Enjoying That Roasted Scapegoat?

[Editor’s note: A San Antonio executive writing under the pen name Felix Culpa graces our blog with his fourth post.]

Haters of evil, greedy corporations: good news! You have a new target to vilify!

It’s Wells Fargo, which agreed to pay $190 million in fines after creating fake accounts and forging documents in order to sell unwanted services to customers without authorization.

In addition to the record-high fine, the company is suffering severe damage to its carefully crafted reputation. Lawsuits are likely to follow. And all of you who demonize corporations get to roast a scapegoat.

Bravura performance at this week’s hearing, Senator Warren!

Elizabeth Warren speaks with voters as she campaigns after announcing her candidacy for the U.S. Senate in Framingham
Sen. Elizabeth Warren brutalizes some executive with her large index finger

But one wonders whether you’re aware of the irony at work here.

After all, one imagines that many of you lining up to take action against Wells Fargo earned your anti-capitalist cred via your outrage over the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which confirmed that certain organizations — like corporations — share some of the constitutional rights that citizens have. In that case, it was the right of political speech.

You probably held up signs and chanted that “corporations aren’t people.” But, in fact, by incorporating under the law, companies have always been granted certain rights and protections. The irony is that these rights include things like the right to pay taxes, the right to be sued, the right to be forced into bankruptcy, and the right to be held accountable for misdeeds. Just like Wells Fargo.

Yes, individuals at the company can be held accountable too. At Wells Fargo, more than 5,000 people have been fired for violating the rules. Prosecutors are probably exploring the possibility of criminal charges. Ken Lay, Jeffrey Skilling and Andy Fastow of Enron went to jail. In the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal, a company engineer has pleaded guilty, and there’s speculation that the Justice Department is building criminal cases against other top officials. Going after individual bad actors is always part of the process.

But the main target always is the corporation itself, and rightfully so. Especially where fines are concerned, a corporation has much deeper pockets than even the highest-compensated CEO.

You may argue that corporations can’t be sent to prison, but they can receive a death penalty verdict – like Arthur Andersen did – and they can even be wrongly convicted – like Arthur Andersen was.

So next time you get the urge to occupy Wall Street or whatever to protest against corporations’ rights, keep in mind that those rights work both ways, and right now they’re working in your favor.

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