IN AN ERA of Citizens United and eight-figure paychecks for CEOs, it is easy to imagine that corporations have never been more powerful. Yet public corporations—companies that sell shares to the public, rather than being privately owned—are in retreat in the United States. The number of American companies listed on the stock market has dropped by more than half in the past 15 years, as departures outnumber initial public offerings (IPOs) almost every year. Some of this is due to economic crises and industry consolidation, but most of it is caused by the increasing obsolescence of the corporate form.

For many traditionally “corporate” activities, organizing as a corporation and listing ...

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