Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Should We Reconsider Giving Corporations Personhood Status in Light of BP's Handling of Oil Spill?

I took a break from the oil spill to watch the finale of Glee on Fox tonight. When I returned to my email, I saw a message from my friend Mary Lynn Plaisance on Facebook asking me about the documentary, The Corporation.

Mary Lynn is a book author who lives in Louisiana about an hour away from Grand Isle and today lamented that corporations should not be considered people, that is have the right under American law to have personhood.

In 1886, a corporation used the 14th Amendment, which gave rights to African-Americans, to declare corporations people. It sometimes appears that the Supreme Court agreed that if a Negro could be called a person, then so could a corporation, sort of. However, it agreed via silence. Either way, according to critics, the idea of "corporate persons" is an abuse of law in the name of greed, and as recently as this year, the SCOTUS furthered the notion of corporate persons as a legal concept.

The film, The Corporation, addresses this idea of corporate personhood, asking the question, if a corporation is a person, then what kind of person is it? Is it a sociopath that's often not held accountable for its deeds?

In the mid-1800s the corporation emerged as a legal "person." Imbued with a "personality" of pure self-interest, the next 100 years saw the corporation's rise to dominance. The corporation created unprecedented wealth but at what cost? The remorseless rationale of "externalities" (as Milton Friedman explains, the unintended consequences of a transaction between two parties on a third) is responsible for countless cases of illness, death, poverty, pollution, exploitation and lies.
Visit the film's website here.

I'm not surprised the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and BP's handling of that crisis is causing people like Mary Lynn to question corporations being considered persons under law, especially since an actual person can be jailed or given more severe penalties if he or she causes the death of others but corporations cannot. Corporations who commit criminal acts often seem to be more protected than humans who do likewise.

As I've watched the story unfold, the rig exploding on April 20 and BP's callousness toward the families of the 11 men who died in that explosion and its questionable management of the rig as it was about to explode; from its attempts to block press access to its CEO Tony Hayward saying "I'd like my life back" followed by a denial of oil plumes that now have been confirmed, I've again thought about this documentary. So, I'm glad Mary Lynn asked me whether we could watch the film online. Thanks to Hulu.com, we can.

In addition to the film, there's also the book by Joel Bakan, "The corporation: the pathological pursuit of profit and power."

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