, Port Arthur, Texas


October 14, 2013

The votes of the will o’ the wisps

PORT ARTHUR — I received a telephone call from a woman in Port Acres who had worked in the main office Gulf Oil Corporation in the 1940’s.  She wanted to know whether the library possessed memorabilia — picture and commentary — about Gulf’s Port Arthur headquarter, which were located at the end of Seventh Street.

Her inquiry led me to wonder about corporate entities, those paper beings whose overlords invent eyecatching logos so we’ll know who they are, sort of. Although there was nothing in the Yellow Pages identifying Gulf in Port Arthur, I got a hit, with the familiar orange and blue logo, for “Gulf Oil Corporation Limited, Hyderabad, India.”

Gulf Oil came into being in 1907, six years after the Spindletop discovery in 1901. A group of investors, the most prominent of whom was William Larimer Mellon, of the Mellon banking family of Pittsburgh, formed Gulf. By the early 1940’s, when my telephone caller worked there, Gulf was the eighth largest corporation in the United States. Its principal source of income was its Port Arthur refinery, which was fueled by a four hundred mile pipeline from Oklahoma, Spindletop having long since declined.

Gulf’s peak years as “Gulf” were from about 1940 until 1970. After that, the company did not die, but parts were spun off, it became more diversified as a fuel technology company, its Port Arthur Refinery want to Chevron, it moved its logo to Hyderabad, and so on.  What seems to me to have happened is not so much that the entity went away, but that newer business practices operated to render its parts more profitable to the CEO’s, CFO’s and majority stockholders who control such things.  One of the most complicated companies during that 30-year postwar heyday was General Dynamics, which had five major parts. By comparison to today’s Big Business, that was nothing.

So what is a “corporation?”  Unlike earlier times when “Gulf” was Gulf, corporations now may be vast octopus-like things with diverse branches and no particular focus. This brings me to the issue before the United States Supreme Court in 2010 in “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.” In essence the court said that a corporation is a person for purposes of contributing to a political campaign. Readers may recall Mitt Romney’s pithy summation in the 2012 presidential campaign: “Corporations are people.” Thus, just as I might contribute to Elizabeth Warren’s campaign, so might BP (not likely).

So what’s wrong with that?

Five members of the Supreme Court said that there was nothing wrong with that. The other four said that it was the height of absurdity to attach “personhood” to a sheaf of papers. While it is true that corporations are “persons” subject to lawsuits like any other persons and have been since the beginning of the republic, it is manifest that corporations don’t hold opinions, think, make judgments about candidates’ qualifications, and the like. The majority found that there was an issue of free speech: that corporations, “ like other people,” had a right to free speech — more precisely, whether the Federal Election Law banning corporate entities from airing campaign materials during the 60 days preceding an election was a violation of first amendment rights. The majority said it was a violation.

    Speaking for the minority, Justice Stevens, since retired, said that the majority opinion was “profoundly misguided.” Most importantly, the majority opinion said that the first amendment right of speech is identity-neutral: “the Government cannot restrict political speech based on the speaker’s … identity.”

Thus it makes no difference whether the speaker is me or Microsoft. Isn’t there something wrong with that? Consider this, says Justice Stevens: under the majority opinion in “Citizens United,” an Iranian or North Korean arms manufacturer with corporate offices legitimately established in the United States could not be prevented from contributing to a political campaign (Stevens also points out that during World War II, using the majority’s rationale, Tokyo Rose could not have been prevented from addressing the troops!).

       Finally, the majority rested its opinion on the “ancient precepts” of the first amendment as applying from the beginning of the constitutional republic. This must titillate Justice Scalia, a self-described “originalist.” However it is flatly wrong. When the constitution was written, free speech rights were only thought of as applying to individuals. In fact most legislators were very dubious of what few corporate entities (the Dutch East India Company?) were around. Corporations existed at the behest of the state, and were very closely watched. It would have been absurd to think of a corporation as having a right to say anything. Had Scalia a grain of intellectual honesty, which he does not, he would have sided with the minority here (and made it a majority).

The situation of Gulf is not unusual. Corporation go in and out of existence. Secretaries of State offices are littered with corporate corpses, some still in their infancies. Thus to accord Gulf speech rights, and the ability of influence the outcome of elections, would be on a par with allowing will o’ the wisps to vote.

Rick Whitaker is assistant director of the Port Arthur Public Library, 4615 Ninth Ave. Contact him at 409-985-8838 x2241.

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