Any competent journalist could write a very large book about the history of corporate malfeasance. Hell, you can buy any number of very large books dedicated to one particular company’s history of malfeasance.
Why is there there so much bad behavior in business? Why do corporations behave so horribly compared to most other lawful assemblies? Is it the money? Is it the thirst for power?
No. Corporations are prone to bad behavior simply because it’s easy for them. Just like it’s easier to kill someone with gun than with your bare hands, when a large bureaucracy becomes single-minded, it becomes dangerous because evil is so easily employed as a means to an end.
Meet Bob Kearns.
In 1964, Bob invented the intermittent windshield wiper. He patented his invention and went to Ford, offering them the opportunity to use it in their cars. Ford told Bob to go fly a kite. By 1969, Ford was selling cars with Bob’s intermittent wipers. They screwed Bob big-time.
Couldn’t they have just given poor Bob Kearns a tiny piece of their massive pie? No. Why? Because that’s not how Ford does things.
It wasn’t personal. Bob’s a nice guy. Ford just can’t un-clench its fists a tiny, tiny bit. It has an entire system of executives, accountants, lawyers and bureaucrats whose single-minded purpose is to squeeze blood from rocks.
Well, Bob Kearns eventually got his comeuppance when he successfully sued Ford and Chrysler for patent infringement. He won over $30 million, but Bob wasn’t after the money. He just wanted to make them publicly humbled for lying to him, for cheating him.
In the macro world, this type of thing happens regularly. Husbands and wives, artists and critics, politicians and journalists. We all get pwned at one time or another.
But not corporations. It’s extremely rare that they ever get pwned. Years ago, an exasperated engineer friend said something to me that stuck: “Ted, did you ever notice that no marketing department has ever made any mistakes? Just ask one. Any one.”
Corporations have the legal standing of an individual, and even though they’re comprised of people, they aren’t people. They are an amalgam of human traits. Greed, lust, desire, envy, intellect, drive and wit. These are things we celebrate as part of the human experience. They are also all features of a sociopathic personality.
There was a book about this, but I think the author was off just a bit. Corporations aren’t psychopaths. They’re sociopaths. Here’s the symptoms of Antisocial Personality Disorder from the DSM IV-TR:
1. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behavior.
2. Deceitfulness, lying, conning others for personal profit.
3. Impulsive, short-term thinking.
4. Easily irritated and prone to behave arrogantly or aggressively.
5. Reckless disregard for the safety of others.
6. Consistent irresponsibility.
7. Lack of remorse; indifference or rationalization about having hurt, cheated or mistreated others.
Sound about right? This is exactly the behavior Ford displayed regarding good ole’ Bob Kearns and his intermittent windshield wiper. So, who was responsible? The CEO of Ford? The executive who spoke to Bob? How about the lawyers who assured management they could weather this deal? Was it maybe the Board of Directors who created and allowed a culture of corruption?
It was all of these. And none of them. The Ford Motor Company has been rewarded time and time again – by government, by the market, by society itself – for continually putting profit before people. Ford was only acting in its own interests and those of its investors.
After all, only a fucking sap would leave a dollar on the table because it’s the “ethical” thing to do. You leave a dollar on the table, and the next shark will suck it right up. And that shark would be your competition. Only an idiot would play to lose. If you were smart, you’d grab that dollar. Fuck Bob Kearns. He’ll get over it.
Karl Marx predicted that this aspect of capitalism – it sociopathy – would be its downfall. Marx felt that capitalism would eventually have to come to terms with the huge number of people screwed by corporate excess. One day, workers in every industrial power would rise up against their corporate masters and demand an end to the sociopathic behavior. He was wrong.
Marx was wrong about a lot of things. Centrally-planned economies are impossible to maintain. Just ask Brezhnev. Marx was also wrong about the inevitability of a populist workers’ revolution. America was nearly brought to its knees last autumn. Corporate excess and deceit put us at the very edge of complete disaster, but what did the populists protest? Government taxation and deficits.
Marx underestimated the stupidity of the proletariat. His academic arrogance wouldn’t allow for the possibility that the heroic worker was, in fact, a fool. This is probably because Marx never really held a job.
So, what’s the answer? Communism is a well-documented FAIL. A friend of mine would assert that transition to a non-monetary egalitarian society is the answer. He may be right, but I have two reservations:
1) We only have one modern example of a money-free society: the Khmer Rouge.
2) The transition away from money would be thwarted as soon as want became need. We are only five meals away from shooting our neighbors.
Last autumn showed us that doing nothing isn’t an option. Here is what I propose:
- Too big to fail is too big to exist. Break ‘em up.
- Subsidized access to talented civil attorneys. The independent judiciary is America’s last surviving check on power. The average schmuk needs access to lawyers capable of facing down the Goliaths. Lawsuits aren’t a sign of degeneration. They’re a sign of robust public control over our lives and liberty.
- A return to the ~35% corporate tax rate. (Remember the 1950′s? American industry’s Golden Age? Hmm?)
- Meaningful incentives for corporations to police themselves. Tax breaks for every company that publicly corrects at least one major act of malfeasance per month.
- Ditch the “Hollywood Minute” on TV news and replace it with the “Corporate Scum of the Week” minute.
At their core, corporations are mere people. Like most people, they sometimes need to be reminded of their humanity.