The statement can be, and thus will be, interpreted as reflective of as anti-populist a stance as one might imagine, in spite of its author's pose with tassled loafer on hay bale (this was Iowa after all). In the context of the recent Supreme Court ruling claiming that corporations may enjoy the benefits of persons (for example spending the corporation's capital assets to back any candidate corporate leadership wishes to support), it projects a more grim and triumphal tone. Especially coming from one who has personally benefited from being the head of a corporation to the tune of 190 to 250 million dollars in net worth. Conflated with an earlier decision that defines the use of capital as "free speech," it takes on menacing overtones of Big Brother — government as your worldwide, friendly neighborhood uber-corporation. Government of the people, by the hireling Congress, for the corporations.
But the expression can be interpreted more benignly as simply asserting that corporations are, after all, comprised of people. People who, incidentally, form said corporations in order to establish a legal buffer between themselves and ethical, civil, criminal and other unpleasant consequences, which, resulting from the actions of the corporation, might otherwise impact them personally. In this respect, a corporation is not a person. The persons making up the corporation are shielded from the results of actions which, taken as a mere person, they would have to face. In this sense a corporation is the anti-person.
If we step aside from the obvious, but biased, political interpretations of the assertion that corporations are people, instead taking it on face value as a metaphor, and nothing more, we can draw some interesting parallels, and perhaps come to some conclusions.
If we compare a corporation to a person, or conversely, look at a person as a corporation, we might see that the head, or brain, of a corporation would be analogous to the CEO. The COO might be relegated to some regulating function, perhaps of the lymph system or the digestive tract. Corporations, we are told, are in business to make profit (unless they are pretending otherwise, as a not-for-profit corporation). Profit might then be related to the life-blood of the biological person, in the form of oxygen derived from breathing, and nutrients absorbed from eating. Without becoming too graphic, we could then regard the waste from this process — exhausted through the lungs via exhalation; excreted through the bowls; voided through the bladder; evaporated through the pores of the skin — as equivalent metaphorically to landfill waste, pollution, effluent, and other outputs of the process of consumption, attributable to a given corporation. Perfectly natural.
And, from the perspective of environmental and social responsibility, we can see that a corporation, as a person, should not be expected to be any more diligent about limiting their consumption, or cleaning up after themselves, than we might expect of a biological (real) person, such as ourselves. How many of us can claim, as individuals, to be living out our minimal carbon footprint, for example? Why should we expect a corporation, consisting of persons much like us, to do any better?
If we can accept a corollary relation between the constituent parts of a person, and those of a corporation, we can begin to see some cracks in the metaphor. For example, if I, as a person, commit a crime, and am caught in the act, my head cannot anticipate this eventuality and depart to join another body, before the crime comes to light. But the chief executive, the entire executive committee, as well as underlings in-the-know, can in fact bail out and join another corporation, leaving some other unknowing parts of the organization holding the bag when the truth comes out, if it ever does.
Another stark difference is that a corporation can outlive its leadership, whereas a person cannot presently survive the loss of its brain or nervous system, though it can lose a lower organ or two, if replaced in time, and its peripheral extremities can be safely amputated.
So a corporation, a "body" consisting of interchangeable parts, can have the same rights and perquisites of a person, whose parts are significantly less replaceable. Though by the sci-fi aspirations of today's organ-transplant industry, the day may be fast approaching when we can replace everything but the brain (the supposed center of self-consciousness) and go on moving from corporeal body to corporeal body, as peripheral parts wear out.
And, of course, the only people who will be able to pay the tab for this kind of immortality will be those titans of industry who can command the million-billions of dollars in profits their non-corporeal corporations funnel to them. Or, as they would put it, the millions or billions they have "earned." Which brings up another subject for another time, the confusion of owning with earning.
Big picture, this entire scenario could be regarded impersonally as just another example of Hegel's theory of the synthesis of form in action. The person appeared, at one point in history, as the anti-thesis, emerging out of the inchoate corporation of the tribe, and became the new thesis, the "great man" of history. The corporation appeared later on, as early civilizations and hierarchical societies, now international businesses, as the anti-thesis to the person, as well as to local, national governments.
Nowadays we witness the person morphing to more closely resemble the corporation, through investing and personally incorporating, for example; and the corporation taking on more and more attributes characteristic of the person, most visibly for the sake of public relations (good citizen campaigns), but more assertively for political power.
Following the theoretical model, eventually the person and the corporation would merge in synthesis, establishing the new thesis. This would be the person as corporate entity, to complement the current thesis of the corporation as person. For example, at birth, an individual could be given corporate status through an IPO, with startup capital fund of say $1000, so as to be able to compete, through the magic of compound interest, with all other corporate entities they may encounter in life.
What would be the new, the next, antithesis to appear on the horizon — inevitably, according to the theory? Because the person and the corporation cannot truly merge in complete synthesis, this may be useless, fallacious, idle speculation. I certainly hope so.
At least some of the beneficiaries of corporate excess and government largesse, notably Warren Buffet, are 'fessing up — and facing up — to the fact that they don't really deserve the level of corporate effluent flowing their way. They have run out of ways to spend for personal, consumption purposes, so that has lost its original luster. The idea has arisen that perhaps sharing some of the largesse with those peripheral parts of the great international corporation, citizens at large — through the mechanism of government redistribution of wealth, the big bugaboo — might be a better use of the funds than they can come up with, all their charitable activities notwithstanding.
The corporation is indeed a person in effect, in that it reflects and projects the pettiness, short-sightedness, and venality of those huddling in its corner offices and board rooms. Or, on the other hand, their humility, generosity of spirit, their magnanimous and nurturing minds. Perhaps corporate consciousness will come to exhibit an evolution, in which it matures — as if it were actually a person, currently in its self-absorbed adolescence, pimples and all.
After all, all corporations, again, consist primarily of persons (plus impersonal material assets, lest we forget). And in the process of maturing, perhaps corporations will develop such seemingly anti-corporate qualities as compassion and wisdom. But only if the persons inside their "minds" do. Since corporations, plural, are apparently here to stay (until they merge into one mega-corporation — call it Earth, Inc.), intelligent evolution may be the most we can hope for. Perhaps the next Axial Age will portend the dawning of corporate spirituality.