Corporations As People Or People-Owned Corporations?

The two most compelling emerging innovations to grace the “enlightened local living economy” movement are the growing awareness and adoption of “shared community ownership” models coupled with an evolving financial community dedicated to “responsible investing.” Shared community ownership refers to local stakeholders as the majority shareholders of privately held market-based corporations in various formats (cooperatives, credit unions, ESOPS, other employee-owned company models, and the newly emerging union-coop model launched last March 26th by the United Steelworkers Union, Mondragon and the Ohio Employee Ownership Center).

This is a growing, bipartisan, main street American “take back our sidewalks and our streets” movement right before our eyes, under our noses and in our capitalist hearts. In the U.S. alone, member-owned organizations account for $3 trillion in assets, $500 billion in revenue and more than one million jobs. This macro number can be broken down partially into:

  • 29,000 “made in America” coops with Americans holding 350 million coop memberships,
  • 250 purchasing coops offering group buying and sharing to more than 50,000 independent businesses,
  • 7,500 credit unions providing financial services to nearly 90 million members,
  • 900 rural electric coops with 42 million clients in 47 states,
  • two million farmers members of 3,000 farmer-owned cooperatives providing more than 250,000 jobs and annual wages of $8 billion, and
  • circa 8,000 USA housing coops providing one million homes.

Even more impressive, the global top 300 cooperatives with 90 coming from the U.S. are worth US $1.6 trillion equaling the world’s 9th largest economy.

Globally and domestically, cooperatives provide more than 100 million jobs, 20 percent more than multinational enterprises – the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as a prime bundler of multinational corporations attempting to alter U.S. domestic policies should take note. Flanking the U.S. Chamber’s false declaration of serving as the sole voice of U.S. businesses, the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) has been able to field more than 150,000 small and medium business members after just over one year in operation. The ASBC declares their support for worker-friendly principles of sustainable and socially-responsible companies, including those who practice shared ownership, to develop strong, local Main Street economies.

Also across America, a serious, reactive and proactive “responsible investing” movement has been underfoot since the 2008 financial tsunami showed pension fund officials how cavalier and risky Wall Street treated their assets by placing them in “predatory capitalist” synthetic credit derivative swaps and other financial instruments of mass destruction. Heartland Capital Strategies (HCS), in partnership with the Blue Green Alliance (BGA), has been leading an effort to aggregate tens of billions of dollars of worker-friendly funds into a new economic ethos that is “Wall-Street Free” and which focuses on worker and community sustaining investments and best practices.

Contrast these developments with the difficulties disenfranchised shareholders of publicly-held corporations have experienced in making their voices both heard and listened to. Ironically, “bought-in and paid-up” shareholders of these publicly-traded corporations with supposed marketplace-accountability experience a hard time forcing the appearance of democracy on the companies they supposedly own. In trend-setting Britain, new rules recently submitted to the UK Parliament would require majority support from shareholders of locally-listed companies to impact over-the-top, out-of-control executive compensation gifts to the wealth accumulating one-percent as a humble starting point. But even this timid approach to recapturing some form of local democratic capitalism input into multinational corporations basking in the “greed is always good” Davos-centric economy is missing in action in American political discourse where lobbies outnumber lawmakers and now literally can pay them off anonymously courtesy of the Roberts Supreme Court.

United States Republican Senators John McCain, the 2008 presidential candidate from Arizona, and Mitch McConnell, the current Senate Minority Leader from Kentucky, disagreed publicly not only over whether one dollar equals one vote but whether it should. Last week, Senator McCain floated the disturbing conjecture that Super PAC unlimited anonymous political campaign funding facilitated by the 2010 Citizens United decision (which he termed the “most misguided, naive, uninformed, egregious decision of the United States Supreme Court” in the twenty-first century) could result in foreign money buying U.S. elections. In counterpoint, Senator McConnell warned that disclosing political campaign advertisement funding sources “is nothing less than an effort by the government itself to expose its critics to harassment and intimidation, either by government authorities or through third-party allies” and therefore restrict, illegally, both free speech and free association.

Senator McCain in his PBS interview referred to Teddy Roosevelt’s correct premise “that we have to have a limit on the flow of money, and that corporations are not people.”

Watch Sen. John McCain: ‘There Will Be Scandals’ in Campaigns on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Wikipedia provides a short-cut definition that, “corporations, as groups of people, may hold and exercise certain rights under the common law and the U.S. Constitution. The doctrine does not hold that corporations are “people” in the literal sense, nor does it grant to corporations all of the rights of citizens.” Obviously for the current Supreme Court majority voting on Citizens United, the legal and moral distinction between corporate personhood and individual citizenry exists to be erased. But much more than combat-ready, ideologically-charged partisan debating points are at stake here. What happens when money buys politics is that truth becomes relative and increasingly irrelevant. The constitutional axioms of free speech and free association distort into imposed propaganda-based listening and forced associations, community ethos cedes to selfish individualism as all of us become weaker than the sum of our parts, and the American Dream cornerstone of equal opportunity gets distorted into extreme and locked-in income inequality statistics between those who have too much and always will and those who don’t have enough and never will.

All around us we see America’s disappearing middle class getting thrown under the policy bus and fed junk food slogans masquerading as value-driven, trickle down nourishment. It turns out that while we’re struggling to right our national economy, more than 650,000 public sector workers have been fired, laid-off, or separated from their place of employment with no paycheck by other means. A job is a job whether private or public sector-inspired. We the people believe that neighbors waiting in lines for rapidly diminishing unemployment benefits in hard hit industrial, urban and rural waste lands (that were wasted by those who exported livelihoods and factories for profits that bypassed the communities contributing to those profits) should prove more ethically deserving of bipartisan solutions than talking points posturing from any political party honed to win the next election.

But just the opposite is happening. It turns out that those in favor of “starving the government beast” are winning the argument that many fewer public sector workers are better than any employment recovery. It turns out that the “deficits don’t matter” approach masterminded politically starting in 2000 has been transformed into a massive wealth transfer tool buying public debt low through two wars off-balance sheets plus massive tax cuts for the top one percent, and then selling the accumulated public debt high by exacting ideologically controversial political prices. The diminishing marginal rate of return on this approach is now yielding bitter fruit with defense and technology firms, together with farmers and thousands of small business service providers who depend on government sales laying off personnel against their wishes. Another cruel upshot of this politically expedient approach to replacing bipartisan civic leadership with ideological individual selfishness is the downside of driving resentment-filled social wedges between the Baby Boomer and Millennial generations. Classic political market economics are proving that the case of having it both ways for so long and so well has produced an end-game of nothing but domestic conflict whose depth and fire-from-the-hip anger eerily surpass even the most cynical manipulations that unfettered Citizens United, anonymous government-purchasing campaign money can buy.

It’s high time our national leaders fight back and recapture our historical national competitiveness heartbeat and eliminate current structural unemployment caused by the systemic distorted application of failed models by connecting the shared ownership and responsible investment dots so that we can move towards bipartisan solutions instead of partisan roadblocks. This “lemonade out of lemons” transformation can start with clearing up the politically charged, campaign-motivated “corporations as people” polemic and reboot this “dialogue of the deaf” debate into more promising positive initiatives.

Expanding the ease of creating and integrating shared community ownership models with responsible investing institutions can produce at best a “Wall Street Free” America as practiced by those responsible for the 2008 financial sector massacre. In their rush to “green-wash” and “good-wash,” banking, corporate, government and academic elites, both the “divine left” and “gated community right,” could focus more on broadening the rising middle class and less on widening their own personal and institutional portfolios. At the very least, a “free and open” market will inspire a Wall Street ethos more permanently humbled by the growing realization that its working class retail depositors are voting with their paychecks and savings for a virtuous vs. vicious American capitalist model that revolves around local community and worker sustainability as starting points. In this still optimistic but possible scenario, “one dollar-one vote” could presage a national salvation mission that holds our ground and defends our country against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

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