Mitt Romney
© Eric Thayer / The New York TimesFormer Massachusetts Gov. and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets attendees at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, Aug. 11, 2011.

Mitt Romney got a lot of press for telling a heckler at the Iowa State Fair that "corporations are people." He did not go on to sing that Patti Smith song, People Have the Power.

But corporate "people" certainly do. Their power was on display this week, both in Washington and among the Republicans campaigning for the nomination.

Ordinary People

Here's Romney's quote in context:
"Corporations are people, my friend... of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to the people. Where do you think it goes? Whose pockets? Whose pockets? People's pockets. Human beings, my friend."
There's an interesting parsing of language going on here. Corporate money does eventually go into some people's pockets, of course, but Romney said "everything corporations earn ultimately goes to the people." "The people" is a phrase that refers to everyone -- the citizenry, the polis, the masses ... Romney's implying that corporate earnings go to all of us. The truth is that executive compensation has never been greater when it's compared to worker pay or average family incomes. That's one reason why we've been experiencing a massive transfer of wealth from the bottom 90% of Americans to the top 1%.

But that's not the sort of thing you want to say at a State Fair, is it? In that setting it's better to speak of corporations as "people" - or, if you prefer, as "jes' folks."

But if they're people, why don't you ever see them at state fairs? After all, people love fairs, so why don't they ever go? And when they do go to the fair, shouldn't they be allowed to participate in fun events along with all us other people? Halliburton should be able to swing that big mallet and make the bell ring. Exxon Mobil should be able to enter the 4H drawing and win a side of beef. And Blackwater should be able to shoot the popup prairie dog and win a stuffed animal for its date.

And if you don't feel that way, Mitt Romney's implying you're a bigot. You think some people are better than others. You don't want to be a bigot, do you?

Power to the People

Funny thing is, Romney's questioner wasn't asking him about corporate personhood. He was asking why Romney wants to cut Social Security but while preserving corporate tax breaks. It seemed as if Romney had already memorized this little speech and was looking for a chance to trot it out. He probably had.

Here's the paradox in this whole concept of "corporate personhood." When it comes to rights, Republicans say corporations are people. But when it comes to the responsibilities of personhood - like paying taxes, being sued for negligence or criminal manslaughter, that sort of thing - their response is "Are you crazy? We're talking about corporations here, not people."

The right-wing radicals on the Supreme Court demonstrated this definitional two-step beautifully at the end of the Court's last term. In a pair of decisions that received very little attention, they managed to allow pharmaceutical companies the rights of personhood without the responsibilities. In Sorrell vs. IMS Health, the Court ruled that states couldn't stop drug companies from collecting prescription patterns for individual physicians and then using that data to encourage them to use more expensive drugs. Corporations are people, after all, and that's infringing on their freedom of speech.

But in a second decision, Pliva v. Mensing, the Court ruled that manufacturers of generic drugs had no obligation to tell people about the adverse reactions otherpeople have had to the drug they're selling. If the brand-name manufacturers didn't tell people about those reactions, then the Court said the generic manufacturers don't have to either - even if they know those reactions could lead to death, or to terrible reactions like tardive kinesis.

Corporations are the kind of people who get to say whatever they want to whomever they want - unless they don't want to say anything. People like you and me might not be allowed to collect data on our neighbors and then use it to sell them stuff. And people like you and me would get our butts sued if we sold you something we knew could hurt or kill you. But apparently some people are more equal than others.

Adverse drug reactions cost an estimated $177 per year in 2000, according to a well-researched study. Because of medical inflation, that figure is much higher now. It's higher, in fact, that the total cost of cardiac care or diabetic care. Drug reactions also cause one out of every five injuries or deaths to patients who are in the hospital. You'd think there would be an obligation to disclose any information that could reduce those figures and save lives.

But those injuries and deaths happen to the wrong kind of people - the human kind.

Our Kind of People

Romney made his comments in the run-up to Thursday's Republican debate. How did that go? Michele Bachmann channeled her inner Freddie Mercury songbook with a We Are the Champions monologue in which she said that "I have a very consistent record of fighting very hard against Barack Obama and his unconstitutional measures in Congress ... People are looking for a champion. They want someone who has been fighting."

Tim Pawlenty responded by channeling his inner Tina Turner, laying down a We Don't Need Another Hero diatribe that concluded, "leading and failing is not the objective." He may be the only Republican politician in America who feels that way right now - and he's probably wrong, at least politically.

Romney, like any front-runner, wants to be as vague and amorphous as possible. His strategy has been to be an empty suit - unless he's conducting an outdoor photo up, in which case his goal is to be an empty ensemble from the 'rugged' pages of the Land's End catalog. That's smart for someone in his position, and it's why he's polling even with Obama and even leading in some polls.

(The President's strategy is similar to Romney's, but with a twist. He wants to be a liberal and a conservative who share the same suit. That's a risky approach. Elections are a referendum on the incumbent and we're in a terrible economy, so being all things to all people isn't likely to work well.)

People Will Talk

Romney also said he's "actually worked in the real economy." Where's the unreal economy? Second Life, or some other digital environment? Wait, we know. The unreal economy is the one where corporations are people - and where their money all goes to "the people." The real economy is the one we all live in, but there's no record Romney ever worked there. (Running Bain, the consulting company, doesn't count.)

"People, people, throw your love around. Take it into town. Put it into the ground where the flowers grow ..." R.E.M, Shiny Happy People

If corporations are people, they're very special people. They're people who, thanks to the Supreme Court and Citizens United, have the unlimited ability to express their "free speech" with billions of dollars in campaign cash and lobbying loot. Pharmaceutical companies alone have spent more than $2 billion in lobbying since 1998, while insurance companies spent $1.5 billion. When it comes to free speech, these "people" are real chatterboxes.

When it comes to corporate rights, Citizens United is your Supreme Court. Those two pharmaceutical company rulings are your Supreme Court on drugs.

All this corporate cash is creating a wave of deregulation, tax cuts, and other laws that benefit the corporate "people" and are ruining life for the flesh-and-blood kind. They're hijacking democracy. As one of Sartre's characters said in No Exit, "Hell is other people."

They can't do it alone, of course. Our corporate personages need help. And they get it - from their servants in the Republican Party, and from the many Democrats who are also eager to pitch in. It's a good thing for the corporations that they have so many friends in Washington. In fact, it's just like that Barbra Streisand song, isn't it? People who need people really are the luckiest people in the world.