corporations should be treated as species, not as persons
2009-09-20

The thought came about because I ate at McDonald’s today. I eat a lot of fast food, but I usually don’t eat at McD’s very often, unless I need to eat while I’m driving. I avoid it partly because of a perception that it’s ‘less healthy’ (and rather more boring) than other fast food options.

But when I really paid attention to the menu – and, even in the crappy neighborhood where this was located, the incredible cleanliness of the place, the good repair of the fixtures, the perfect hand-and-mouth size of the dishes, and the positive attitude of the personal helping me – I realized that McDonalds, in a great many ways, is probably the healthiest food ever concocted.

In part thanks to pressure from consumer groups, everything is really well balanced, or at least you can make choices that are balanced. In fact, I realized, that’s part of what’s wrong with it – they don’t fry the pies anymore, the fries are done in vegetable oil, etc – so it’s a bit bland compared to other fast food chains, whose small size allows them to play a little more fast and loose.

(and shut up vegetarians, people are made out of meat, eating meat is good, that’s off the table for this discussion, this would be just as relevant if McD’s only served veggies – but people eat meat, period.)

McDonald’s evolved into the econiche of “fuel humans” to perfection. I have confidence that market forces – and a desire to avoid getting sued – have made their entire food process the pinnacle of human needs. Boring, predictable, but clean reasonably fresh, on a global scale.

Of course, it doesn’t have the hippie-dippie virtue of “wholeness” and “connection to the earth.” Those things are nice, but I tend to be a scientist, and you can’t measure them – by the factors that you CAN measure (vitamins, lack of harmful bacteria, choices that balance fat, protein, and sugars, etc), McD’s, specifically, bends over backwards to hit every note.

Quite simply, if the econiche is “feed as many people as possible for the lowest cost and maximum nutrition” then I cannot imagine a better way to accomplish it.

The next part is that corporations evolve to fill those niches – like any other organism, they can’t really be blamed for taking an opportunity. And we’ve learned that while you don’t have to worry to much about the individuals of a species, you have to respect a species as a whole. We might imagine ridding the world of cockroaches, but you can bet there would be repercussions – something else would starve to death. An overly aggressive stance against certain bacteria (staph, etc) has caused them to evolve into more virulent forms.

And thus, the point… I’ve read many activists speak of a ‘death sentence’ for corporations – and corporations themselves wish to be treated as persons. But you can’t kill a corporation or put it in jail – and you probably shouldn’t, even a toxic one. Instead, we should learn to manage them – corporate husbandry. You get a company that is ‘too big to fail,’ or is guilty of some crime or another on a systemic, organizational scale, you can’t kill it off any more than you can get rid of any species. Instead, we need to learn to manage an Exxon or a Citigroup the way we manage cows, beavers, bees, kudzu, or cockroches. Cutting back, redirecting. Keeping them in pens, or keeping them out of certain areas.

Imagine, if you wish, that we could destroy all the companies – but be prepared to grow all your own food, to weave your own fabric, to hew your own bicycle from native bamboo, to communicate with friendly volunteer couriers instead of email. Corporations are needed because none of us wants to be responsible for everything – we need things, and these legal monsters rise up to fill those needs. Nothing else can do the job.

Each company is a precious and unique snowflake, and just like living species, we should be wary of eliminating any of them lightly.

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Ello