Corp House Rock!

   When a bully gets bigger
   And makes us cower
   With cash to burn
   ‘Cuz money is power!

   If corporate tyrants
   Could only be mocked
   Before their trip to the big house:
   Corp House Rock!

Americans who grew up during the 1970s and 1980s and awakened to cartoons every Saturday may remember watching some short cartoon music videos on ABC during commercial breaks. Called Schoolhouse Rock! (SHR), the videos were the brainchild of some advertising executives, one of whom wanted to find a way for his son to remember his times tables as confidently as he remembered the lyrics to popular songs. So, the partners used their ingrained creativity to marry music and education and pitched the idea to an ABC executive named Michael Eisner. Eisner, who was already influential back then, liked the concept, and he instructed the cartoon studios that broadcasted on ABC to cut three minutes from each of their shows to accommodate a SHR video. He also recruited a corporate sponsor for the spots and the result was a pop culture institution. So dedicated to their project were the creators that they even used their own money to fund it. “More kids saw Schoolhouse Rock! than ever watched Sesame Street,” one of them proudly stated. His partner added: “We never made a great deal of money…we did it for fun, really.”1

Imagine an executive in any industry fondly uttering that last line today. Such quaint behavior by a bunch of businessmen makes one wonder if the 1970s were a different time in America. Apparently they were, due in no small part to groups that pressured TV stations to include more quality programs for children. Even the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) joined in, acting like the public airwaves regulator it was supposed to be by requiring that more educational programming be shown. In fact, the 1970s were the heyday of public service broadcasts. The payoff for SHR was four Emmys in five years for quality children’s programming.2 The marriage of music, cartoons, and education had succeeded, and aside from the presence of a handful of sponsors, the series was not over-commercialized. The videos were generic and they, rather than the accompanying commercials, were what captivated audiences and what they tend to remember today when they think back to those days.

The good times would not last, however. After Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, he loosened the rules on the media, and that led to cuts in educational programming. SHR therefore disappeared from people’s TV sets by 1985 after a 12-year run. But the public’s affection for the show never disappeared, and after many of its original fans (who had since grown up) kept inquiring about it when it was off the air, it had made a comeback by the time Disney acquired the parent company of ABC in 1995. SHR largely owed its comeback to the efforts of these original fans, most of whom were in their 20s and 30s by that time. The twenty-somethings, many of them college students during the early 1990s, mounted grassroots efforts in the form of petitions and constant calls to one of the creators to revive the series, according to that creator. Although there were fewer broadcasts of SHR during its second run, Disney partly made up for this by marketing the series in the form of home videos and other merchandise, although not as heavily as its marketing of its own animated creations.2

During its first run, SHR was divided into four series: America Rock, Grammar Rock, Science Rock, and Multiplication Rock. A few of the most popular songs in the collection have been parodied by other popular shows.3 So, I thought: Wouldn’t it be a trip if there were parodies of some SHR songs as they pertain to corporations?4 Since the chorus is usually the catchiest part of a song, why not alter it for a couple of songs and see how they play? After re-examining the ten most popular songs in the anthology, I picked five of them and satirized their choruses as best as I could.5

Corporations!

First is a song from Grammar Rock, which has the largest representation of songs in the top ten. The title of the song sounds similar to the subject of our discussion. “Interjections!” ends with the famous line by the daughter of one of the creators (“Darn, that’s the end!”). Here however:

   Corporations
   Have entitlements and protections.
   They try to claim they’re local citizens
   Just to win some brownie points,
   And then skip town when a better deal comes along.

   So when your family’s
   Been had (Crap!)
   By a company
   That’s a cad (Damn!)
   It’s like they got you
   By the gonads (Argh!)
   These corporations love to squeeze ‘em tight!

From Schoolhouse Rock!
From Schoolhouse Rock!

A number of corporations, professional sports franchises being the most prominent, continue to demand tax breaks in one area while threatening to relocate to cheaper or more lucrative areas and cut jobs or fail to create new ones. Sometimes they get what they want and bolt anyway. Lately, they have even been demanding (and usually getting) these concessions in the wake of national crises like 09/11 and Hurricane Katrina.6

A Corporation is a Person, Place, or Thing

Next is another Grammar Rock song, “A Noun is a Person, Place or Thing”. Since corporations have been treated like superheroes for so long, enjoying advantages like the ability to potentially exist indefinitely, avoid prison despite recidivist, felonious acts, and (re)incorporate in some offshore tax haven (while staying put in their host countries)7 to avoid taxes, why not spoof the chorus of this song to reflect these things as well?

   When any business that you know
   Can behave like a criminal
   And keep on living,
   Has the world turned upside down?
   A corporation’s not deterred
   By statutes written for the birds.
   I find it quite frightening
   When a corporation is a person, place, or thing.

artificial persons
Today’s lesson is about artificial persons (from Schoolhouse Rock!)

The “birds” are the 99.9 percent of us who cannot physically leave our home countries to incorporate ourselves in or transfer our funds to places like the Cayman Islands to avoid taxation — all while continuing to enjoy the rights and protections afforded by our home countries. We could certainly try, but we would most likely end up in a cage if we do.

Injunction Junction

Conjunction Junction” is one of the all-time SHR classics with a chorus that is arguably the most memorable of any SHR song. Here, I changed it to provide a short account of how corporations are the biggest users of the legal system to get what they want:8

   Injunction Junction, what’s your function?
   Gagging anyone who offends my clients.
   Injunction Junction, how’s that function?
   I got three favorite ways to get most of my work done.
   Injunction Junction, what’s their function?
   Congress, courts, and cops all provide me with backbone.

   “Congress” — that’s the jury that kisses corporate ass.
   “Courts” — that’s the judge who lets my clients’ motions pass.
   And then “cops” — that’s the executioner who helps suppress the masses.
   Congress, courts, and cops
   Are why my clients get the drop … on everyone else!

   Injunction Junction, where’s your gumption?
   I’m just a simple piece of paper with neither heart nor soul now.
   Injunction Junction has no compunction.
   I’m going to target you next if you’re not very careful.

Railways Ruled
When railroads ruled America (from Schoolhouse Rock!)

Not only that, but corporations enjoy the right to free speech, privacy, due process, and equal protection. Indeed, since 1886, they have enjoyed them plus the benefits of the 14th Amendment much more than freed male slaves and their male descendants, who were the intended primary beneficiaries of the amendment. Moreover, corporations are the only artificial entities that enjoy these rights. Small businesses, churches, civic groups, labor unions, and governments at all levels do not.9

Corporate America Preamble

The America Rock series dealt with certain aspects of American History and Government, even if it ignored most of the unsavory episodes in the country’s past, like slavery and crimes against Native Americans. Still, it was a starting point for anyone who wanted to probe deeper into American heritage. One of the most popular songs in the series,5 “The Preamble,” provided a simplified account of the foreword to the Constitution. (Some fans of the song claimed years later that they relied on it when they were tested on the Constitution in school.) It appears in abridged form in the song as the chorus (and can be heard here):

   We the People
   In order to form a more perfect union,
   Establish justice, insure domestic tranquility,
   Provide for the common defense,
   Promote the general welfare and
   Secure the blessings of liberty
   To ourselves and our posterity
   Do ordain and establish this Constitution
   For the United States of America.

Did the Founding Fathers intend for “The Preamble” to flow like a poem? If so, then let the flow be repeated in Corporate America’s version:

   We the executives
   In order to bust all existing unions,
   Establish trusts, ensure domestic monopoly,
   Handouts at taxpayer expense,
   Promote the corporate welfare and
   Secure every last subsidy
   For ourselves and our plutocracy
   Do obtain any piece of pork barrel legislation
   From the United States of America.

Founding Fathers
What our Founding Fathers did not set out to do (from Schoolhouse Rock!)

Corporations, which some of the Founding Fathers warned against,10 have fiercely defended their right to personhood since the late 19th Century (courtesy of a headnote to the 1886 Supreme Court case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, which a court reporter who happened to be a former railroad executive had written, although this was not stated in the decision itself), but seem to abide by their own set of rules when it is convenient to do so instead of following those created for living, breathing people.

Real people are expected to be responsible for their actions. Corporations, however, have been able to shirk many of their responsibilities by externalizing their costs of doing business on society (privatize the gains, socialize the pains). But they never forget to be seen with the movers and shakers in government and donate to their re-election campaigns with the expectation of getting much more in return. That is corporate welfare. Welfare for an inner city, steak-eating, Cadillac-driving mama with eight kids and four dead husbands is bad, but for big business, it is simply supply-side economics that is supposed to lift all boats. Even as their tax rates go down, corporations still make much more use of public resources than humans, which means that the tax burden falls more heavily on real people of average or limited means, who have to pay a larger portion of the tax bill to retain the services most of them use or else see them go.11

I’m Just a Shill

Last is a lampoon of “I’m Just a Bill,” which could be the most popular tune in the whole SHR enchilada:

   I’m just a shill
   Made up to look like a bill
   And I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill.
   Whereas the lobbyists who back me
   Get to wine and dine.
   Spending lots of dough
   To kiss some senators’ behinds.
   So I know I’ll be a law someday…
   Then I’ll go out and raid the public till
   But today I am still just a shill.
12

My advice?
“My advice? Just follow the money, kid.” (From Schoolhouse Rock!)

“It is ironic that big business tries to insure that government stays on the sidelines and pursues laissez faire policies, until big business needs the government (usually aided by the U.S. Military) to make some country or region ‘safe’ for its business interests,” wrote an academic. Socialism seems to work mighty fine for any corporation big enough to command it, making them among the biggest hogs to feed on the public trough, while everyone else is expected to fend for him or herself and follow the rules of the “free market”.

The Cult of Corporate Personality

In creating SHR because he wanted to help his son do better in math, the advertising executive acted like the concerned parent he was obligated to be rather than someone who was merely focused on fattening his company’s bottom line. Because he succeeded in his former role, he was able to help turn his co-creation into something that benefited society, and just in time. SHR debuted just a few weeks before the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam for good, by which time the country was seeking an escape from the unpleasantries of the war and later Watergate. Many American parents considered the TV images coming from Vietnam (the first televised war) too graphic to share with their children, which was a reason why they welcomed something like SHR – a program that delivered sanitized edutainment.13

While it was big business that put SHR on the map, the big business of today is not the big business at the time of its genesis, as the restraints placed on corporate power have steadily eroded over the last 30 years. SHR is an example of a bygone era when a few more practitioners of capitalism more or less did well while doing good and “Thank goodness for the FCC!” meant something different then.14 With the government’s blessings, media has since consolidated. But after Disney acquired ABC, it went through a period in which its fortunes plummeted with a string of TV programs with disappointing ratings and box office flops. Although neither new nor a full-length program, SHR was one of ABC’s few winners until its comeback ended in 2001. Unless it makes a second comeback, the end of an era has come for this beloved creation, although it survives on home video.

In 2003, one of Walt Disney’s nephews, a Disney board member and major shareholder, called the company “soulless” and accused it and Eisner (who became CEO in 1984) of ignoring the company’s creative roots. Such condemnation from a member of the Disney clan would lead to a revolt by many Disney shareholders that resulted in Eisner’s resignation in 2005. The nephew was right in at least one respect. Corporations are soulless. These “persons” do not eat, drink, breathe, sleep, laugh, cry, smell, fart, urinate, defecate, love, make love, hate, murder, feel joy, feel pain, exhibit cruelty, or exhibit compassion, but the real people who run them do, and they usually ensure that their “legal fictions” be as undemocratic as possible. Despite the success of corporations in gaining many civil rights that are a basis for a democratic society, they usually do not extend these rights, most notably free speech and privacy, to their employees.15 But then, corporations are not legally required to be socially responsible. Their main tasks are to make as much money as possible and please their shareholders (more specifically their significant shareholders) and Wall Street.16 Rare is the corporation today that tries to be socially responsible and prospers.

Folks don’t even own themselves, payin’ mental rent to corporate presidents.
Public Enemy

All employees of a company, from the CEO on down, are expected to do their utmost to make it grow, sometimes at the expense of their own personal lives, dignity, and health. It is as if everyone in the company has to devote his/her soul to serve an abstract entity — sort of like the Separatists serving Darth Sidious like the droids that most of them were, with most of them never having met him in person — that benefits the entity more than themselves. As long as everyone sinks or swims together, the toil seems acceptable. But when some continue to reap rewards even when the company is tanking, like the CEO who is jettisoned with a “golden parachute” after running a company to the ground, then that creates resentment.

There is an innate human tendency for people to come together to achieve a common goal, and this practice has worked well for a long time. But in group settings, people can be easier to organize and control and sometimes made to behave in ways that go against their better nature. In other words, they can be easy targets for those exhibiting antisocial, ignoble, and even downright criminal tendencies. These are the traits a psychopath tends to manifest, and that is what a corporation was said to be.17 But to call a corporation a psychopath would be to acknowledge its status as a person. Is it really the corporation that is demonstrating the psychopathic behavior or its principal administrators who devote almost everything to worship at the altar of some unseen corporate god — and expect their subordinates to do the same? When an organization — be it an army, a church, a corporation, a gang, or a government — reaches a point in which its leaders expect full compliance with their ways and tolerate no disagreement, then it assumes the characteristics of a cult.

Corporations have given us many of the products we need (or think we need) and want, including widely popular institutions like SHR and Star Wars. Many of us still depend on them for work, and we would probably be happy to draw the line there. Just because we have come to enjoy and sometimes depend on the goods corporations make does not mean that we have given them a green light to encroach upon our lives or push for legislation that would benefit themselves at our expense. Small businesses and governments also employ people and provide essential facilities and services, with the latter making infrastructure, police, fire services, and the courts available, all of which corporations use and benefit from more than people.18 Most people would be quick to denounce any government that infringes on their livelihoods. It should be no different when corporations attempt to do the same thing.

It may be hard to imagine it now, but in their early days, corporations were heavily regulated, only being allowed to deliver specific products or services and nothing more. They were liable to a corporate death sentence if they violated their charters.19 Their actions were still quite fettered as recently as the 1970s, which may explain why those executives who created SHR behaved in a way that would seem strange today. Operating on a tighter leash, corporations back then were a little more responsible to their workers and communities. With the loosening of controls since then, corporate crime has skyrocketed, making it hundreds of times more costly than street crime.20 Not surprisingly, when SHR came out with a new series, Money Rock, in the 1990s, its creators played it safe by not exploring some of the sleazier aspects of capitalism that would displease their masters at ABC and Disney.

With big business and government usually on the same side, people and communities across the world have had to rely mainly on themselves to fight back against corporate wrongdoing with legal and illegal methods, like boycotts, dialogue, legislation (including attempts at the local level to revoke corporate personhood21), litigation, petitions, protests, public education, sabotage, strikes, and terrorism. Regardless of the methods they have used, they have indicated that they do not want to be dominated by an entity that was supposed to serve them. Victories may be few, but some corporations do change in response to public pressure. Others would rather spend a lot of money on PR to conceal a problem than spend a smaller amount to resolve it before it blows up. But PR is a gesture intended to placate the general public, while behind the scenes, many companies try to limit their liability by bribing, isolating, and even intimidating into silence the people most affected by their misconduct. These tactics work particularly well in smaller communities in which a single corporation is usually the only game in town. The August 2007 coal mine disasters in China and the U.S. serve to illustrate their effectiveness, but even in the former setting, some trapped miners’ outraged family members, sick of the cover-ups and lies, defied the odds stacked against them (poverty, hunger, risk of losing their livelihoods, and corporate-government collusion thwarting their attempts to seek justice) and went on a rampage in the office of the criminally negligent company for which their loved ones worked.22

Even in authoritarian countries like China, the government can keep a lid on certain dilemmas for only so long. When people have nothing to lose, there is nothing they will not try. But it need not come to this because the warning signs have been around for some time. A late 2007 poll taken of Americans showed much public disapproval with the way corporations are conducting themselves.23 With such high percentages of respondents holding so many industries in such low regard, it was clear that such unhappiness transcended across the political spectrum.

People have survived for millennia without corporations; there is no reason to believe they cannot do so again. As powerful and seemingly unstoppable as corporations have become, remember that an elephant can be defeated by a flea and no empire lasts forever. Or, as another SHR song put it: “No More Kings”.

And that is no parody.

  1. The brief history of SHR and the first quote; second quote was from the liner notes for Schoolhouse Rock!: The Box Set (a four-CD compilation), p.5. []
  2. Erika Engstrom, “Schoolhouse Rock: Cartoons as Education,” Journal of Popular Film and Television (rpt. Encyclopedia.com), 23 (Fall 1995), p.98-104; Clara Jeffery, “The Less You Know: From Einstein to Aniston,” Mother Jones (January/February 1997). See also. [] []
  3. Among which were MADtv and The Simpsons. []
  4. Saturday Night Live had such a clip, but some have said that it ridiculed conspiracy theorists more than the companies it apparently targeted. []
  5. This was voted on by fans and stated in the liner notes for its 30th anniversary DVD. [] []
  6. This kind of abuse has been well-documented. For concise accounts, see Greg LeRoy, The Great American Jobs Scam: Corporate Tax Dodging and the Myth of Job Creation (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2005), p.9-46, 157-166 (actually, the whole book is a good read); Neal Peirce, “End Wasteful Corporate Handouts,” Seattle Times, August 15, 2005; Rita J. King, “Entergy Holds New Orleans for Ransom,” CorpWatch, May 10, 2006. []
  7. Thom Hartmann, Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights (Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2002), p.199-200. []
  8. George Lakoff & Bruce Budner, “Progressive Taxation: Some Hidden Truths,” Commondreams.org, April 16, 2007. []
  9. Hartmann, Unequal Protection, p.4, 121-126; Hartmann, “The Railroad Barons are Back – and This Time They’ll Finish the Job,” Commondreams.org, December 11, 2002; Hartmann, “Americans Revolt in Pennsylvania – New Battle Lines Are Drawn,” Commondreams.org, December 19, 2002. Lest we forget, just because blacks were afforded equal rights did not mean they received them, as demonstrated by the Jim Crow Laws in the American South. []
  10. Hartmann, Unequal Protection, p.64-73; Hartmann, “Railroad Barons”; Hartmann, “Now Corporations Claim the ‘Right to Lie’,” Commondreams.org, January 1, 2003. []
  11. William Greider, “The Gipper’s Economy,” The Nation (rpt. Commondreams.org), June 28, 2004; Reggie Rivers, “Sharing the Tax Burden,” Denver Post (rpt. Commondreams.org), April 15, 2005; Hartmann, Unequal Protection, p.238-243; Lakoff & Budner. []
  12. Congress has been trying to crack down on gifts from lobbyists to its members, but many of them have found ways to get around any new laws passed. See David D. Kirkpatrick, “Congress Finds Ways to Avoid Lobbyist Limits,” New York Times, February 11, 2007. []
  13. Jill Lepore, “Talk of the Past: No More Kings,” Common-Place, 2 (October 2001). []
  14. Quote was taken from the liner notes of the SHR box set, p.5. []
  15. Hartmann, “Americans Revolt”. I should also note that most corporations in the U.S. prohibit people from bringing guns onto their properties, a rule with which many agree. []
  16. Robert Hinkley, “How Corporate Law Inhibits Social Responsibility,” Business Ethics: Corporate Social Responsibility Report (rpt. Commondreams.org), January/February 2002. []
  17. This was the verdict one psychologist had for corporations in the 2004 movie, The Corporation, dir. Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, writ. Joel Bakan, DVD, Zeitgeist Films, 2005. []
  18. Hartmann, “Nobles Need Not Pay Taxes,” Commondreams.org, February 1, 2005. []
  19. Hartmann, Unequal Protection, p.74-82. []
  20. Russell Mokhiber, “Twenty Things You Should Know About Corporate Crime,” Corporate Crime Reporter 25, June 12, 2007. []
  21. Hartmann, Unequal Protection, p.253-255. []
  22. Charles Hutzler, “China Tries to Silence Angry Families,” Associated Press (rpt. The Boston Globe), August 21, 2007; Charlie Zhu, “Anger Mounts as Hopes Dim for Trapped China Miners,” Reuters, August 21, 2007. []
  23. Robert Weissman, “Big Business is Even More Unpopular than You Think,” Commondreams.org, January 16, 2008. []
Chohong Choi has lived in Hong Kong and New York, and can be reached at: a9591321@graduate.hku.hk. Read other articles by Chohong, or visit Chohong's website.

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  1. hp said on February 21st, 2008 at 11:24am #

    Here’s my favorite. Still relevant after all these years. In the immortal words of Stevie Wonder; “when you believe in things you don’t understand, then you suffer. Very superstitious.”