November 13, 2007

Corporations or People?

Damned if I know what to think of Robert Reich's new book, Supercapitalism. You can read Robert Frank's Times review here; I'm too lazy to summarize it. The real fun comes in a few pages toward the end, when Reich (briefly) lists some ideas for dealing with modern-day corporations.

His bottom line: Corporations aren't people and shouldn't be treated like people. So they shouldn't be taxed (because the corporate income tax is inefficient and inequitable) or held criminally liable for wrongdoing (because it's unfair to make everyone in the company suffer for the crimes of a few—note that many low-level Arthur Andersen employees are still out of work). But, Reich says, companies should still be fined for wrongdoing—um, like people?—since shareholders shouldn't profit off illegal deeds. As I understand it, many experts also think civil liability is actually a more effective tool for dealing with—and deterring—corporate crime, although I can't really say.

The more radical part of Reich's analysis is that, because they're not people, corporations shouldn't be allowed to challenge laws and regulations in court—that should be left solely to investors, consumers, or employees. Now that's interesting, and would avoid bizarre situations like that in California, where global automakers sued to block the state's tailpipe-emissions law in 2005, even though a large number of the interested shareholders were foreigners. For that matter, Reich also argues that shareholders of a corporation shouldn't be forced subsidize political activities they oppose.

I don't know what the net effect of all these changes would be (large? small?), but it seems like they'd require constitutional amendments, at minimum. Reich is more persuasive when he talks about the limits of "corporate responsibility." After all, if companies aren't people, it's hard to expect them to do the "right" thing. That basic argument can be found in this essay, but Reich adds plenty of instances in which corporations say they'll do good (Nike and sweatshops) but the problem still persists (New Balance swaggers in with sweatshops of its own). Congress has a habit of holding hearings to berate corporations that misbehave, but then rarely follows up with laws or regulations that actually fix the problem.

P.S. More broadly, Reich offers a non-conspiratorial version of the "decline and fall" narrative that's central to all liberal books on domestic economic policy—namely, how the United States went from the mostly good ol' days of the 1960s (low inequality, strong unions, economic security for the middle class) to where we are today. He doesn't blame right-wing economic policies per se, but argues that they were an inevitable outgrowth of an economy being transformed by competitive pressures that benefited consumers and investors. Unlike Krugman's book, he barely discusses race at all.

There's some straw being torched here. Few liberals believe the economy would still look like it did in the 1960s—when cozy corporate oligopolies faced few competitive or investor pressures, and could afford to pay high wages and (mostly) play nice with unions—if not for Goldwater and Reagan. Yet Reich seems to spend a lot of pages rebutting that notion. But look, there's still the question of why the United States doesn't have a European-style welfare state and/or stronger unions to soften the edges of an increasingly investor- and consumer-centric global economy. Right-wing policies—and race—do play a role in that story. Still, the book's a very worthwhile read.
-- Brad Plumer 8:17 PM || ||