Elizabeth Warren appeared last week on the PBS program NOW. As the chair of the government's TARP oversight committee, Warren is one of the few prominent voices speaking out on behalf of American families, their concerns and their burdens. Warren points up how, a year after the financial bailout, the rules governing American financial institutions have not changed.
Credit cards, in particular come in for serious criticism (although Warren says she carries two). "I am anti tricks and traps," she says. "There are fees for people who don't pay on time. There are fees for people who don't carry balances. There are fees for being inactive with your credit card." The banks' business model has been fine-tuned to "wring every last dollar" of profit from "ordinary, hard-working middle-class families."
On the heels of news that Wall Street's big bonuses are back, Warren is stunned:
This one, I have to say, truly really amazes me. That these folks, who were supposed to be the smartest folks in the room, believed that they can take taxpayer money and save their businesses from complete destruction, and still continue to reward themselves as if they had earned it all.
What we are seeing, Warren suggests, is not capitalism. It's socialism "for rich people."
But it's more than that, Elizabeth. We aren't dealing with "folks," but public corporations that have no soul. They have been (badly) engineered to relentlessly pursue profit while shielding owners from personal responsibility for their actions. And their greatest champions? Those who consider themselves the "personal responsibility" people, and who make a pretty tidy living based on not accepting any.
To repeat something I said in print five years ago:
Amidst the chatter about job loss, globalization and tax policy, corporations are retooling American democracy for their convenience. Industry lobbies are spending vast sums exercising their presumed free speech rights as "persons" to reinvent America as a nation of, by, and for the corporation. They now craft laws that govern them, secure federal handouts and evade accountability for cleaning up their messes. Just what Average Joe might do if he were self-absorbed, had unlimited cash and wasn't raised right.
Conceived in law and born on paper, corporations grow, consume resources and generate waste. They even mate and spawn offspring. And they need not die. Ever. Fiercely territorial, their strongest instinct is for self-preservation. They are intelligent (some more than others) and have personalities (some nicer than others). Corporate behavior is typically, well, businesslike. Not unlike another cold-blooded beast.
In Jaws, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) tries to explain sharks to the town's mayor. "[W]hat we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, ah, an eating machine. It's really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks. And that's all." The public corporation is just not as well rounded.
Congress is just beginning to look at getting them back under human control. The problem of executive pay, Warren says, has to be changed by statute. But that's putting it mildly. The broader problem of bringing large corporations to heel is not unlike another one that many cities address with leash laws.
It isn't about being anti-capitalist or anti-business (or anti-dog). It is about whether we allow artificial creations driven only by appetite and instinct to run loose in public - however useful, however well-trained, however well-dressed and profitable they may appear.
The public corporation as we know it was created only about a century and a half ago. Yet, consenting adults have been engaging in capitalist acts since before Hammurabi. What we euphemistically call the world's oldest profession, is just one example. There is supposed to be a restaurant in China that has been in business continuously for a thousand years. But criticize the modern corporate model for doing business -- suggest it is lacking or in need of reform -- and AEI and the Chamber of Commerce will attack you as a Luddite or a communist.
The difference between a privately owned business and a public corporation is indeed personhood, and personal responsibility. People have blood types. They bleed. They have grandparents. People have a conscience. People can be put in jail.
The birthers want to see Obama's birth certificate? I want to see Goldman Sachs' and Halliburton's.
These things we created to serve us have become our masters. The attempts now in Congress to change that dynamic will be the next great fight after health care. It is time human beings were again holding the leash instead of wearing the collar.