Posted by: Geoffrey Meadows | November 10, 2010

Corporate Crimes, Corporate Accountability

I’ve been thinking about my driving.  When I go out after work on Fridays with friends, I’m having only one small beer or two, but not two big ones as I used to do.  I have always resented people who drive recklessly. They weave in and out of traffic and go about 80 miles an hour when they can.  It’s not a big deal if they drive that way and kill themselves in an accident – that’s the risk they took – but what about everyone else?  What if they cause an accident and someone else dies?

Corporations, like the company that produces Atrazine(1), would have us believe that there is a small risk in the product they manufacture, and that there is some risk in almost everything we do.  There is risk in airplane flight, for instance, or – driving a car.  But the question is, who is taking that risk, and is it necessary?  The company isn’t taking that risk, they’re just making money on a product they know will bring in “X” amount of dollars every year.  But we, the public, are the ones taking the risk.   And have we reached a place in the science of chemistry when there just are no more new discoveries, no more possibilities for new products at hand?  I doubt it.  What really is motivating these companies is fear, fear that by taking a product off the market they will lose their place in the business hierarchy, that is, in the esteem of the company’s real management, the investors.

After many years of taking no action at all, the EPA is finally, under Obama, making some positive moves.  Government has been weak and ineffectual.  Now you can see a little hope on the horizon.  Traditionally, when a company does something wrong and workers get sick or even die, government gives them a small slap on the hand.  Our laws, as they had been under Bush, were not at all enforced, and Congress had no will to make them stronger.  Well, not everything has changed.  Our last line of defense is that people can sue big companies when they endanger life and well-being, but even that is on the table; Obama said during the health care debate that he would consider tort reform.  So are we going to limit damages that companies will have to pay, even if they are negligent, regardless of what kind of pain and suffering they have created?  We need those big damages to keep them accountable, otherwise we have to depend on weak government entities that may or may not be effectual – particularly when you consider how leadership changes every four to eight years.

The word, “corporate,” is not an evil word.  It simply means a group, a collection of individuals.  Where the evil comes in is when the collection of individuals does something wrong. (One thing I did learn from my years in the church is that there are individual sins, but also there are corporate sins, that is, sins made by the group as a whole, societal sins.) It goes like this.  Taco Bell, owned by Yum Foods, does not pay a fair wage to it’s tomato pickers in California.  That action is made on our behalf, since it saves us money when we buy a taco at Taco Bell.  Thus, “we”, the people, are implicated.  We play a part in the crime.

But most people, I have a feeling, if they had the opportunity, if they were the ones who had the power, would pay a fair wage to their workers.  Most people, I have a feeling, would not expose their workers or the community to unnecessary risk.  Something is broken in the system when these companies seem bound to do things that normal people wouldn’t.  Why?  It’s because they are not beholden to anyone.  They are not accountable.  They are accountable only to the investors, and the investors in turn are motivated only by profit.

What we have to do is figure out how to make corporations accountable.  We are the “corporate” in the word, “corporation.”  Where there are “corporate” crimes there needs to be “corporate” accountability.  And that means “us.”

So, what can we do?

1.)  We can make CEO’s criminally responsible for what their corporations do.  They already make the big salaries, shouldn’t they be made to be accountable?  Right now they are only responsible for making a profit.  How might it change their outlook if they had to think not only about making a profit but also about whether they are endangering the lives of their employees or the public?

2.)  Support our government agencies.   The EPA(2), FDA, OSHA, and the rest, have an important role to play in our society.  Just as we would not expect government to unnecessarily or capriciously overburden a particular business or industry, we should also expect our government to assertively protect public health and safety and the safety of the environment for living things in general.  It is because we have not been vocal enough about our agencies (and the progress they have made possible) that we are stuck in a quagmire of anti-regulation politics.

3.)  Protect science.  One of the ways corporations get away with doing bad things is by manipulating science.  They take scientific studies and rearrange the math in them to make them look inconclusive.  They finance their own studies which dutifully find nothing wrong with their products.  Science is not perfect – it isn’t even always right – and it can be a slow process – but it does have a way of finding out the facts – eventually.  We should do our best to support it.

4.)  Use public awareness as a tool.  Programs like the Energy Star program have used public awareness to change the market and the business world.  Some other ones are the Marine Stewardship Council and the Forest Stewardship Council.  Even Wal-Mart has signed on to the Marine Stewardship Council.  When people work together, when they cooperate instead of fighting to the bitter end, things can change for the better.

5.)  And let’s look for other structures, other ways of making corporations responsible.  I read a book once which talked about the “stakeholder model” of business management.(3)  It was common in Europe before the wars, I believe.  The corporation’s board would consist of stakeholders – people like labor, residents of the community, local government officials, as well as businessmen.  It turns out the American system of a board wholly responsible to the investors was more successful; but maybe we could give up a little success in order to have boards that are more responsive to their workers and the community.  I’m not saying it is likely to happen, but we must find some kind of reforms that will improve the system.

6.)  And generally, we can just make noise.  Writing your congressman is a skill we all do not practice enough.  Demonstrations are a good way to get the issues some attention.  If we do nothing, we can only expect nothing in return.

So now, by the way, Taco Bell is fighting back.  After boycotts of their products and all the bad publicity, they have announced a new program called, “SAFE”, or “Socially Accountable Food Employees.”  It’s an effort to make the workers work at the same old wages.  Come on!  So who’s being “socially accountable” here?  Who’s kidding whom?  It seems some people are still under the impression that the bigger the lie the more people will fall for it.

Admittedly, most corporations never get into trouble.  It’s for the ones that are irresponsible and incorrigible that we need to put the pressure on.  And for that, a good portion of us have to be involved.  Corporate crimes, corporate accountability.

And, as I’m realizing with regard to my driving, if we want corporations to be accountable, we have to be careful about the unnecessary risk we expose others to ourselves.

*****

(1) Syngenta is the primary manufacturer of atrazine.

(2) For info on what EPA has accomplished over its forty years try their “EPA@40” site – http://www.epa.gov/40th/index.html .

(3) The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea, Micklethwait and Wooldridge (2003).

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