Saturday, February 27, 2010


Tonight is the Jewish holiday of Purim. That means that I am about to deliver an oration this evening, and by the end of the oration, I will post a transcript of the talk on the "Annual Purim Speeches" page of my website, I encourage you to read it Monday morning.

Now to the business at hand. This week, for only the second time, the Empathic Rationalist blog will be written by a guest. The writer is former Oregon Senate candidate, and VERY nearly the Junior United States Senator from Oregon, Steve Novick.

I asked Steve, who has been one of my closest friends for decades, to provide a post on whatever he wanted, and told him that I would not edit it. It's ironic that the topic he chose is a recent Supreme Court decision, because, given the nature of my day job at the U.S. Department of Justice, I'm not personally willing to write a blog about the law. Indeed, permit me to include the disclaimer that the following statements and implications are Steve's alone; I offer no public opinion about them.

So here it is -- Steve Novick's guest post:

Citizens United and the Corruption of CEOs’ Souls

Like most of you, I’ve been awfully worried about the implications of the Citizens United case. I think it’s quite possible that the Supreme Court just pushed us a big step down the road toward being an out-and-out banana republic. Having the power to spend vast sums of money to determine the outcome of elections, I don’t see how big corporations can be expected not to use that power; and I don’t think we can be na├»ve about the ability of large sums of money to influence elections.

I don’t think the members of the Court who were in the majority are worried about increasing corporate influence in American politics. But did it ever occur to these good Christian men that they were also warping the souls of the corporate executives who will feel compelled to take advantage of their enhanced ability to corrupt the political process?

One of the greatest books ever about American history was the autobiography of the journalist Lincoln Stephens, who chronicled the systematic corruption of American politics – at every level – around the turn of the 20th century. One of the most interesting stories Stephens told was about his meeting with the timber magnate Weyerhauser, whose company is still a behemoth. The person who suggested that Stephens interview Weyerhauser told him: “I know about him because of a law case. He wanted to log lumber down streams so small that boats could not float on them, and he couldn’t legally, because they were not ‘navigable streams.’ So he had the courts decide that logs were boats; a stream that navigated logs was a navigable stream ….”

So Stephens went to see Weyerhauser. Here are the most interesting selections from the discussion:

“I am never interviewed,” he said. “I don’t care for write-ups.”

“I don’t propose to write you up,” I said. “I want to write you down.”

He stopped, looked. “Come in,” he invited …

I told him that I had learned that he had started with nothing and acquired a fortune and half the forests of America. “What did it cost you?” I asked.

His intelligent, wide-open eyes saw something of my meaning. His smile vanished; his face grew serious. “You mean – “

“Yes, I mean that there are lots of able men in this country who have set out with no capital, made millions, and then tell us it cost them nothing but work, hard work. I think it cost them – something else. I think it cost them as much or more than they made. How rich are you?”

He sat still a moment, then rose and closed his office door. When he came back – all very slowly, deliberately – and sat down, he said seriously: “I don’t know how rich I am. I’ll ask the bank downstairs to make an estimate for us. And I don’t know what it has cost me – either. I have often wondered. You mean the things I have had to do – to do business? Yes. I thought so. Well, that has bothered me a great deal. I have often wanted to talk it over with somebody. There was nobody –“

“Why not your pastor?”

“Oh, the clergy – they don’t understand.”

“They just tell you to stop it?”

“Yes, and you can’t.”

“Well, there’s your banker, other successful business men,” I suggested.

He saw my smile, but wouldn’t join in the jest. “Some of them worry too,” he protested, “but –“

He stopped, shaking his head.

“They just say go on?”

He nodded, abstractly. We were silent a moment; he was thinking; he wanted to talk.

“What do you have to do -?” I asked softly, and there was an immediate response. He had been looking down; his face turned up to me, and he said: “I’d like to tell you. Can I? In confidence? You can’t print it, of course.”

I hesitated; it wasn’t fair to the magazine to take this for myself, but what could I do?

“I promise, sure,” I promised.

He told me what he did to get hold of the timber, how he did it, how he got and used power in politics. And he told me, questioningly, how he justified it. He began with the ordinary practices of a business man, contributions to campaign funds. He was testing me. Did I judge? Did I show shock? I didn’t. I saw the compulsion on upon him, said so, and he, encouraged, opened up more and more of the picture. We were shut in there all the forenoon, three or four hours. I did not try to help or hurt him, just listened, and he talked himself out. Toward noon he got back to his balance of profits on money and his loss in – something, and he remembered his promise. HE called the bank downstairs on the phone.

“There’s an man here,” he said, “who has asked me how rich I am. Can you make a rough estimate? No? Too long a job? All right.” He hung up. “He doesn’t know either, can’t say offhand.”

“It doesn’t matter now,” I said. “Does it?”

“No. That isn’t the point. We’ve got the cost; the profits don’t matter.”

I wish the Justices of the Supreme Court had read that passage before they made their decision in Citizens United.

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