Romney defends corporations, saying that they “are people”

Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney had the following to say to an unruly audience gathered along the campaign trail today in Iowa…

“Corporations are people, my friends.”

I can’t imagine that’s a message that will help him with the struggling men and women of Iowa, but maybe it’ll resonate with Tea Bagging set, who seem conditioned to applaud demonstrations of corporate fascism instinctively, to the point of even waving signs, demanding that the government roll back clean air and water legislation. But I can’t see this, “corporations are people,” message working with the wider electorate. If anyone were going to run with that as a campaign slogan, though, it would be Romney, who has taken in more corporate and lobbyist cash than the rest of the GOP field combined.

As for this concept of corporate personhood, I don’t know if I explained myself very well the last time that we talked about it here. While I’m very much against the concept, as it’s being practiced today, I’m not yet convinced that a series of Constitutional amendments, like the ones being proposed by our friends at Move to Amend, are the right way to go. At least it seems to me that there could be unintended consequences. And I’m not convinced that it might not be easier and more effective to solve the problem in a different way – for instance, by holding the individual members of corporate boards legally responsible for the actions of their companies. It’s not enough in my opinion just to say, for instance, that Lehman Brothers isn’t a person. We have to be willing to follow through and put the men responsible for the sins of that company, which resulted in the near collapse of our economy, in prison. And, if we publicly funded our elections in this country, as we should, we wouldn’t have to deal with the nonsense about corporate money being free speech, as outlined in the Citizens United case. But I think it’s all worth discussing, and I appreciate the work being done on the subject. And, for what it’s worth, I appreciate Romney interjecting the subject into the national dialogue today. Hopefully it makes people, at the very least, look at his ties to corporate America.

Here’s Romney talking to the folks in Iowa.

And here’s a relevant clip from our friends at Think Progress:

…Ever since the Supreme Court revealed that it shares Romney’s inability to distinguish between corporations and actual human beings, corporations have lined up to buy GOP victories in elections across the country. After Citizens United, conservative secret donors outspent progressives 8 to 1 in the 2010 election cycle…

Yes, these corporate people that Romney seems so fond of are buying elections.

And I leave you tonight with a quote from Al Jazeera: “The Republican Party is no longer the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower, or even Reagan – the GOP in its current form is nothing more than the party of Ted Nugent.

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  1. Posted August 11, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    I know this is a question we discussed in the interview about Ypsi Arbo Move to Amend, but I’m curious what you can see the unintended consequences being? I think its an important concern. You brought up recalling Snyder and how that would only put the Lt. Govenor in his position, and on that issue I agree that there’s no need to fight for that outcome.

    But I think this is an entirely different issue. And I can think of dozens of reason to amend the constitution to remove corporate personhood, and I can’t think of one reason not to. (other than how much work it will take) So I’ wondering what possible negative outcomes can you see from that kind of amendment so that we can be sure to avoid them.

  2. Posted August 11, 2011 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    Sorry for the typos. Phone blogging is not all it’s cut out to be.

  3. Mike Shecket
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    Corporations are not only people, but they’re Mitt Romney’s friends.

  4. Posted August 11, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    Joel, I don’t know what the possible ramifications could be. I just know that, in many cases like these, there are unintended consequences. I believe you and I discussed, for instance, the original intent of the 14th amendment, which, believe it or not, wasn’t to give corporation the means by which to buy elections. So, no, I don’t have specifics in mind. I just think that it might be worthwhile to explore other solutions, which could be a lot more easy to enact.

  5. dragon
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    Corporations are people
    So is Soylent Green.
    But has Peter ever heard of them?

  6. Posted August 12, 2011 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    Well, I can brainstorm a few potential ramifications:
    1. Although limited liability for corporate owners (shareholders) predates the notion of full-blown corporate personhood, the concepts are closely linked. A constitutional amendment eliminating corporate personhood might be interpreted by the SCOTUS as also eliminating limited liability, which is one of the fundamental principles of modern business.
    2. Since only people are protected under the Constitution and Bill of Rights, eliminating corporate personhood could eliminate some protections (from government) that we take for granted, such as the right to due process under the law, the right to be safe from unreasonable search and seizure, and the right of free speech. Police could (legally) go on a rampage and seize corporate property since the fourth amendment wouldn’t protect corporations, there would be no legally guaranteed recourse since the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth amendments wouldn’t protect corporations, and they could be prohibited even from complaining or discussing it, since the first amendment wouldn’t protect corporations.

    The unlimited liability corporations that might result would tend to amplify wealth disparities (because wealthier individuals may be able to take such a heightened risk) and also amplify recessions and depressions (because personal assets of investors would be sucked in to cover losses of failed businesses, stifling additional spending). The separate legal entity doctrine is the underpinning of modern corporations, and any such effort to eliminate corporate personhood should probably explicitly state its support for this principle.

    Those are just my quick, off-the-cuff thoughts on the matter. I’m sure with a little time, we can all come up with more possible concerns about this.

  7. Jiminy Trickle
    Posted August 12, 2011 at 12:06 am | Permalink

    In all seriousness, this is what we get for decades of carelessly personifying corporations. “Corporations are evil.” “Corporations are sponsoring reading programs.” “Corporations are outsourcing jobs.”

    “Corporations are buying elections.”

    My toaster can’t consciously perform moral acts of good or ill. It’s functions well (or not) by the design and building of people. When I say, “my toaster sucks” I mean “the people who designed and build my toaster suck.”

    Corporations are not buying elections. Some people, employed by corporations, are buying elections to benefit themselves and other people.

    Mark, I think this is what you’re getting at when you say, “Lehman Brothers isn’t a person. We have to be willing to follow through and put the men responsible for the sins of that company.”

    I would just take it a tiny step further and suggest that the company is without sin since only a “person” can sin.

    I know it’s a bit cumbersome in conversation, but I think we would do well to work at changing our speech to replace “Lehman Brothers is fleecing America” to “employees at Lehman Brothers are fleecing America.”

    If some of the writers at the Huffington Post, the Daily Show and on down the line would stop referring to corporations as people, we might make slow progress in holding individuals accountable. (Mark, maybe this is one revolution you can kindle with words?)

    As an aside, if a corporation can be a person ,doesn’t it follow that a person can be a corporation? I think a good case can be made that, by his own logic, Mitt Romney ceased being a person long ago.

  8. Bob L
    Posted August 12, 2011 at 1:04 am | Permalink

    Jiminy, if your amoral toaster electrocutes you tomorrow morning who will your survivors sue? Cuisinart or the assembly line worker who crossed the wires?

    Would your “corporations can’t sin, only people can” meme hold true for liability? BP shouldn’t pay to clean up the gulf, just a few employees?

    Cmadler is right that only people are protected under the Bill of Rights. But that knife cuts both ways. Only people are subject to laws. As far as I know, no hawk has been prosecuted for killing a mouse. If your toaster kills you, no one will prosecute your toaster. You’re right, a toaster is not a person.

    If a corporation can be fined and regulated (as if it has individual moral will) why can’t it exercise free speech (as if it has individual moral will)?

    I do agree that it is good to be more specific in speech. BP did not create the gulf oil spill. A collection of reckless employees did. Who should pay? The persons or the non person?

  9. Maria
    Posted August 12, 2011 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    I don’t think this argument is limited to corporations. Say any entity does not perform well, who is responsible, especially as the entity increases over the number one? Who’s responsible in the Church, or the School or the Insurance company? Collective responsibility of a system’s effects or individual failure. Kind of an interesting concept.
    No, corporations are not people, though they get special status. I believe that the Western concept of business is a thing that advanced business throughout the years, and held back business growth in the Arab world.
    So what to do? I think the biggest problem is that something is deemed too big to fail.
    Yeah, well, tell that to the Romans. When everyone can’t envision Goldman Sachs ever going out of business because the ramifications are so severe, then Goldman Sachs has enormous power, no one can walk away from their demands.

  10. Posted August 12, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    I heard his exchange on NPR this morning, and, though I am am a cynic, I think that what he was trying to say was that corporations are made up of people. Thus, excessive taxation on corporations will trickle down to all involved. I don’t believe that’s true, but I think the issue brought up in the exchange is more complex than what is immediately seen. Personally, I like the sound bite, but I think that it’s being taken out of context.

    That being said, I’m not defending corporate involvement in politics, nor untenably low taxes on corporations. Nor am I defending Romney.

    Rather, I am disappointed at the shallow appropriation of sound bites by my fellow lefties, though I recognize that sound bites are what politics are all about.

  11. Posted August 12, 2011 at 8:56 am | Permalink


    Those are very valid concerns, the concerns of people like yourself is part of the reason that Move to Amend has not yet written an official amendment proposal. We need to have a open debate about how to best end the incredible control that corporations have over our political process, but we want to do it right.

    My own personal idea is to try and return to a system that we had in place for the first one hundred years or so after we became a nation. It was a system where corporate charters, (which were their license to exist), were granted on a time limit basis and only after the corporation included in their charter how they would be contributing to the public good. The corporation could only engage in activities needed to fulfill their charter, and the charter would be removed if they strayed from it. The corporation couldn’t hold stock in other companies or property that wasn’t essential to it’s charter, they couldn’t make political contributions, their owners and managers were held responsible for criminal acts, and shareholders had the right to remove directors.

    I think moving back to that type of system would do us a whole lot of good in the long run.

  12. Edward
    Posted August 12, 2011 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    That was what he was saying, Peter. You’re absolutely right. But I don’t think that it ends there. I don’t think that he was just saying that corporations are made up of people. I think that you can carry what he said through to its logical conclusion. Call it a Freudian slip.

  13. Mr. X
    Posted August 12, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    There’s lots of good audio coming out of the race in Iowa. Here’s Michele Bachmann talking about what it means to be a submissive wife.

  14. Meta
    Posted August 12, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    In related news, two more fake companies donated millions to the Romney campaign.

  15. Posted August 12, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Edward, I agree, but that takes a little filling in of the blanks, moreso than I certainly would feel comfortable with in writing blog posts and news stories.

    I understand that that is what politics is, though.

  16. dragon
    Posted August 12, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    I know the human being and toaster can coexist peacefully.

  17. Meta
    Posted August 12, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Here’s some more of the context from the New York Times:

    Mr. Romney was speaking at the Iowa State Fair’s soapbox on Thursday morning, but when it was time for the question-and-answer session, the mood turned heated, with a small group of angry hecklers calling on Mr. Romney to support raising taxes on the wealthy to help finance social entitlement programs.

    “We have to make sure that the promises we make in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are promises we can keep, and there are various ways of doing that,” Mr. Romney said. “One is, we can raise taxes on people.”

    “Corporations!” the protesters shouted, suggesting that Mr. Romney, as president, should raise taxes on large businesses.

    “Corporations are people, my friend,” Mr. Romney responded, as the hecklers shouted back, “No, they’re not!”

    “Of course they are,” Mr. Romney said, chuckling slightly. “Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. Where do you think it goes?”

    It was a telling, unscripted moment for Mr. Romney likely to be replayed on YouTube. In an instant, he seemed to humanize himself by pointedly squabbling with the group of hecklers, showing flashes of anger and defying his reputation as a sometimes stilted, unfeeling candidate.

    But at the same time, he seemed to reinforce another image of himself: as an out-of-touch businessman who sees the world from the executive suite.

    Mr. Romney’s remarks drew a quick response from Democratic Party officials. “It is a shocking admission from a candidate — and a party — that shamelessly puts forward policies to help large corporations and the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the middle class, seniors and students,” said Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

    The remarks and the reaction touch a sensitive spot. Mr. Romney’s past as co-founder of Bain Capital, a private equity firm, gives him the business credentials that he says are needed to steer a troubled economy. But Democrats have depicted Bain under his tenure as destroying jobs through corporate takeovers in search of profits.

  18. Posted August 12, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Heh. I was bouncing in to say what Pete Larson said above.

    So, um, good on ya, Pete.

  19. Posted August 13, 2011 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    There is a lot of confusion about corporations. Not all corporations are made up of human people. Corporations can be made up of other corporations. They can be owned by other corporations. As “people” they have no morality or ethic beyond achieving the highest return on investment from one quarter to the next. As such as “people” they would be described as sociopaths. Since the human agents of the corporation have a duty to act in the corporations interest we get the kind of human behavior that led to 50 years of tobacco company lies, flaming Pinto bombs, and over worked exhausted captains who allow their boat to be navigated by incompetents. As “people” corporations are in essence the new “immortals” and since they will never die, will ultimately rule the human mortals who are compelled by our laws to work in the corporations interest.

  20. Jiminy Trickle
    Posted August 13, 2011 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    Bob L. You’re right. The knife does cut both ways, and I can’t believe I’ve been so slow to realize it. Instead of leaning away from corporations as persons, I should have been leaning into it. If corporations are people, they don’t have more rights than the rest of us, they have the same. Suddenly we’re equal!

    Our Democracy is founded on “one person, one vote.” Corporations not only have the right to fund elections but to vote in them, as long as they only get one vote. As a person, Goldman Sachs has the right to vote. Once. One vote. GS may choose to vote or not. GS is either “one person” or not. If it’s “one person” it votes as one person (and its employees and various investing parts cast their vote, or not, as part of this person. You don’t get two or more votes.) It can be part of the contract for new hires: you’re no longer an individual, you are now part of the Goldman Sachs person! Welcome!

    Likewise, our Democracy allows any citizen, of certain age (new corporations have to wait a few years) , to run for public office. I’m all in favor of Goldman Sachs running for city council! (It is strange that no corporate persons have run for any elected office, although they clearly have the right, as persons.)

    Of course, we also have certain restrictions on a person holding more than one public office. Goldman Sachs can be mayor of Ypsilanti, governor, senator or president. But, as a person, GS has to pick one. We Americans are wary of monarchs so we only allow persons to hold one office at a time.

    I do thank you (and Romney) for helping me realize that corporations are people, with no more Constitutional power than the rest of us. Frankly, my mind is going a bit wild with implications (I want to use imminent domain to take the GM land to expand my community garden)…

    But you asked a question on who I’d sue. Thanks to your helping me understand that corporations are pretty much one person, the answer is everyone who had a job or a share. It might make us think a bit more, long term, on our “investments.’

  21. Reagan
    Posted August 14, 2011 at 2:21 am | Permalink

    I think wobblie is right on in separating normal human behavior from the structural mandates of a corporation. A corporation is a machine unto itself with specific mandates and no moral conscience, often in contrast with the individuals who comprise it. I was at an environmental roundtable recently and someone suggested that we should shine a light on individuals running the most harmful corporations, demonstrate at their homes, start petitions to see them ousted. What this person missed in my opinion is the point wobblie makes, that humans who comprise corporations must meet certain obligations, often harmful, to maximize profit. And if they have a ‘human moment of conscience’ and don’t meet their corporate mandates, they’re out – and someone else will take their place. This is why I support Joel’s position and Move to Amend respectively; we need to aim for structural solutions rather than system management.

    @ Mark’s thoughtful comment about why not publicly financed elections. From Move to Amend:
    Why A Legislative Solution Won’t Work
    We actually support most of the proposed legislative responses, especially publicly funded elections. But all of the proposed laws are simply not enough. They are modest and “safe,” and none of them address the core problem– the illegitimate legal doctrine that courts use to allow corporations to overturn democratically enacted laws. The problem goes far beyond corporate money in elections.
    Corporations have hijacked our government and use the legal system to legitimize their rule. Our response as a self-governing people should be equally serious.

  22. Great Depression
    Posted August 30, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    They aren’t people. They’re gods.

  23. Demetrius
    Posted September 23, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    I read this comment yesterday:

    “I’ll believe that corporations are people when Texas finally executes one.”

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