Monday, October 7, 2013

If corporations are people, why isn't "the government" people?

Remember back in the 2012 presidential election when Mitt Romney said that "corporations are people" and then everyone on both sides of the American political divide either defended or decried his statement (and either way did so loudly)?

Those who defended his statement often relied on the obvious facts that the employees of corporations are people and the "actions" of corporations are ultimately carried out by people. An example of this argument is found in this Wall Street Journal Op-Ed by former General Electric CEO Jack Welch and his wife Suzy, a former editor of the Harvard Business Review.

Ignoring the still unresolved question of corporate personhood, let's assume the Welch's and those who agree with them are right in their arguments for why corporations are people. Now, let's ask ourselves: If corporations are people, why isn't the US federal government (which the same conservatives who call corporations people depict as some sort of inhuman, monstrous entity) or any such government also people for the same reasons?

The way I've chosen to approach this question is to take the Welch's argument and replace a few words. The new words are in blue and the rest of the words are exactly as they appear in the middle section of the Welch's Op-Ed.

Of course governments are people. What else would they be? Buildings don't hire people. Buildings don't pass legislation incentivizing efforts to design cars that run on electricity or provide grants to those who discover DNA-based drug therapies that target cancer cells in ways our parents could never imagine.

Buildings don't show up at a citizen's hometown and say, "We won't leave until we solve your natural disaster problem." Buildings don't provide funding and staff to mentor inner-city kids in math and science. Buildings don't fund homeless shelters in Boston or send aid to Rwanda. People do.

Governments are people working together toward a shared goal, just as hospitals, schools, farms, restaurants, ballparks and museums are. Yes, the people who hold office, run departments and work for governments are sometimes there to make a career. And yes, governments may employ some bureaucrats, jerks, cheapskates and even nefarious criminals.

But most individuals working in government are regular people, people just like you and your friends and neighbors. People who want to make a living and want to make a difference.

And while they're doing that, people in government do indeed love and cry and dance. If you don't know that, you've never been part of a team that has pulled together over coffee and late nights and shouting and laughing and created something amazing to hit a deadline. You've never been in the room when a longtime citizen says it's not working anymore and she's taking her business to your biggest competitor. You've never sat in the lunch room when someone runs in and says the new legislation that no one thought had a chance, the little provision or something like it that every staffer in the place has been working on for two years, has just passed its first vote with flying colors.

In such moments—moments that happen every single day—you can see and hear and feel that governments are people. That's all they are.

If the governments and corporations were as fundamentally different as some say, it should not have been so easy to replace a few words and have the statements still ring true. 

The reason for this exercise was not to antagonize those who agree with the Welch's views, instead my point is simply that, from the perspective Suzy and Jack Welch advocate, the US federal government is people. From bottom to top it is people trying to do what they think is best for their fellow Americans. That's why during this shut down we must remember that the government is not some out of control machine that we've powered down until we fix it; the government is essentially people.

It's people who are being furloughed; it's people sitting in movie theaters with nothing else to do; it's people wondering if they can pay for their cars, homes, and child's college tuition; it's people who are being prevented from helping their fellow citizens; it's people who are being told they can no longer pursue their passion for civil service. It's people who are hurting.

It may be a little idealistic, but I think if everyone truly recognized that the government isn't politics, or careers, or campaigns, or egos, or taxes, or news cycles, etc., but rather people, then maybe we could find a way out of this mess. And maybe if we had realized this sooner we never would have been here at all.

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