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Into Dangerous Territory

Supreme-court  Last week's Supreme Court decision allowing companies to spend freely on political advertising could be one of the most significant reversals since Brown v. Board of Education

The 1954 Brown decision, of course, paved the way for racial integration and the Civil Rights movement by over-turning prior decisions sanctioning segregation in "separate but equal" school systems.  This latest decision reverses a century of court precedents that severely limited direct corporate funding of political campaigns, and it can only lead us into dangerous territory.  

I say this not as a constitutional lawyer, but as someone who once served the interests of a company that was already spending upwards of $60 million a year to influence legislation and regulation when I retired.  I've seen how corporate influence is accumulated and used in Washington, and it ain't pretty. 

Thanks to this new decision, corporate spending will clearly influence future elections, but the even more perverse effect will be on company behavior. As usual, David Brooks, put his finger on the real problem on the PBS Newshour yesterday. "What do corporations want (from Washington)?" he asked. "One, they want subsidies. Two, they want to crush small businesses who are hoping to compete with them by erecting regulatory hurdles."  

I can attest from personal experience that he's dead right.  Companies have always been able to get around the relatively low hurdles Congress set up.  They've funded political action committees, trade groups, and phony consumer groups to influence legislation.  Now, they will be even more brazen in using corporate money to stifle competition and the threat of increased regulation.  

What to do?  A law professor at Santa Clara University offers some context in the San Francisco Chronicle: "If we cannot restrain corporations from influencing our democracy," he writes, "then we must have more democracy in the management of our corporations." That's a good place to start.

Corporations exist to create wealth, not only for their "owners," but also for all who contribute to their success and bear the cost of their failure.  That includes their employees, their customers, their suppliers, and the communities in which they operate. Directors of publicly traded corporations should be required to become informed about and to deliberate on the interests of all these stakeholders.


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