January 23, 2010
Google, China and Citizens United: a Short Essay on Power and Corporations
Posted by Erik Gerding

I couldn’t agree with Rachel more. The discussion on the role of corporations in society is not over, in fact two seemingly separate stories from last week – the standoff between Google and China and the landmark Supreme Court decision in Citizens United –together signal that we are a watershed moment in this question. I don’t claim to have done the type of deep thinking that Rachel or Gordon or Lisa or other corporate scholars who have written on corporate social responsibility have. But at the risk of interloping into territory others know and think about far deeper and better than I, consider a few quick thoughts on how contrasting Google/China with Citizens United suggests we are returning to some very old questions about the twin risks of not having corporations separated from government power and not having governments separated enough from corporate power.

I would argue that Google’s threat to leave China because of government intrusion into its operations can be seen as a victory for those who advocate for corporate social responsibility. And the Citizens United decision obviously represents a victory for those who want to see corporations as not being creatures of the state, but rather as persons that can check government action. But these two victories pose thorny intellectual problems for the victors. These problems, in turn, reveal something about the horrible tangle we find ourselves in after the financial crisis as we cut our way between the risks of government being captured by corporate interests and corporations becoming the playthings of the state. Bear with me, because I think these two stories also have something to tell us about New Governance and the need for even greater cross pollination between public and private law in scholarship and the classroom.

Google v China: Do we know corporate social responsibility when we see it?

Many (I won’t even attempt to embed links) have applauded Google’s threat to pull out of China on account of state censorship and cyberattacks on Google’s servers as a victory for corporate social responsibility. Some scholars, like Ribstein, complicate this interpretation, in part, because Google’s actions may stem more from pure economic self interest. Given Google’s business model -- particularly their need to reassure users of the sanctity of personal information -- it may be impossible to disentangle definitively whether this resistance to China is an example of self-interest or social responsibility.

Let me ask a more basic question. How do we define what corporate social responsibility is? And who gets to define it? When we discuss corporate social responsibility at the end of my Business Associations class, there inevitably seems to be widespread consensus in the classroom about what responsible behavior means. Everyone seems to agree that dumping mercury in the Rio Grande or employing child laborers is irresponsible. But then I ask students what if social activists were pushing a corporation either to include abortion coverage in their health plans or to exclude same sex partners from employee health benefits. Consensus evaporates.

Do we define corporate social responsibility through the public law process? There are real dangers with treating corporate social responsibility as a matter of positive law and state determination. Consider that Google may not be a good corporate citizen if you look through the lens of the Chinese government. They are violating Chinese law. That of course is an extreme, rhetorical example. But there is a deep concern though that by implicating public law or government intervention – however light and well-intentioned -- in the core purposes of corporations we are slouching towards treating corporations as a plaything of the state rather than as a potential check on government power. Which is the role many lauded Google for playing.

So the Google victory poses several questions for advocates of corporate social responsibility, including how do we know what is corporate social responsibility, who decides, and are we comfortable that we can draw principled distinctions that will ensure the public does not subsume the private? Are corporate social responsibility advocates putting great faith in the political process to check abuses?

Citizens United: spheres unseparated

Meanwhile, Google and all other corporations received a huge boost to their political power and their ability to check and shape government regulation by virtue of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Citizens United. I won’t pretend to be a public law scholar, but the sweeping aside of restrictions on corporate political speech clearly represents the culmination of a centuries long evolution of case law -- running from Dartmouth College to Bellotti – that has given corporations more and more of the constitutional rights of natural persons. If last week’s Supreme Court decision means anything, it is a clear refutation of the ancient idea that corporations are creatures of the state.

But in this victory too lies a deep intellectual challenge for the victors. In the precursor of the current debate on social responsibility, Berle espoused a view of corporations and government as existing in “separate spheres” a view that echoed 19th century political thought and was in turned echoed later by Milton Friedman and others who later argued against corporate social responsibility. To render a fine idea into a quick sausage: governments should set the rules of the game for corporations then stay out, and corporations play by the rules.

From a pure descriptive standpoint, after the Citizens United decision, it seems impossible to argue that these spheres can be neatly separated. Corporations are not just playing by the rules, they have the right to participate in setting them. Moreover, they may be the 800 lb gorilla in the room. One interesting morsel in reading through the dissent was to see Justice Stevens grappling, even briefly, with corporate law scholarship questioning whether shareholders have the realistic ability to control corporate speech through corporate governance.

More deeply, do we now need to worry more that corporate law rules are not merely the product of competition and economic efficiency but set through management’s use of the political process. (For an interesting comparative study of the intersection of politics and corporate governance, see Peter A. Gourevitch & James Shinn, Political Power & Corporate Control (Princeton 2005). There seems to be a danger of management using the political process to hardwire not only management entrenchment but the political preferences of those in control of corporations. Aren't those who laud Citizens United placing great faith in the capacity of markets and the competition for corporate control to prevent agglomerations of political power? If the Google/China standoff lays bare for the need for the separation of corporations from state control, Citizens United raises the question of how we ensure that governments can retain sufficient independence from corporate control.

Strange constellations: the alignment of corporate law scholars after the financial crisis

I don’t think these concerns about corporations capturing the government or the government overreaching into the private sector are just dystopian constructs. The bailouts during the financial crisis reveal that these concerns are festering. There is plenty in the bailout for people across the political spectrum to lament. Progressives lament that bailing out AIG and other firms represents government capture and the socialization of loss and the privatization of profit. Conservatives lament the government interference in the discipline of the marketplace and now government using its leverage from the bailouts to justify interventions such as in executive compensation.

In the wake of the financial crisis, is government becoming the plaything of corporations? Are corporations becoming the playthings of government? Or is the reality some complex and perverted mix of both? Forgive the metaphor, but we seem to be stuck in bad remake of some scene from Eyes Wide Shut. It’s not clear from the tangle and the masks who is in control, but it’s clear it is not G-rated.

Problems of power and the dangers of a lack of clarity between public and private power point to a reason to ask tough questions of New Governance – which I admit to being only at the beginning of understanding. Cindy Williams politely told me that there are different versions of New Governance. At its core, New Governance seems to look to public/private partnership in regulation. But blurring the lines between public and private, even in experiments, has dangers. Progressives should fear regulatory capture. Libertarians should fear government co-opting the private sector.

Further afield, experimentation to insulate government decision-making from the political process has again become a constitutional issue as revealed by the Supreme Court taking up the challenge to the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board. This case – about an obscure and odd agency duckling created in the wake of the Enron scandal to insulate the regulation of the accounting profession from the political influence of the accounting profession – brought together strange constellations of law professors to support and oppose the constitutionality of the agency. If you look at the professors who filed briefs as amici, you might seem some striking lineups. I don’t presume to place scholars in political pigeonholes, but their previous scholarship suggests we have seen truly strange alliances of professors with very different political beliefs. And within the various alliances, the professors likely have very different opinions on the relative risks of state versus corporate power. I am sorry I missed the AALS Hot Topic Panel on the case, because I hear it cast a sharp spotlight on the strangeness of these political constellations.

Is this a one-off phenomenon, or are we seeing an ideological realignments in the legal academy? If you are outside the academy, you might ask: who care what we eggheads think on this technical topic? It sounds trite, but ideas matter and will spill over into the political arena -- perhaps after years of gestation. Perhaps the gestation period will be much shorter; the political arena seems ripe for a tectonic shift. We already see stark examples of strange political bedfellows – the Kuciniches of the left and the Pauls of the right -- in Congressional opposition to bailouts and to the political independence of the Federal Reserve itself.

Unchecked Power – Public and Private

So in debating the risks of concentrated corporate power versus concentrated government power, we are likely revisiting the same debates we had at the turn of the last century. History didn’t end. Nor does it repeat. It rhymes and samples. Indeed, to sample from my favorite poem, “All the new thinking is about concentrated power. In this it resembles all the old thinking…”

We are also likely to hear some familiar motifs in the political noise – such as calls to break apart corporate conglomerates to reduce perceived threats to democratic values. Is this perhaps an unspoken aim of the Volcker plan to limit the size of financial institutions. Will we return to trust busting?

If we are concerned about democratic values, we need to pay attention to agglomerations of control in the media. Without a critical and independent media, we will have no way of gauging how corporate and state powers are intersecting. But we may come to find a genie let out of the bottle during the Clinton presidency when few were watching closely. If few really understood what the repeal of Glass Steagall would mean for the consolidation of power in the financial sector, are we considering enough what the Telecommunications Act of 1996 means for the consolidation of power in the media industry? Do we understand how competition and consolidation among broadcast, cable, phone, internet, newspaper, radio corporations will play out in terms of concentrations of political power? I certainly don’t because communications law and the economics of those industries lie far outside my understanding.

When historians look back to the Clinton era, they will likely see the most radical shifting in economic and political control since FDR – all the more radical because its magnitude was obscured by its technicality and by the fact that the President who squired it cast himself as part of some “Third Wave” in politics. Beware those selling easy ways to transcend and triangulate across political divides. Here is a third example of a statute passed during the Clinton years that will have far reaching consequences for concentrations of political power: cyberlaw scholars have been trying to get us for years to pay attention to what the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1996 means for who holds the power over the intellectual commons.

Looking for checks

Cyberlaw scholars first made their mark by alerting us to the subtle and far-reaching consequences of seemingly technical questions on how both the state and corporations could use the internet as a means of social control. So we are now full circle to the conflict between Google and China. One of those scholars, Larry Lessig advocated making the “code” of the internet “open” to allow civil society to check these subtle forms of control. This last fall, Lessig notably balked at a broadbrush application of these same open source ideas to making politics more transparent.

Indeed, citizens would have trouble making sense of raw government transparency – in terms of the volume of information and the complexity of issues. This is not because people are stupid, but no individually has time to master complex issue and process reems of raw data. We need to rely on experts to edit and filter information for us. The forms of political, economic, and technological control are subtler and potential threats to democratic value harder to grasp.

But how do we trust those experts? Trust throughout society has long been thought to have been declining for decades, and perhaps accelerating in an age of political polarization. Moreover, we also decry how the digital age has left us with shorter attention spans. We also live famously  in an age of irony. It is often remarked now that some of our most intelligent commentators on public affairs are fake newscasters. This irony may lead to a particularly unfunny kind of political paralysis (“Ha ha – that’s really funny what Colbert said about our country going to hell. LOL ;-).”)

It’s not easy to make sense of the new dangers of concentrations of political power. Bolshevism and trusts were simple compared to understanding interconnections between complex corporate ownership structures, telecommunications regulations, and how the technology of the internet functions.

Understanding this landscape requires the involvement of scholars who are independent of corporate and government power. Which is why sources of university financing during an age of budget cuts looms as so large an issue.

All the New Thinking: cross pollination in legal scholarship and public law in the business law curriculum

If legal scholars must play a valuable role in sorting through the risks of concentrating political power, it suggests that faculties need to foster greater dialogue among private and public law scholars. Understanding new constellations of power might require minds in corporate law, constitutional law, cyberlaw, communications law …

Integrating scholarship in corporate law with public law is not a new idea. In fact, this essay has clearly trampled all over ground covered by many scholars who’ve looked at the intersection of public law and corporate law -- Kent Greenfield, Larry Mitchell, Lyman Johnson, Lynn Stout, Cindy Williams, Margaret Blair, Lynn Dallas. Not to mention our own Lisa and Gordon and our guest Rachel. I’m likely making enemies galore by the dozens of scholars I am leaving out including scholars -- like Bainbridge -- critical of corporate social responsibility.

There is also a question of whether we corporate law scholars need to build a bigger public law component into basic business law courses. This is also not a novel idea. I admit being resistant to doing this; law students need to learn the nuts and bolts in order to get a job and have the intellectual tools to practice as effective lawyers. But I am reconsidering, because law students also need a set of intellectual tools to exercise their duties as citizens.

Administrative Law, Antitrust, China, Constitutional Law, Corporate Governance, Corporate Law, Financial Crisis, Google, Internet, Law & Society, Legal Scholarship, Politics, Social Responsibility, Supreme Court, Teaching, Web/Tech | Bookmark

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