By Pam Martens Counterpunch 7/17/09

Did you ever expect a corporation to have a conscience, when it has no soul to be damned and no body to be kicked?

–  Edward, First Baron Thurlow

We’re about to find out if the filmmakers can succeed where Congressional hearings and mainstream media have failed. Will the film documentaries examining insatiable corporate greed and Wall Street malfeasance provide the American people with the necessary foundation of understanding and activist tools to seriously tackle the problem head on?

The embryo of a breakthrough idea is emerging amidst the smell of popcorn and Raisinets in theatres around the globe: the mega corporate structure is no longer facilitating product innovation as much as it is spawning audacious crime innovation. So big and bulky it can’t get out of its own way, let alone innovate, the bloated behemoth resorts to crime for profits.  Unless we think there is a future for our nation in patenting, securitizing and exporting felonious acts, we need to change course and fast.

Three films are standouts as a combined curriculum for leading Americans out of the darkness.  Together, they provide a compelling argument that the seeds of today’s financial calamity were planted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 1886 to effectively grant corporations the same protections as humans.

Each film uses its own unique stories of corporate atrocities but delivers the same underlying message: corporate personhood, heeding only the clarion call of profits at any cost, has developed the endemic traits of a psychopath, corrupting everything it touches from its own managers, courts, or governments.  As these corporate tentacles of corruption now reach into every conceivable part of our existence, the corporate personhood structure is effectively snuffing out human personhood, one foreclosed family at a time, one Bhopal disaster at a time, one corrupt judge jailing children for profit at a time.  If there is a Dickensian feel to all of this, it’s because deregulation of corporations is accelerating the devolving human nature of our society.

Ideally, the films should be viewed in this order: First, “The Corporation,” a 145 minute film by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, and Joel Bakan that premiered at Sundance in January 2004 and has racked up 26 international awards. A two-disc DVD now includes an additional eight hours of deleted scenes, Q and A’s, and clips sorted by person’s name or topic.

Next, Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story” which will be released to mass audiences in the U.S. on October 2 after September premieres in Venice and Toronto.  (I researched Moore’s film from released clips, web archived interviews and an extensive amount of European press.)

And, third, the uproarious corporate prankster movie which will begin its U.S. theatre release on October 7, “The Yes Men Fix the World.” This film presents a hilarious and ingenious how-to program on inflicting public shame on corporations within the confines of their own corporate confabs.

“The Corporation” begins by tracing the birth of the corporation and its rise to “personhood” status.  Prior to the Civil War, corporations were restrained by having their charters issued by states for specific purposes and terms.  If corporations engaged in illegal acts, their charters could be revoked.  But following the passage of the 14th Amendment, which provided that no state could “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” the corporations aggressively sought to gain personhood status for themselves.  The film notes that while 600,000 people died in the Civil War to give rights to people, from 1890 to 1910 the U.S. Supreme Court heard 307 cases under the 14th Amendment: 288 came from corporations; 19 by African Americans.  (The pivotal case the corporations use to cite their legal personhood is the 1886 Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific.)

The Yes Men have honed in on this same corporate personhood problem.  On November 12, 2008 the Yes Men (known as Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno) participated in a hoax that saw 1.2 million copies of an extremely high quality, but fake, New York Times being distributed in New York City and other major metropolitan areas.  The newsprint edition was backed up by an equally high quality web site.  Above the fold headlines declared “Iraq War Ends” and “Nation Sets Its Sights on Building Sane Economy.”  A spoof article outlines how John McCain is heading up a program to help corporations finish their quest to become fully human persons by achieving that one distinguishing characteristic: a conscience.  “You’d have to be very cynical to think that corporations, when they won protection as ‘persons’ under the ‘Freed Slave’ Amendment, were thinking only of their own wealth…It’s clear that corporations just admire humans and what we have. We should be good hosts and help them however we can. Right now, that means making them responsible and responsive.”

All three films, wittingly or unwittingly, focus the audience on the psychopathic tendencies of the modern day corporation.  Moore’s film delves into a host of malfeasances including some markedly grotesque examples.  One, previously detailed in the February 2, 2008 CounterPunch article “Global Finance and the Insanity Defense,” is the corporation’s purchase of large life insurance policies on their workers without their knowledge.  Called dead peasants’ insurance, janitor’s insurance or Corporate Owned Life Insurance (COLI), here’s what we reported in February 2008:

“Some of the largest corporations in America have been boosting their income statements by including cash buildup in the policies as well as receiving the death benefit tax free.

In 2003, the General Accountability Office (GAO) released a study with the startling findings that companies were taking out multiple policies on the same individual and that 3,209 banks and thrifts had current cash values in these policies totaling $56.3 Billion.

But instead of a congressional revolt against this revolting practice, it remained in place for at least 16 years after Congress first learned about it.  Then along comes the worker-friendly sounding Pension Protection Act of 2006 submitted by our Congress and signed by the President. Buried deep within this massive document was the grandfathering of the millions of previously issued policies with a little tinkering at the edges of tax and reporting issues on newly issued policies.”

Moore’s movie has not yet hit U.S. theatres and the Wall Street Journal and New York Times have already published pieces that discredit the filmmaker.  Matthew Kaminski, a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, says “Mr. Moore can’t be judged as a documentary film maker, except dismissively. He confuses issues on purpose. He repeatedly ignores the other side of the story. He never asks why, for example, a company might take out an insurance policy on a key employee.”    Here, Kaminski is guilty of his own charge, ignoring the other side of the story: billions of dollars of life insurance was taken out on non-key employees, without their knowledge.  In many cases the insurance remained in force after the employee left the firm, extinguishing any possible claim to an insurable interest as required under the law.

The New York Times, which together with Judith Miller relentlessly waved the pompoms in the leadup to the Iraq war, notes the following in a piece on Moore’s film by Michael Cieply, citing a study from the Center for Social Media: “The report found that documentarians, while they generally aspire to act honorably, often operate under ad hoc ethical codes. The craft tends to see itself as being bound less by the need to be accurate and fair than by a desire for social justice, to level the playing field between those who are perceived to be powerful and those who are not.”  The Times ran another piece by Bruce Headlam which devoted four words (“privatized juvenile detention centers”) out of a 2100 word article to Moore’s expose in the film on the jailing of children for profit.  Following is the background on what locals in Pennsylvania are calling the Kids for Cash scandal, a growing and fluid public corruption case. You decide if four words get the job done.
Our society has apparently begun to mimic the psychopathic corporate personhood role model.  Two judges (Mark Ciavarella Jr. and Michael Conahan), a lawyer (Robert Powell), and a builder (Robert K. Mericle) of privatized juvenile jails in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania have been charged by Federal prosecutors in a scheme to essentially sell kids, as if they were commodities, to fill up the for-profit jails.

Here’s how the scam went down according to criminal charges and civil suits:  first,  one of the judges cut off funding to the county’s own juvenile detention center; next he gave a green light to the builder and co-owner lawyer to build the first jail (a second one was later constructed); a 20 year, $58 million lease was signed by the county;  then his pal judge who headed the juvenile court facilitated a form being shoved under parents’ noses just before entering his courtroom waiving the child’s right to counsel.  Typically, within a few moments of the child entering the courtroom for “crimes” as small as slapping another child, making fun of school personnel on a website, or stealing change from unlocked cars, children were handcuffed, shackled and sent off to the privatized juvenile jail leaving parents stunned, crying and even fainting in the courtroom.  In many cases, children were incarcerated for months.

Very likely, many of these children will never again feel safe in our society; a precious part of their childhood has been viciously removed for profit.  The judges received over $2.5 million from Powell and Mericle in reward for their efforts.

You can bet that the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal will see no connection between the above episode and Wall Street’s transgressions.  So let me make the connection.  Attorney Powell needed the same comforts as Wall Street titans: a mansion, a private plane, and a 56’ yacht named “Reel Justice.”  The builder, Robert K. Mericle, has been permitted to essentially reduce his charges by placing $2.1 million in a fund for children.  According to the Times-Shamrock newspapers of Northeastern Pennsylvania, “In his plea agreement, Mericle agreed to donate $2.1 million to local programs promoting the health and welfare of children. Mericle has already placed the funds in an escrow account with his attorney, William Winning of the Philadelphia firm Cozen O’Connor, according to the agreement.”  This sounds very similar to Wall Street’s perpetual habit of committing massive crimes against the public and then settling for millions with the SEC.

And then there’s the matter of the two judges, who prosecutors say have been showing signs of hiding assets and may be a flight risk.  The judges are free on bail and not confined to their homes.  That’s more generous than Bernie Madoff’s home detention while he awaited sentencing.  What message does that send to these children and their families?

Also similar to the Madoff matter, for years people in Luzerne County tried everything short of shouting from the rooftops to expose the fact that these judges were up to no good but the investigation of these high powered people went nowhere: the list of people speaking out included the former county controller, Steve Flood, who eventually suffered a stroke and lost his ability to speak; the Juvenile Law Center which has now brought a civil suit on behalf of the children; a former Judge, Ann Lokuta, who says she was politically targeted for challenging the corruption; and parents of the children.

When Michael Moore says “I refuse to live in a country like this, and I’m not leaving,” he extols us to look deeply within ourselves.  How did we, some of the most hard working and creative people on the planet (as surely evidenced by Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno) allow our democracy to be transformed into a massive corporate crime scene?   (Moore wraps yellow crime scene tape around Wall Street in the film to underscore the point.)

Here’s my creative thought to start taking back our country: instead of giving gifts this holiday season that are made by corporations who have pillaged our democracy, give sets of the above three films.  For extra good measure, include Andrew and Leslie Cockburn’s film “American Casino,” the most insightful look yet at the foreclosure and housing crisis.

Pam Martens worked on Wall Street for 21 years; she has no security position, long or short, in any company mentioned in this article. She writes on public interest issues from New Hampshire. She can be reached at