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  1. Opinion

Weingarten: A future take on company men

Can Bed Bath & Beyond be president?
Can Bed Bath & Beyond be president?
Published Jul. 28, 2014

WASHINGTON, Jan. 20, 2027 — In his inaugural address, President Kraft Foods promised Tuesday that America would continue fostering the business-friendly atmosphere begun under his predecessor, President Jiffy Lube. The incoming and outgoing Republican heads of state were accompanied, as always, by their chiefs of staff, corporate mascots "Cheesasaurus Rex" and "Lubie," the dancing drop of motor oil, respectively.

WASHINGTON

The recent Hobby Lobby ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court was controversial mostly because it seemed to assert that freedom of religion trumps the right to affordable health care. But there was a second, less reported effect: It solidified and extended the court's contention that corporations are people. Now, large businesses not only have the right of free speech, as defined by political donations, but also the right to practice their faith, as defined by the ability to deny employees birth control measures of which the company disapproves.

Why stop there? If a corporation is a person, why can't it run for president, so long as it meets the constitutional mandate of being at least 35 years old and having been born in the United States? (This would enable a President Bed Bath & Beyond but draw the line at President Five Guys, who is still a callow 28, and also at President Adidas, who was born in Germany.)

But there might be other problems for these newly human corporate entities. As a colleague of mine observed, if corporations are people, how can they be owned by people? That sort of thing has been illegal for a century and a half. I suppose you could still own some stocks — "You wan' a piece a me?" is a very human question — but surely not more than 50 percent, which would imply true ownership. Perhaps we need a lawsuit or two to force a lot of plutocrats to divest their portfolios.

Okay, just spitballing here, but let's say, in the future, two corporations want to combine their assets and liabilities and become a joint entity united in a common cause. As corporations, this is a "merger," but as people, it is "marriage," plain and simple, which raises the obvious question, which we ask now with all appropriate suspicion and conservatively narrowed eyes: Just what kind of a marriage is this? To know, you'd have to know the sex of the corporations, which perhaps the law will define as the majority gender on the board of directors.

I think we know where this is going: What if these merging corporations are from states that don't allow same-sex marriage? I'm guessing same-sex marriage might rather quickly become the law of the land.

This is a promising line of speculation!

Okay, now let's say that one corporate-human entity wants to merge with another, but the second one doesn't want that to happen, and resists. In the rough-and-tumble world of big-stakes high finance, this scenario occurs from time to time. It is a perfectly legitimate if singularly nasty tool of titans called the "hostile takeover." Hewlett-Packard famously did this to Compaq, and corporate raider Carl Icahn famously did this to TWA, and in each case they had their way with the weaker, unwilling partner, and no one went to jail.

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But as a person, if a corporation forces another corporate-person to merge with them — well, that is a different matter altogether, a matter for the criminal courts, ideally involving long prison sentences.

So, for the record, Supreme Court, I'm conditionally in favor of this corporation-as-person paradigm, so long as you take it to its logical conclusion.

© 2014 Washington Post Writers Group

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