I've been taking a bit of break from the relentlessly depressing news cycle recently. Instead, I've been reading the relentlessly depressing prognostications of James Howard Kunstler in his 2005 book The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. The basic premise is that we are living in the age of cheap oil, which has enabled all the technological advancements we've seen in the past 150 years, but it's running out. And that is bad for us.
It's really a pretty fascinating take on modern society and where it's heading. Along the way, he delves into recent history to back up his arguments. This bit on the history of corporations reminded me what a terrible thing the modern corporation can be, with no real obligation to protect the public interest:
In the early days of the United States there were very few corporations, and of those almost all were created for building of public works such as canals, roads, and bridges. Their officers could be held personally responsible for failures and disasters. Their charters lasted between ten and forty years, often requiring the termination of the corporation on completion of a specified task. In the 1840s, as railroads began to be organized, the nature of corporations changed.
By the 1850s, the idea of limited liability began to be adopted in law. Officers of corporations were no longer held personally liable for the financial vicissitudes of a venture, apart from cases of criminal wrongdoing - and there was broad latitude in this, too, if only because the law lagged behind new swindles being innovated alongside new technologies. Under limited liability, a corporation could go bankrupt, but the personal assets of its executives and stockholders enjoyed protection. A corporation could be sued for some misfeasance, and perhaps ruined, put out of business, but the officers were not necessarily subject to civil damages. By 1886, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that corporations essentially had to be treated as "natural persons" under the law, specifically the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution, which had been crafted recently to protect freed slaves in the Post-Civil War South. A corporation was able to use this new "identity" as a means to escape onerous regulations that might abridge its life, liberty, or property. Finally, the life of this fictitious corporate "person" was no longer deemed to be limited to any term of years but would be permitted a kind of immortality, to continue on past the lives of its founders.
Blech. But it's not all bad. American consumers can still exercise their freedoms by choosing from a wide variety of tasty breakfast cereals and many different brands of cars.