Sunday, March 14, 2010

Corporatist Threats: Real and Imagined

The threat of corporatism (defined here as a state of politics where corporations are pulling the strings of government) is a ongoing threat to most people, including free-market adherents such as myself. But many times, it seems that some fiercely discussed threats are simply imagined, while real threats slip beneath the radar. In this post, I'd like to highlight what I feel is an example of each category, the recent Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, and New York's eminent domain landgrab.

Citizens United
The story, for those who don't know, goes like this: A non-profit entity called Citizens United made a movie criticizing Hillary Clinton. Under the McCain-Feingold Act, corporations and unions are prohibited from airing any speech that could be regarded as attempting to influence an election ("electioneering communication") within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. As the movie made by Citizens United was to be shown before the 2008 Democratic primaries, the FEC prohibited its release. Citizens United took the FEC to court over the issue, and the Supreme Court recently ruled in the favor of Citizens United, striking down the McCain-Feingold ban on corporation funded speech.

This Supreme Court decision was met with strong criticism by many, including President Obama, who said that the decision "gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington - while undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates." There are even calls by politicians and groups to amend the constitution itself to make this type of speech illegal. Does this ruling really destroy the first amendment, as some are claiming? Will it usher in a new era of corporatism and bought elections?

Personally, I'm shocked that anyone would think so! Here we had government censors prohibiting a group of citizens from speaking out on an election issue, and when the court intervenes on constitutional grounds, we consider it sad day for democracy? How does restricting a group of people from speaking enhance free speech? As Judge Clarence Thomas notes, there are already corporations who do this year after year with no restriction: we call them the media. The major newspapers are happy to come out and endorse candidates and politicians in their editorials, but when they write about the recent supreme court case, they apparently believe other groups should be censored. Does this reek of hypocrisy to you too?

This quote from Thomas really sums up the issue:
“If 10 of you got together and decided to speak, just as a group, you’d say you have First Amendment rights to speak and the First Amendment right of association. If you all then formed a partnership to speak, you’d say we still have that First Amendment right to speak and of association. But what if you put yourself in a corporate form?"
Indeed. I see this as an imagined threat, not a real one. More free speech is never a bad thing.

Atlantic Yards
Ah, eminent domain, the ability of the government to take your property for "public use".Originally, "public use" was constrained to things like roads and other infrastructure items. With the Kelo ruling in 2005, however, eminent domain was expanded to include anything in the "public interest" (Would a shopping mall serve public interest more than your house? Pack your bags!) And now, eminent domain rears its ugly head again in New York.

Bruce Ratner, a billionaire real estate tycoon, had a problem. You see, he purchased the Nets and wanted to relocate them to New York, but the land on which he wanted to build the stadium was not easily purchased. Not only were more than half of the necessary 22 acres owned by various private parties, but 8 acres were owned by the Metro Transit Authority, and for icing on the cake, his proposal would have violated numerous zoning restrictions.

To anyone else, these might seem like insurmountable odds, but to a politically well-connected person like Ratner, the solution was simple: Have your friends in government take the land by force from the private citizens via eminent domain, nullify the zoning laws in your favor, and secretly negotiate and bid for the MTA land. Voila! Instant private profit public use. The NY Supreme Court has declined to rule in this case, as it does not see how is is "primarily a judicial exercise" to determine if the use of eminent domain was proper in this case (although I'm sure it has, for example, no problem determining if a police search was lawful. Funny how that selective blindness works.). So for now, the owners of some of these properties have chained themselves to said property in civil protest.

Which is the true case of corporatism that people should be up in arms over? I know where my vote goes.

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