Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Primer On Corporate Personhood

This is an excellent overview of corporate personhood and the Citizens United case. It’s just under 10 minutes but give it a look:

I first became educated about corporate personhood waaay back in 2003 when I read this Orion article on the issue, which also looked at several local efforts to restrict corporate power. Orion’s 2003 piece also delved into one aspect of this issue which we hear precious little about, which is how international trade agreements serve corporate interests and often undermine U.S. laws:
Through this process, WTO tribunals have overturned such U.S. laws as EPA standards for clean-burning gasoline and regulations banning fish caught by methods that endanger dolphins and sea turtles. The WTO has also effectively undermined the use of the precautionary principle, by which practices can be banned until proven safe—in one recent instance superseding European laws forbidding the use of growth hormones in beef cattle. A WTO tribunal dismissed laboratory evidence that such hormones may cause cancer because it lacked “scientific certainty.” On similar grounds, the U.S., on behalf of Monsanto and other American agribusiness giants, recently initiated an action under GATT challenging the European Union’s ban on genetically modified food.

Under NAFTA, which covers Canada, Mexico, and the U.S., a corporation can sue a government directly. The case would also be heard by a secret tribunal, such as when Vancouver-based Methanex sued the U.S. over California’s ban on a cancer-causing gas additive, MTBE. The company, which manufactures the additive’s key ingredient, claimed that the ban failed to consider its financial interests. Since July 2001, three men—one former U.S. official and two corporate lawyers—have held closed hearings on the thirteenth floor of World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C., to decide whether, in this instance, a democratically elected governor’s executive order to protect the public should cost the U.S. $970 million in fines. The FTAA, recently fast-tracked for negotiations to put it into effect by 2005, would extend NAFTA’s provisions to all of Latin America.

GATS, the General Agreement on Trade in Services, a recent trade agreement under the WTO, takes the usurpation of democracy one step further. While GATT deals with the exchange of goods across international borders, GATS establishes certain privileges for transnational companies operating within a country. It covers “services,” meaning almost anything from telecommunications to construction to mining to supplying drinking water. It even includes functions that traditionally have been carried out or closely controlled by government, like postal services and social services such as welfare—even libraries. Activists point out that the primary focus of the GATS is to limit government involvement, “whether in the form of a law, regulation, rule, procedure, decision, administrative action or any other form,” to quote the treaty itself. Public Citizen’s Lori Wallach has called GATS a “massive attack on the most basic functions of local and state government.”

Under GATS, any activity the federal government agrees to declare a “service” would be thrown open to privatization. The supply and treatment of water is a timely example, since the European Union is currently pressing the United States to make water among the first of the services it places under GATS. If clean drinking water is so declared, no government body in the U.S. could insist that it remain publicly managed. If any government wanted to create a publicly owned water district, foreign corporate “competitors” would have the right to underbid the government for control of the service. Just as important, a transnational company could challenge any rules—including environmental and health regulations—that would hamper its ability to profit from a business that is related to a service under GATS.

This reminds me: we hear a lot of crazy-assed fearmongering from the Glenn Beck wing of the conservative movement about how the United Nations is usurping U.S. authority and all that, but no one talks about trade groups like the WTO helping corporations skirt U.S. law. Or how agreements like GATS have served as a Trojan Horse for corporate privatization schemes.

Any constitutional amendment or other effort to right the wrong that was Citizens United needs to address the international trade agreement issue, too, or else it will only be a cosmetic effort, at best.

(h/t, Fast Company)