The Supreme Court’s corporate monsters–if money buys them "free speech" rights, can it help them avoid giving others human rights?

by Linda Beale

The Supreme Court’s corporate monsters–if money buys them “free speech” rights, can it help them avoid giving others human rights?

The Supreme Court decided in Citizens United that corporations could intevene to influence elections–giving money and aide to their selected candidates. This was an inordinate broadening of corporate “personhood”, claimed to be necessary under the warped First Amendment precedents of the Supreme Court that count “money” as speech and thus consider that limitations on money spent to influence elections as a limitation on speech.

Yet most economists and tax professors argue against the corporate tax–which has been in place longer than the individual income tax–on the grounds that taxes distort and that the claimed “double taxation” of corporate income distorts the allocation of capital. See, e.g., Tax Foundation, 2004 paper on integrating corporate and personal income taxes; seminal 1985 integration piece from NBER. Much of the argument boils down to an a prior assumption that “only people can pay taxes.”
(Of course, we used to think that only people could engage in campaign speech or bribe politicians for quid pro quo policies or otherwise influence the course of society. We were naive.)


As a result of this “received wisdom” about economics and corporate taxes–mostly based on the mathematically correct but practically challenged Chicago School approach to understanding economic systems (by assuming away most of the real world, including life, death, and everything in between)– corporate lobbyists and their allies in Congress have been pushing for decades to eliminate corporate taxation through integration of the corporate and individual tax schemes or at a minimum to drastically reduce the liability of corporations for federal income taxes.
Every presidential candidate has one scheme or another to reduce corporate taxes, with even Obama falling prey to the continuing influence of the Wall Street facilitators like Timothy Geithner in the Treasury and Larry Summers. See Citizens for Tax Justice, President’s Framework Fails to Raise Revenue (pointing out that there is no reason not to fix the loopholes in corporate tax to help address the deficit without having to lower corporate rates, and noting that although Obama at least called for making his rate reduction framework for so-called corporate tax reform revenue neutral, his plan fails to raise about a trillion dollars to make up for the corporate taxes that it gives up). As CTJ notes, many organizations have called for the opposite–to raise revenues from corporations that have been paying very little in taxes, especially since the 2003 Bush “reforms” that granted most of the items on corporations’ wish list for tax cuts.

Last year, 250 organizations, including organizations from every state in the U.S., joined us in urging Congress to enact a corporate tax reform that raises revenue. These organizations believe that it’s outrageous that Congress is debating cuts in public services like Medicare and Medicaid to address an alleged budget crisis and yet no attempt will be made to raise more revenue from profitable corporations. Id.

Nonetheless, most candidates call for making the corporate income tax territorial and thus making it even more lucrative for US multinationals to move more of their corporate businesses (and jobs) abroad. Most call for reducing the rates on corporations to a historically unprecedentedly low level–making it even more likely that the US trade deficit and corresponding budget deficit will continue to grow, even at a time when these self-nominated fiscal “conservatives” are claiming that the current deficit requires monumental sacrifices from ordinary people in the way of reduced medical care and old age security (the effort to cut back drastically on the benefits payable under Medicare and Social Security).

Most treat the owners of corporate equity as though they were some kind of revered engine of growth, when in fact they are usually merely rich people who are interested in reaping as high a profit as possible from sales of corporate shares but very little interested in entrepreneurship, and as likely to engage in quick trades (the profits of which go into their pockets and not into the working capital of the corproations) as to hold long-term based on analysis of corporate business fundamentals. Most don’t accompany their form of integration with eliminating the category distinction between capital gains and ordinary income.

Most “corporate reform” plans call for continuing most of the absurd provisions that have larded the pockets of corporate management over the last few decades, such as

  • accelerated depreciation and expensing (including all the depletion allowances for the heavily subsidized oil and gas extractive industry, even while it complains about the petty little incentives put in place in recent years for environmentally sound energy generation–accelerated expensing creates “phantom” deductions that reduce taxable income well below economic profits), and
  • the “research & development” credit, which was first enacted as a stimulus that was to be in place for a very short period of time but has been extended in fits–even retroactively for several years–as corporations demand making every single “stimulus” tax break they get permanent.

(As readers of this blog know, I see little merit in the R&D credit. Corporations can already deduct way too much “phantom” expenses–excess interest expense that allows them to operate with too much leverage, facilitating equity firm buyouts by leveraging up the purchased entity to pay off the equity strippers. Further, as with so many of the GOP’s favorite programs of tax subsidies for multinationals and the upper crust, it hasn’t bothered to conduct studies to see if the R&D credit indeed results in more research done in this country. Clearly, a retroactively enacted credit does NOT incentivize research.

Probably the times it’s been enacted without being retroactive haven’t either–it takes extensive labs and equipment to do research, and such labs and equipment have to be purchased far ahead of when they pay off. Most of the R&D that the credit supports is likely to be of the “tweak-a-patent” variety that seeks merely to find a way to extend a monopoly profit from a particular profit–something the patent law should frown upon.)
So the drumbeat for lower corporate taxes–at a time when corporations are paying less as a proportion of GDP than they did in the time of our most sustained economic growth–continues unabated from the right joined by only slightly less enthousiastic accompaniment at the White House and think tanks like the Tax Policy Institute.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, having anointed corporations with a kind of personhood that lets them intervene in elections even though they have no vote, has taken for consideration a case that challenges the rights of individuals to hold corporations accountable as people are held accountable for human rights violations. The case is Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum (2d Cir. 2010), in which Nigerian plaintiffs seek to hold Royal Dutch/Shell liable for violating the Alien Tort Statute (“ATS”), 28 U.S.C. § 1350, which upholds international norms of human rights.

The Second Circuit held that US courts cannot entertain such suits, holding that jurisdiction under the Alien Tort Statute against corporations requires an international norm approving sanctioning corporations for torts and that requires more than the mere fact that most countries treat corporations under their domestic law as capable of committing torts. The court in the Second Circuit opinion makes a point much like economists tend to make about taxes–essentially implying that “only people commit heinous acts”.

From the beginning, however, the principle of individual liability for violations of international law has been limited to natural persons—not “juridical” persons such as corporations—because the moral responsibility for a crime so heinous and unbounded as to rise to the level of an “international crime” has rested solely with the individual men and women who have perpetrated it. Second Circuit in Riobel.

While people are the “deciders” of corporate decisions, nonetheless the corporate form permits corporations to engage in conduct that individuals alone cannot engage in–from amassing huge resources to carrying out massive enterprises that pollute and steal human dignity. To ignore that reality of corporate wrongdoing, especially in an age that has anointed corporate personhood with rights that seem furthest from ones that corporate entities should be permitted to enjoy, would be folly.

For further discussion of the implications of the case, see Peter Weiss, Should corporations have more leeway to kill than people do?, New York Times (Feb. 24, 2012).
Suffice it to say that this case raises the specter of full-blown corporatism overtaking the entire U.S. economic and social system. If the Supreme Court accompanies its “personhood for free speech/election intervention rights” with “not people so can’t be touched for human rights violations”, there will be even fewer ways to hold multinationals accountable, and they will forge even stronger relationships with autocratic dictators who treat their citizens like slaves and their environments like garbage pits. Meanwhile corporations will continue to intervene in our elections at will (usually the will of their ultra-wealthy managerial class), using the extraordinary power of the resources at their command.

We will all be the worse for any decision that would allow multinationals to expand their quasi-sovereign rights without saddling them with a strong obligation to comply with international norms respecting human rights. Rights without obligations are invitations to corruption.

crossposted with ataxingmatter

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