Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
What Merits the Corporate Death Penalty?
Friday, May 27, 2011
Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. The Supreme Court upheld an Arizona law that allows the state to impose the "corporate death penalty" for companies who utilize illegal workers. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, Les Leopold, executive director of the Labor Institute and author of The Looting of America: How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed Our Jobs, Pensions, and Prosperity—and What We Can Do About It, discussed the law—and what else should qualify corporations for the "corporate death penalty."
Bigger issues than immigration
Businesses operating in Arizona face a "corporate death penalty" if they are discovered to knowingly employ illegal immigrants. The threat of lost licenses returns attention to the debate about illegal immigration in the United States, but Brian Lehrer was more intrigued by the idea of death penalty as punishment for other, perhaps more damaging forms of corporate malfeasance.
Les Leopold was, too. He said that the conversation about undocumented workers distracts from the fundamental problems with our economy. Whether it's the death penalty or something less drastic, opportunities for more more government oversight and intervention should be welcomed by the public, especially in the wake of the financial crisis.
It opens up a Pandora's box about what we can actually do with recidivist corporations who are doing us in. I'd like to see the same kind of rule applied to Wall Street; the crimes involved there are so much greater in magnitude...and no one has been punished. Imagine if a hedge fund got caught involved in systematic insider trading and lost their license and could never do business again.
Undocumented workers, unsafe conditions
One caller brought up the argument that it would be consistent with last year's Citizens United ruling for corporations to face the same criminal penalties as individuals. If corporations are people and therefore have the right to free speech, then they are also people when it comes time to assess wrongdoing and dole out punishment.
"They've always had it both ways," said Leopold. "When personhood helps corporations maintain profitability and their position in society, then it's fine. When you get over into the area of criminal liability and such, then it's not fine." He points to occupational hazards and on-site deaths as potential grounds for criminal action.
There's a huge difference between a Department of Energy weapons site and, let's say, a private oil refinery. The weapons facilities literally have no deaths. They try to make sure production is safe and they're meticulous about it.
Not so in the private sector. What that tells me is that it could be meticulous in the refinery. Every time there was a near miss it would be investigated, the root cause found and you would do something about near misses before they built up and you had a massive explosion. It's doable, but there's nothing to force it to happen. The possibility of losing a whole entire business may in fact turn the regime in the private sector to look like it does in the energy department.