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4-5, Corporations, democracy, and the U.S. Supreme Court (1)

4-5, Corporations, democracy, and the U.S. Supreme Court...

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Corporations, democracy, and the U.S. Supreme Court Mason Gaffney, February 24, 2010 On Jan 21 2010 our High Court shocked Americans by ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission that a corporation may contribute unlimited funds advertising its views for and against political candidates of its choice - in practice, the choice of its CEO or Directors. The ideas behind this are that a corporation is a “legal person”, with all the rights (if not all the duties) of a human being; that as such it has a right of free speech; and that donating money is a form of speech. Already K&L Gates, a top Washington lobbying firm, is advising its clients how to funnel money through lobbying groups or “trade associations”. This culminates a long series of actions and reactions (decisions, legislative acts, and electoral results) that bit by bit have raised the power of corporations in American economic and public life. Herein I will take the fall of the corporate income tax as a simple metric of the power of corporations. Nothing about corporations is that simple, however, so I must also touch on other aspects of power. Some critics react apocalyptically, calling Citizens United a death blow to democracy; some cynically, calling this merely making de jure what is already de facto ; some legalistically, saying the Court ruled more broadly than justified by the case brought before it. Supporters, naturally, take this contentedly as righting an injustice of long standing. Some economists would applaud this as a step toward sunsetting the corporate income tax, by electing more candidates beholden to corporate money. Many of them – not all - have been seeking this end for years in their learned journals and op-eds. Even the late Wm Vickrey, otherwise an egalitarian, gave high priority to this change. This writer does not applaud either sunsetting the tax, or this step. I agree with Joseph Stiglitz that the corporate income tax is mainly a tax on economic rent. That means that a high tax rate does not destroy the tax base. Martin Feldstein, an economist who is as conservative as Stiglitz is liberal, also sees the corporate income tax as a tax on economic rent (1977, p.357). It is not the ideal form of such a tax, but it beats any tax on work, or sales of the necessities of the poor, or value-added, or gross sales. Both Vickrey and Stiglitz rate high in the profession and garnered Nobels, so we cannot simply appeal to “authorities”. To prepare our minds, let us review some milestones in the history of corporations, especially in America. This is not a paper on the theory of tax incidence. Such a paper is needed, but would take a heavy tome, most of it devoted to fine-spun and pretentious theories that appear in academic journals, and which fail to convince because the authors are weak on distinguishing land from capital. My own postulates here, in brief, are 1) that corporations own a large fraction of the wealth in the country; 2) much of that wealth is land; 3) taxes that do fall on capital are in part
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