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Letters, September/October 2003
Readers respond to our May/June 2003 special issue on corporate personhood.
Issue to share
Thank you for your article and the recent issue of UU World concerning the legal status of the corporation as a person (“How Corporations Became ‘Persons’” by Tom Stites, May/June). It is ironic that in the same week I received an insert to the Fulton County Daily Report, a daily legal newspaper, with the headline “Protecting your rights as a company.”
I’ve been sharing this issue of UU World with many of my friends and colleagues. It’s something most of us haven’t been able to articulate before, but this issue helps us grasp the problem.
Kay A. Giese
The May/June issue of UU World is the very best of many fine issues. The special section on corporate personhood is outstanding and is a terribly important subject for the reasons the authors suggest. I especially thought Tom Stites’s lead article (“How Corporations Became ‘Persons’”) was outstanding—well researched, well documented, and well written.
The Rev. Dr. William R. Murry
President and Academic Dean, Meadville Lombard Theological School
I particularly enjoyed reading Tom Stites’s scholarly essay (“How Corporations Became ‘Persons,’” May/June) and seeing some “Resources on Corporate Privilege” published. As a former federal regulator myself, I believe that a variety of steps are overdue to start the pendulum of good government swinging back toward the enforcement of reasonable regulations that are in the public interest as opposed to the interest of groups being regulated.
The first step is to promote greater awareness of the current process and encourage the public to demand results more friendly to the individual consumer. Perhaps then some of the eroding confidence in government at all levels will be restored and citizens reclaim the rights they have historically been promised. These articles help frame an excellent background for public discussion.
There are serious issues involving corporate reform that would be appropriate for discussion in UU World. Such a discussion, however, should not begin with the assumptions that large for-profit corporations are inherently bad and local activists are always right.
The premise that because corporations are not human beings they cannot act in moral ways is fundamentally flawed. A corporation acts only through its agents—in other words, corporate decisions and actions are made by living, breathing people. Enron, WorldCom, and Global Crossings are all examples of companies that failed because human beings acted greedily and immorally. It is that kind of greed and immorality that should engage UU World, not the well-established legal principle that corporations are persons under the law.
The corporate heart
Tom Stites presents his views with great passion (“How Corporations Became ‘Persons’,” May/June), and I can imagine the heads of Unitarian Universalists around the world nodding in agreement. I am concerned, however, that there’s no real argument in his article. In place of an argument about corporate personhood and why it is or isn’t legitimate, we get two assertions—first, that corporations have illegitimately claimed “personhood” and attendant legal and political rights, and second, that this is a unique threat to democracy. But are these claims warranted?
It is clear to me that corporations have claimed legal personhood, and that they have claimed some of the legal rights that go with it—but I’m not sure this claim is illegitimate. Stites says “People—including corporate executives, employees, and shareholders—have inherent worth and dignity; corporations in and of themselves do not.” To support this, he offers three claims: People have consciences, but corporations do not; people have complex concerns, but corporations care only about profits; people are “moral animals,” but corporations are notoriously amoral.
These claims, while true of some corporations, aren’t true categorically. Not all humans seem to have a conscience, as history shows; on the other hand, many corporations place structural limitations on their decision-makers that force moral considerations into key decision processes. Most humans have complex concerns, including social, moral, and political concerns, but so do many corporations; questions of “fiduciary duty” simply do not force corporations to pursue only immediate profits, and if corporations didn’t have political concerns, we wouldn’t be discussing this at all. And while individual humans have the capacity to be “moral animals,” there is nothing necessary to the structure of the modern international megacorporation that makes conscience, principles, and morality impossible for them. I admit that many corporations are amoral, conscienceless, and focused only on maximizing profits, but I can’t agree that all corporations are, or that these are necessary features of any corporation.
Stites’s other major claim is that corporations are a unique threat to democracy. Their immense wealth, he seems to say, makes allowing corporations to play any role in a democratic society an extreme danger to the rights of“the little guy.” If we step back from the focus on corporations, this looks more like a question of wealth and power: Wealth gives power to the one who holds it, and too much power concentrated in one set of hands can be dangerous to democracy.
Stites almost admits that his worries about corporations are moot when he quotes Ward Morehouse: “Ending personhood won’t mean the fight is over. Corporations would still be vast and eternal, and officials of corporations could still exercise their rights as natural persons.” So, to deny corporations’ claim of personhood would make regulating them easier, but wouldn’t solve the problem. What would? Can we “inspire the people who had given up on democracy to abandon their apathy and vote to renew the strength of government of the people, by the people, and for the people” without causing the downfall of major megacorporations?
I argue for and work toward “economic democracy” every chance I get; I worry about the power of corporations that have become bigger than governments; and I think that our modern political systems are susceptible to manipulation by money interests. But I don’t see corporate personhood as the prime culprit in modern crises of democracy. I would rather see corporations become more like persons than less. I think we should strengthen their consciences, instead of excuse them for not having them; I think we should punish corporations in real ways, rather than legislate them out of existence; and I think a serious attempt at campaign finance reform would go a long way toward addressing all of our worries about the integrity of our democratic institutions.
Johann A. Klaassen
Colorado Springs, Colorado
As editor-in-chief of Chief Executive magazine, I know that editors like getting letters, even when the reader disagrees. So I will oblige you. I agree that there is a swirl of debate about the very nature of the American corporation these days, but I’m convinced that your story (“How Corporations Became ‘Persons’,” May/June) is far too shrill and ideological.
The American corporation is the foundation of how we have created arguably the world’s most powerful economy. Yes, we have seen some spectacular abuses in recent years, but they have come from only a tiny minority of companies, in the 2 to 3 percent range. There are many fine people attempting to do the best job possible in running companies, hiring people, and building factories. A majority of companies are privately held, but the CEOs of public companies certainly worry about shareholders. The smart ones, however, also worry about employees and customers and other constituencies.
To state that “corporations are by their nature amoral” isn’t fair. Do you propose that we organize a new socialist or communistic form of managing economic activity? Perhaps we could join the ranks of North Korea and Cuba as the last true state-directed economies.
This story, sir, was a rant, not reasoned discourse. The great risk you pose by printing stories such as these is that Unitarian Universalists will be portrayed as crazy Molotov-cocktail throwers, not the sensible, engaged, and informed people that I believe we are.
William J. Holstein
Ardsley, New York
Democracy at work
How do we apply the democracy principle when we’re working at a company that isn’t a democracy? After all, we have to eat, educate our children, and plan for retirement, and the funds for achieving these things comes from our work in undemocratic companies where we spend 50 percent of our lives. Is this a question that should appropriately be raised at churches? I think so, but I haven’t heard it much.
The UU World’s articles on corporate power (May/June) fail to contribute to the policy debate because the articles are unbalanced. No alternative views on the issues are discussed.
For example, how about the alternative of countering corporate power with grassroots organizing, as advocated by Paul Osterman in his Beacon Press book, Gathering Power? Rather than denying rights to others, why not assert our own rights? If a federal law needs to be changed, organize!
Timothy J. Bartik
While the recent articles on corporate power (May/June) were interesting and useful, I have major concerns regarding their argument. Even if we were to reassert legislative authority over “bad” corporations, is it the legal structure of capitalism or capitalism itself that may be the problem? For example, if one were to decharter Philip Morris (now known as Atria) or UNOCAL for very bad corporate deeds, why should we be content with other corporations that do follow the law but pay their workers minimum wages, which are not livable wages? One of the prerogatives of business is to make as high a profit as possible and to increase market share.
Without the “right” type of people elected in the legislature, put there presumably by mass movements or strong insurgencies, why in the world would we want to trust most current politicians to do the right thing? Where is the analysis of how progressives would gain and maintain power as long as possible—something we should all be thinking more about?
I believe there are many well run and honest corporations, but every day there seems to be another group of executives who are doing anything to steal as much money as they can.
The political system also needs an overhaul. For Vice President Dick Cheney to say that he does not intend to reveal who attended and what was discussed at a meeting that he called with energy corporate executives and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission shortly after he took office is a dishonor to his office and to our political system. Did this meeting have anything to do with the energy crisis that developed shortly thereafter in California? He must be compelled to produce this information fully or leave his office.
There are other questions that are cropping up throughout our political system where certain individuals have a conflict of interest between assuming their appointed responsibilities and their corporate backgrounds. Somehow we must find a way to see that there is a balance of power between business and public interests.
U.S. citizens today have every right to express their feelings by voting. The percentage of those eligible to vote who actually vote is little more than half. This percentage must be improved. The individuals who would benefit most from voting are not voting.
I intend to write to each of my representatives concerning some of my political concerns and hope that they will make some effort to bring balance back to our representative government.
Fuzzy thinking, significantly incomplete and very misleading history, lousy logic, and irrational conclusions (“How Corporations Became ‘Persons’,” May/June).
Aside from those flaws, a very poor article and a waste of space in the house journal of a major religious society. We pay good money for this tripe?
Chas. H.W. Talbot
I respectfully disagree with my colleagues in ministry who choose not to sign marriage licenses for heterosexual couples so long as same-sex couples do not receive equal marriage rights (“UU News,” May/June). We Unitarian Universalist clergy will do neither ourselves nor loving couples any good by taking such a stance.
As I explain to all couples and to anyone else who asks, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County and its ministers treat same-sex and heterosexual weddings identically within the church and in its records. When the state catches up with us, I or my successor will be available to sign any legal documents at no additional cost to the couple. I would rather explain why the right to marriage should be extended to every loving couple than tell a couple entitled to legal marriage that I will not perform the legal and religious functions they have requested of me and the church.
In issuing a marriage license, the state performs only the minimal legalistic gate-keeping function. I have never heard of a civil officiant who provides premarital counseling. We clergy have the training and moral authority to raise issues related to the appropriateness of a couple’s marriage or potential problems that others will not or cannot raise. We risk losing this moral authority by refusing to sign licenses.
The Rev. Anthony P. Johnson
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County
Orange, New Jersey
As a religious humanist and member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation, I’m often—though not always—at a loss to find personally meaningful articles in UU World as I make my way through the weighty political and social-justice emphasis of the magazine.
I was about to relegate the May/June issue to the recycle bin after initially recoiling at the “Corporate Personhood” cover, when I came across a buried gem, “What Song” by the Rev. Victoria Safford, in “Reflections.” I have clipped out that brief and very welcome piece of written inspiration and posted it on my fridge where I can reread it.
If the aim of UU World is to represent the diversity of its readers and members of UUA congregations, a more balanced approach to content and choices for cover art (some inspiring covers instead of so many outrageous caricatures, for example) would be very welcome.
Nancy Joyce McDowell
President William G. Sinkford, in his May/June column (“Our Calling”), felt that by more loudly proclaiming our message we could grow. For the last thirty years, I have tried to do just that. All I accomplished was to attract people to congregations that then turned them away. None of us wants to admit the truth: We do not like very many of our fellow Americans.
A partial list of people and behaviors we do not like includes: Christians, people without college degrees, people who work for large multinational corporations, capitalists, Republicans, moderate Democrats, Jews who support Israel, country music lovers, SUV drivers, people who don’t listen to NPR, white heterosexual males, corporate executives, hunters, and non-vegetarians. In short, we dislike the vast majority of Americans.
We are not shy about pointing this out. We make statements of exclusion on a nearly continuous basis. Until we recast our mission from one of ministering to the marginalized and ostracizing the mainstream to one of bringing the maginalized and mainstream together in community, we will remain the size we are.
I shouted a loud “yes” when I read President Sinkford’s account of the Rev. Stefan Jonasson’s conversation with the head of missionary work for the Mormon church (“Our Calling,” May/June). I was then surprised that the focus for the remainder of his column was on how to attract more visitors rather than on how to “integrate and retain” visitors and new members. Isn’t that putting the cart before the horse? The significant prior questions that deserve to be explored are these: Why do we not retain more of those who visit and perhaps join our churches? What is missing from our churches? What is our “saving message—our Good News with a vengeance”?
I believe learning always begins with questions worth arguing about. Perhaps every church board or committee on ministry should be exploring these questions even as we continue to shout our Good News in the public square.
There were many examples in Donald E. Skinner’s “Accessibilities Mindset Widens Doors, Opens Hearts” (“Congregational Life,” May/June) of how congregations are changing their buildings and practices to welcome people with physical disabilities. A huge attitudinal shift is necessary to make most Unitarian Universalist congregations comfortable, inclusive places for adults with developmental disabilities.
My daughter, Hannah, doesn’t need architectural reconstruction. She needs fellow members who take the time to get to know her on her terms. She needs more color and movement and physical participation in services. She needs people to support her through coffee hour, potlucks, and other events. She needs opportunities to engage with people and share experiences that are not always intellectual in nature. Often she did get this when she was a child in religious education, but our adult community, even our young adult community, has not yet successfully met this challenge. We are still working on it; we are still trying.
Let’s hear some stories of congregations that have figured out this accessibility challenge!
Cumberland, Rhode Island
It amazed me that in Jane Greer’s excellent article (“Communities Fighting Back,” May/June) there was not one paragraph on the gross inhumanity of raising hogs by the factory farming method.
From the permanent confinement of pregnant sows in two-foot-wide “gestation crates” to the final horror of the slaughterhouse, these living, feeling creatures with the intelligence and sensitivity of a dog are used and abused to satisfy consumer demand for low-cost bacon and pork chops.
Is it only the corporations that are to blame? If we blunt our awareness of, or choose to ignore, the suffering of animals raised on factory farms, is it so surprising that we are then faced with a polluted atmosphere and a major threat to the environment?
New York, New York
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