corporations are a recent invention (created 170 years ago); and based on how they behave they don’t have plans of being around for that long. As we’ve seen with Lehman Brothers, Enron, and Worldcom, a billion dollar corporation can disappear in the blink of an eye, just vanish like a nightmare. They can lose power and prestige faster than the Wizard of Oz. Shit gets hectic when that magical shower curtain gets pulled back.
If I step into a Mom-and-Pop shop and ask, “Whose place is this?” The answer would be Mom and Pop. If I walk into Monsanto and ask, “Whose place is this?” the answer is much more complicated. Maybe Buzzfeed should do a quiz: Which Modern Robber Baron Are You? That would be a way for people to get to know some of the not-so-famous faces that control huge swaths of their life. Let’s drag the 1% out from the backroom into the light of day.
For every Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin and Elon Musk, those captivating media-savvy billionaires with lofty ambitions for what the world will be like tomorrow, there are plenty of other billionaires whose names you don’t know. Here’s a fun question: What’s the first name of either of the Koch Brothers? See what I mean? And they’re mentioned in the news all the damn time.
When you hate a corporation all you really hate is the magical legal shower curtain, an illusion. Now, if you shift your hate to the stockholders, the ones who own and operate the corporation, and especially, the board-members, if you hate those assholes … you’re still not doing anything to help our dire circumstances. You better not hate them either.
Why would I defend those profit-reapers? When you hate someone … how often do they listen to you? And, frankly, if you hate someone, why should they listen to you? Do you listen to people who hate you? No, of course, you don’t. Why would you? And why should they?
Hating doesn’t help anyone. I’ve heard it said that hating someone is like swallowing poison and hoping your enemy drops dead. We don’t have time for that. As much as our corporations and the super-rich have doomed us, we don’t have time to waste with hating them. We need to bail the planet out. It truly is too big to fail.
I don’t think NASA has grown so desperate for funding they’re yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater and hoping to get a job as a fireman. The end of civilization seems like something worth paying attention to and avoiding if we can. Since we need trans-national corporate-sized answers to our problems we need corporations to consider their “social responsibilities” as a natural balance to their profits. Or, perhaps like the Great and Powerful Wizard, we’ll have to drag them out from behind their magical shower curtain and demand they use their powers for good and start handing out hearts and brains and courage.
I’m no corporate apologist. I hate corporations as a development in economic theory and especially as a controlling interest in our world. But right now, we can’t hate them. We need to do the opposite. We need to learn. We need to learn who runs them, who owns them, who controls them, and then demand those “natural persons” direct their corporate powers to save our world, since everything you and I love lives here.
(Editor’s Note: In response to media attention, on March 20th, NASA released a statement claiming no direct participation in the sustainability study, and stated “It is an independent study by the university researchers utilizing research tools developed for a separate NASA activity” and they added that the views expressed are the author’s alone.)