By Madronna Holden
This year’s Supreme Court decision allowing corporations unlimited campaign spending is as unconscionable as it is frightening.
Money doesn’t need a Bill of Rights. It already has rights aplenty– rights directly linked to US economic woes. A recent report of the Institute for Policy Studies indicated that the differential between salaries for the the top 50 CEOs responsible for worker layoffs in the US and those same workers are 42 per cent greater than the global average.
In other words, those with more money have the right to lay off those with little money– and to gain more in the process.
Do these folks really need to saturate the airwaves with ads about problems with the national debt, scapegoating welfare programs (responsible for one per cent of our national budget), while tax loopholes for the wealthy cost US taxpayers 20 billion dollars annually in lost revenue?
In a democracy we can’t choose without information, but the Supreme Court decision has given corporations the right to manipulate that information any way they wish.
For instance, oil-linked corporations have financed billions of dollars worth of ads undermining scientific information on climate change, such as the ad that asks, “If the climate is getting warmer, why is such is and such a city getting colder?” In fact, the cities mentioned in these ads are not getting colder, but posing the question in this way leads the viewer to assume s/he has seen proof positive against global warming.
Congress recently tried to safeguard our right to know with the The Disclose Act— which would require that campaign ads state who paid for them. However, this bill went down to defeat in the Senate as a result of a Republican filibuster. In a strange twist, those who killed it claimed to be supporting the Constitution.
If money did have a conscience, the Supreme Court might have been justified in giving corporations comparable rights to human beings. But too many believe the famous statement of Milton Freidman that the ethical responsibility of corporations is to increase their profits.
And in this goal all others get shunted aside. A recent article in the Annuals of Internal Medicine found that research funded by the pharmaceutical industry yields results favorable to its products eighty-five per cent of the time. That is four times the rate at which positive results are produced by independently funded research.
This tabulation reaffirms the importance of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who see getting out public information as essential to their role as scientists and Integrity in Science, who follow the money in terms of scientific research funding.
A few states do have disclosure laws for campaign ads. This is how citizens found out that Target supported the anti-gay Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer with big bucks.
In California, oil-related industries Valero, Koch, and Flint, gave huge contributions to an initiative campaign to overthrow the state’s green energy bill. As the Union of Concerned Scientists observed, the main focus of the ads supporting this initiative is to “muddy the waters”. Such corporate spending sprees are off target in a democracy. Monied interests should not have the right to protect their interests—and to do so secretly– at the cost of the rights of our children to inherit a natural environment that sustains life.
Corporations can do the right thing when their interests are on the side of good science, as in the case of the insurance industry that has had to deal with claims resulting from increased tornadoes, flooding, hurricanes, and fire in the past few decades. The Hartford Insurance Company’s “Statement on Climate Change” is illustrative.
In fact, as the folks at Ethical Markets and CSWire illustrate, corporations can do the right thing because they are smart enough to see that their success is linked to social justice and environmental sustainability. But we are not encouraging that trend by allowing corporations to twist the Bill of Rights to protect their profits.
In a democracy, a Bill of Rights should protect the most vulnerable rather than the most powerful. Protecting the rights of all humans with whom we share our earth was the goal of the International Declaration of Human Rights passed by the UN in the wake of World War II, when the nations of the world saw just how far things could get out of hand if such rights were not protected.
Rather than to corporations, we need to apply such rights today to the millions of girls who are kidnapped and forced to serve in brothels. In their book, Half the Sky, Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Pulitzer Prize winning reporters Nicholas Kristof and Sherly WuDunn report from the field on both the horrors of ruined and lost lives for such girls—and the models some of them provide for courageous resistance.
The current UN report on violence toward women underscores the tragic fact cited in this book that it is statistically more dangerous to be born a woman than it is serve as a soldier on the front lines of battle.
These are the heroes among the most abused of women who have started schools or networks providing legal protection for other women. Wu Dunn and Kristof not only share their stories but indicate the importance of the international community’s shining the spotlight on the situation of such women, as Amnesty International has done. Heroic as well as inspiring are women like Sunitha Krishman of India, legendary for her fight against local slavery at substantial personal danger to herself. Her work is also supported by the Ashoka foundation who support such “social entrepreneurs” worldwide.
WuDunn and Kristof also indicate ways in which others have become “social entrepreneurs” who change the world for the better in remarkable ways. Zach Hunter, raised in Atlanta, began his activism at age twelve when he heard of human slave trafficking and instantly became a self-declared “abolitionist”. After raising money to get women out of slavery with his Loose Change to Loose Chains campaign, he published a book for potential teenage activists and fostered chapters of his anti-slavery organization throughout the US.
There are other vulnerable ones who deserve the protection of a bill of rights as well—earth’s others upon whom our ecosystems—and ultimately, our own sustenance—depends. Takelma Siletz elder “Grandma” Aggie, chair of the International Council of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers sees her own role as a “voice for the voiceless”—speaking on behalf of those lives, human and more than human, that have relatively little power in the contemporary global society.
In the context of such generous acts, the corporate fight for their own “human rights” seems especially perverse. Twenty years ago, Carl Meyer published an extensive article in the Hastings Law Journal detailing the ways in which corporations have garnered not only legal “personhood” but every one of the protections of the Bill of Rights for themselves through their legal maneuvers.
Our country did not set out to grant such rights to corporations. Indeed, the original framers of the Constitution were so leery of corporate power, they made corporations subject to short-term operating licenses periodically assessed to make sure that the corporate activity was still necessary to the common good.
Our precious constitutional rights—such as the right to avoid “chemical trespass”—should belong to our children, who have a right not to be exposed to toxic chemicals so that a few can earn greater profits. As David Korten observes in his Agenda for a New Economy, the status of our children’s well being presents an “a remarkably clear picture of society’s state of health”. Korten also notes that Adam Smith, hailed as the “father of capitalism”, had a “substantial antipathy toward corporate monopolies and those that use their wealth and power in ways that harm others.”
It is time to assess who we should be protecting with our Bill of Rights: the vulnerable lives that represent our social and environmental future or the corporations acting as if the only thing we need to protect is money. I know my own answer: I have signed on to the “motion to amend” our constitution stating that corporations are not persons and should not be allotted their rights.
Money doesn’t need a bill of rights, but our children—and all the children of the world– do.