Short Story: “Full Circle”

What seems like part of the problem might just be the key to the solution. (Read part of the backstory in “Logical Conclusion“.)

“Full Circle”
Part 2 of a series
by P. Orin Zack

Edward Reese, 62 and a tad too well-fed, wrinkled his nose at the smell of the badly cleaned kitchenette in the motel room he’d just checked into. He didn’t even want to think about what might be living in the mattresses. “Well,” he grumbled, “at least I won’t have to sleep in this dump.”

He glanced at the ancient clock-radio on the night stand. Five-thirteen. About right for a five o’clock meeting, except that there had been nobody to walk in on. Re-aiming the bulky remote laying on the room’s small table, he switched on the TV news, and sat down to wait. He hated waiting for anyone, especially people he considered beneath his station.

“…in the pending grand theft case against lodging and food-services conglomerate, Fremont-Wayfarer. The Honorable Wilfred Clary, who had presided over the murder trial of the now-defunct Consolidated Communications Corporation, has been assigned to the case. According to our legal analyst, the precedent set in the Supreme Court’s SandHill Realty decision, which granted…”

There was a knock at the door. Reese turned off the news.

“Sorry I’m late,” the rumpled 30-something said as the door swung open. “Small-town traffic jam.”

Randolph Starling. Reese sized him up. The man’s face was familiar enough, what with the TV news flashing his picture every time they mentioned the SandHill decision. Since taking Consolidated down, the whistle-blower had become something of a figurehead for the annoying grassroots groups clamoring for corporate blood. The dig, he guessed, was to remind him of the differences between them. He’d heard that Starling was more than he let on, and this was his first clue. Well, if there were going to be two levels to this exchange, so be it.

“We don’t have a lot of time,” he said after latching the door. “If I don’t get back to this town’s Podunk airport for my connecting flight, we’ll have the press breathing down both our necks.”

“Afraid of what they’ll find?”

“No. What they’ll say. If we lose control of the message, it will take time and money to work through the damage control.”

“It’s all about PR for you fat-cats, isn’t it?”

Reese glared sternly at his guest, certain that the man’s unassuming looks, campus agitator casual, were calculated to deflect suspicion that he held degrees in both business law and history. “Back off, ‘professor’,” he said dismissively. “Staying in business means protecting your image.”

Starling glanced around the room and chuckled. “Image? You’re worried about your corporate image? How about the image that these flea-traps of yours present to the world? Fremont-Wayfarer’s corporate palace doesn’t exactly have a sterling reputation when it comes to working conditions. Of course, that may explain your hiring practices.”

Another veiled reference. “Let’s not go there, shall we?”

“Go where?”

“You know perfectly well why we don’t allow unions. So don’t try baiting me into an argument about the value of collective bargaining.”

“Hey, you mentioned it, not me. But now that you have, why do you think you’re having so much trouble hooking people with your employment ads? Word does get around, especially these days. And having a vocal contingent of former employees from the farms at the bottom of that vertical restaurant business you saddle these dives with doesn’t hurt, either. It’s common knowledge that your line managers don’t concern themselves with details like the safety of their staff. Do you have any idea how much your employees have to shell out to cover the real cost of their health care, fixing the damage done to them by the toxics they’re forced to work with?”

“As you well know, none of those people you’re so concerned about would have jobs if we went out of business.”

“Thank you for clarifying that, Mr. Reese. I was under the impression that a corporation’s first duty was to make a profit. But won’t your stockholders, and more importantly, your Board of Directors, be upset to learn that the CEO would rather make some nameless soul happy than to turn a profit?”

Reese glanced at Starling’s reflection on the blank TV screen. “This isn’t getting us anywhere, and my time is growing short, so I’ll get right to the point. My sources tell me that your organization intends to use this as a test case, to see how far they can push the courts in reinterpreting laws written for people to apply to corporations.”

Starling turned his palms up. “It wasn’t my idea to give rights to corporate fictions. Business interests did it to themselves, starting with the railroad barons back around the Civil War. And until Consolidated Communications, they were happy with it, too. Commercial speech, and all that.”

“But the death penalty?”

“Of course. That is the sentence for murder, after all. If you want rights, you also get responsibility. Once the SandHill decision gave full citizenship to corporations, the courts were obligated to treat them just like anyone else. All Judge Clary did was decide how that would be carried out. So he dissolved the company, and forbade the officers from holding executive roles elsewhere. The rest was just a matter of assigning the assets, just like anyone else without a will.”

Reese reddened. “Do you realize the effect that had on the entire business community?”

“Of course. The same effect all you law-and-order types expect stiff sentences to have on people. Sauce for the goose, as they say.”

“So what are you pushing for in my company’s case?”

“I thought about that on the drive over. As I understand it, money from the employees’ self-insurance fund was pilfered in such a way that none of the people involved actually committed a crime. It was all very well planned and executed, if you don’t mind me saying.”

“Thanks. And it would have worked, too, had it not been for the SandHill decision. The same strategy was used successfully by several firms I know of in the past few years. The courts were stymied, and all of the charges had to be dropped. But now…”

Starling looked out the window at the highway traffic. “There are really two aspects to this situation. The first one, the one the talking heads have been on about for weeks, is a clear case of grand theft by Fremont-Wayfarer. That was the whole point of the subterfuge that you and your associates carried out, with the tacit approval of the Board of Directors. It may have gotten those other folks off the hook, but this time, the charge can actually be made against the corporation.”

“And if it’s found guilty? How do you incarcerate a fictional person? Translating capital punishment to dissolution of the corporation wasn’t much of a stretch. But a prison sentence? What might Judge Clary do, or more to the point, what will your organization agitate to have him do?”

He tapped the table. “The way I see it, prison is a way to severely restrict a person’s freedom and privacy. The privacy part’s pretty obvious. Complete transparency. Extreme, even intrusive, oversight. No secrets.”

Reese frowned. “Annoying, but endurable.”

“Freedom, though. That’s harder. Freedom means different things for a business than it does for a person, doesn’t it?”

“Sure. There’s mergers and acquisitions. The freedom to innovate, to introduce new products.”

“How about staffing? Does that play into it?”

“Well, of course. A company has to be able to hire new talent, and get rid of dead wood.”

Starling shrugged. “That’s it, then. Those are the things your company won’t be allowed to do. I really have to thank you for laying it all out for me like that. I wasn’t sure how far we needed to go. But you’ve cleared it up nicely.”

Reese fumed. “I should have known better than to talk to you without a lawyer.”

“Oh, thanks for reminding me. That second aspect. There’s another charge you and your cronies will be hearing about pretty soon.”

“Another charge? I thought the only thing my business could be charged with out of this is theft.”

“It is. This one isn’t for the company. You see, in coordinating your activities and policies to shift the responsibility for the theft to your company, which is now just another citizen, you and the others engaged in a conspiracy to frame that citizen, and to defraud your own employees. So there’s a class action. You’re all being brought up on racketeering charges. And they couldn’t have done it if the Supreme Court hadn’t confirmed the extension of full rights to corporations.”

“That’s quite a game you’ve laid out, Mr. Starling. Quite a game. And what exactly is your price for withdrawing all of these charges?”

“The price? Simply that the business community voluntarily relinquish all of the rights it has taken for itself over the years. All of them. Starting with Justice Field’s 1886 Supreme Court ruling on Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad, which declared private corporations to be natural persons, perverting the intent of the 14th Amendment.”

Reese cleared his throat. “It’s not that simple, Mr. Starling. Those rights have been insinuated all through the legal and social fabric of this country. Commercial speech greases the wheels of government, puts the needs of industry in front of congress, and makes sure that the economy is healthy. You can’t just wave your magic wand and remove a critical part of what makes this nation great.”

“How do you sleep at night? Oh, right. Your company owns this chain. Look, I don’t know where you buy your kool-aid, but what made this nation great isn’t the robber barons who keep it at war most of the time to pad their bottom lines. It’s the people. And what binds those people together isn’t corporate loyalty, but the idea that a government can exist to serve the common good, rather than common greed. So, yeah. It is that simple.”

“That’s a mighty steep price for dropping one case.”

“One? The first, maybe. There’s an awful lot of corporations out there. How many of them do you think will be left standing after this ball starts rolling? The power your so-called ‘community’ have built depends on the cooperation of business entities. Once we start pulling you down, that ends. So, in a way, we’re back to the issue of jobs. Only this time, it’s the ones at the top that are at risk. There is a way to keep your jobs, even a way to keep the business empires you’ve built. What we’re stopping is the ways in which people like you have misused that power. I could go on, but you have a plane to catch, don’t you? That’s your choice. Think about it.”


[Afterward: The story continues in “Prison Break“.]

Copyright 2007 by P. Orin Zack


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