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Friday, March 15, 2013

Political Profit

In filling out paperwork to register a non-profit company here in the US I have come cross what I see as a substantial problem with the legal structure of the American political landscape.  Of course the ability of corporations to act politically in much the same ways as people is an obvious one, but within the same spectrum, the inability of non-profits to engage politically is equally troubling.  The laws on this vary by state, but to incorporate as a standard 501(c)3 non-profit you must state that your company:
will not engage in prohibited political and legislative activity under 501(c)(3):
No substantial part of the activities of the corporation shall be the carrying on of propaganda, or otherwise attempting to influence legislation, and the corporation shall not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distribution of statements) any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office. Notwithstanding any other provision of these articles, this corporation shall not, except to an insubstantial degree, engage in any activities or exercise any powers that are not in furtherance of the purposes of this corporation.
So a regular for-profit company can engage and influence politics all it wants, but a non-profit can not?  Is the profit motivation a necessary precursor for inclusion into today's public political sphere just as being white and male once was?   Now, I understand that many would say that there are conflict of interest issues here.  It could be said that allowing non-profit's - with their tax exempt status and a good deal of their funding usually coming from US government sources - political influence could be seen as "having their hand in the cookie jar".  Yes, of course it could be said that non-profits have every interest in influencing the political realm for their own benefit and that government money could then be circling back to influence the government itself.  Of course there is area for conflict and abuse here.  As we've seen of late, government cuts are defunding and destroying many programs that non-profit organizations live off of.  As a result of these cuts, they are hemorrhaging jobs, services, and capacity more and more every year.  Yet still, in the face of this onslaught, they have no specific capacity to lobby or influence the political process to stop this bloodletting and to be able to maintain their businesses and services.

Still, this voice is now doubly important.  It is these non-profits that are best positioned to pick up this slack and maintain innumerable services, once rendered for public good, as these government cuts and the rush to privatize disproportionately affects many already marginalized communities.  However, without any dedicated political voice in how or when these decisions are made these processes and our legislative apparatus favor those with exponentially more political influence, for-profit companies with the money to lobby for their interests.  The problem is that for-profit companies generally only get involved if they can make money.  Yet how much money can be made providing assistance to the poor, or meals on wheels to the elderly without money to pay for the services?  None really, that is, unless there is money or grants coming from the government.  Without a voice to be heard, the money and these services are more and more readily falling into the hands of for-profit companies (with their outsized voice) as opposed to those looking out for the public good.

The point here is that non-profits rely heavily on the political apparatus for survival, yet they have no ability to advocate for what they want or need.  This on the other hand, is exactly the opposite with for-profit companies.  They have both an incredible amount of political power and a tremendous conflict of interest.  This as well has recently been exacerbated by the Citizen's United decision that corporations are now considered "people" and allows them to contribute unlimited amounts of money to political campaigns.  These contributions continually garner corporations increased government subsidies on corn-based ethanol production and defense or pharmaceutical research, tax breaks/deductions/loopholes that in many cases result in net refunds for companies, and less and less regulations that "hamper" their business endeavors (even if they "serve the common good").  For-profit corporations push for road construction, policing, and patenting that benefits their own interests, they lobby for the use eminent domain to take private property for their own interests, and they help create labor laws that benefit their profits and own interests first and foremost above those of their workers.  The fact of the matter is that for-profit companies are just as largely funded and indebted to the Government as non-profits are.  Yet all companies do not get an equal say in their own economic climates or governance.  A not-for-profit company is still a company, still an economic engine, does it not deserve the same amount of power for political engagement?

One would think so.  But this however, illuminates the actual problem: that corporations in general have such an outsized influence over our political lives.  If we do live in a democracy - which is said to be "rule by the people" - then companies should not have influence in the political realm.  This sphere should be left to individuals, even if those individual are members of corporations who - in acting on behalf of their own economic interests - end up vicariously stumping for corporate interests.  This would still be an individual human interest, not a direct corporate one.  The problem though, is that we do not live in the democracy we'd like to think we do.  It should be simple, if a company is made up of individuals that have the right to vote, why then must a company have another say?  This could very easily be seen as allowing one person two ways to influence the government - both as a person and through a corporation.  This would of course be exclusionary though as most people do not have the clout, power, or resources to either influence politics on their own, let alone steer a company towards political influence via lobbying or through financial donations.

This power then becomes doubly worrisome if only for-profit companies having powers such as this as it innately puts companies with one type of interest - that of individualized profit maximization - as more important than another.  Thus, creating an inherent monopoly of political influence that minimizes what could prospectively be competing political voices such as those of community, family, environment, etc, that do not have personhood status or the capacity - either through legal or financial means - to influence political decision making or via for a person's vote.  Our laws thus inherently say that if you are motivated solely by individualized personal/corporate profit you can influence the (public) government, but if you are motivated by addressing things for the public, the good of the people on a whole, or the world we live in you may not.

It would seem doubly to me, that if one type of company is going to have a voice in our political sphere that all companies should have an equal say in any government that effects them.  If democracy will be circumvented by corporations, let them circumvent it equally.  This is of course only until we live in the true democracy that many of us aspire to.  Yes, the democracy "by the people and for the people" that we like to claim we live in, but don't.  Within the illusive true democracy of our dreams, I think it goes without saying that no corporation should be seen as a person - no matter whether they chase profit or the common good.  No corporation should be allowed to engaging in or propagandize within the political sphere.  Yes, this may open itself to numerous questions of structure ranging from how to manage "the media", to how industry would speak to power and allow for a prosperous business climate.  But I would rather see these debates transpire democratically through the people.  Throughout a democratic process that does not monopolize the voices of power in the hands of for-profit corporate interests.  Allow the people's voices to be heard, even if it has to start through diversifying the corporate megaphone to include non-profit organizations who's mandate rests in the interests of the common good.

Business - let alone for-profit business - is no more important than any other component of our society.  No more than a mother, a family, a community, the environment, the common good, me, or you.  Yet companies' voices disproportionately overshadow all other voices in our political sphere.  We must allow other interests to enter into the fray, allow our communities and individuals the ability to compete on an equal playing field with the financial goliaths barricaded within their glass castles.  People over profits, business as a part of communities, and one person, one vote.  

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