On April 21, 2011, KC Move to Amend and the Department of Economics at University of Missouri-Kansas City cosponsored a public forum titled: "The Citizens United Ruling in Perspective."
Featuring two UMKC scholars, Professor of Economics Frederic S. Lee and Professor of Economics and Law William K. Black, the event might have attracted only other academic-types. But the organizers were amazed and pleased that an overflow crowd of 130 attended despite rainy weather and less than ideal parking options. A broad range of citizens from the Kansas City region eagerly sought information about Citizens United.
Professor Lee joked about the fire code and that there were only 80 chairs in the room because he didn’t believe there could be more than 80 people interested in this topic. His presentation, "The Corporation as a Going Concern and a Person: An Historical Perspective,"centered on how big corporations have come to dominate the economy and how specific Supreme Court rulings over the last century began to favor corporations, culminating in the Court’s ruling that corporations are people and money equals speech.
"The Road to Crony Capitalism" was the topic of Professor Bill Black’s presentation. He began with a 2003 picture of Chainsaw Jim Gilleran, the head of the Office of Thrift Supervision standing next to three of the leading bank lobbyist in the nation. The picture was from a media shot with the words “Mission Accomplished” repeated on the wall behind and the men in the act of cutting open a staged mound of paper wrapped in red tape with pruning sheers, and in Gilleran’s case, a chain saw, symbolizing doing away with federal regulations. Professor Black used the image as illustrative of the atmosphere of fraud and deregulation that led to the current economic crash.
Whereas Professor Lee had addressed the progression of the economic dominance of corporations, Professor Black addressed the effects of that power in the broader political sphere. Corporations have extended their influence on the government to provide protection in various areas (i.e., regulation, worker’s rights, consumer protections, litigation, and competition).
Professor Black stated that “corporate power over the last 100 years has become extraordinary, and has been used in immensely destructive ways,” culminating in the 2008 stock market meltdown and the loss of 10 trillion dollars and 10 million jobs.
Even with Professor Black’s firsthand knowledge of the corrupt, coercive, and corrosive effect of corporate campaign contributions, he could not gauge the extent of the damage the Citizens United ruling will ultimately cause our democracy.
Following the presentations, the professors took questions from the audience and a lively and animated discussion ensued. The audience was receptive and many wanted to know what can be done to fight the encroachment of big corporations into our democratic process.
Professor Black’s final warning was that corporations will not be satisfied with simple dominance. Perhaps the takeaway from the evening was that for “We the People” to be in charge of our government, we must rein in the influence of corporations despite the free rein they been given by the Citizens United ruling. We face an epic struggle.
Professor William K. Black is a white-collar criminologist, the author of “The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One,” is a frequent guest on local and national TV and radio including Bill Moyers Journal. He was a senior financial regulator who blew the whistle on former Speaker of the House Jim Wright and the Keating 5.
Professor Frederic S. Lee is the author of 3 books and over 50 scholarly articles. He is founder and past editor of the Heterodox Economics Newsletter, is the editor of The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, and is currently writing a monograph on Post Keynesian microeconomic theory.