The brilliant inventor Thomas Edison transfixed the world with his miraculous inventions which captured sound and created light. His noble efforts, and those of his “muckers” at his laboratory in New Jersey, grew eventually into the Titan of American Business, General Electric, creator of ovens, toasters, and medical image scanners, provider of many thousands of jobs, and a long-time contributor to the general welfare of American society.
General Electric is also the creator and patent-holder of many of the fifty million man-made chemicals now in existence, some of which the company spent many years dumping into the Hudson River, permeating that body of water; a sorry side effect of ingenuity that we will have to live with for a very long time.
Sixty years ago, it was completely legal for GE to dump PCBs into our waterways. In fact, multinational corporations could count on the government’s support in many ways, such as when the Guatemalan government under President Arbenz was overthrown by US forces for the benefit of the United Fruit company (1954), or when Nixon ordered the CIA to overthrow President Allende in Chile to protect the investments of American firms like ITT (1973). Today, the government signs waivers for BP’s inadequate safety reviews, and then helps keep the TV crews off the oil-slicked beaches while repeating the company’s lies about how much oil might be seeping out into our national waters.
Such is the dichotomy of American Free Market Capitalism™ as it’s currently practiced. Everything is broken down to a number, and what doesn’t get easily quantified gets left out of the equation. Any cost which can be is externalized to society at large, in the form of pollution, or increased health risks, or trillions in public debt for bailouts. The structure of corporate law actually requires company directors to make such decisions, because it vests them only with responsibilities toward shareholders, not toward workers, the environment, our communities, or the nation at large.
In a business school today, a professor steps out of the room during an exam, and students immediately start trading answers. Students readily pay others to do their homework for them, and consider plagiarism to be a quaint concept. These are the monsters of whom corporate charters will demand profits in every quarter, no matter the costs. And as they perform this noble economic work, the rest of us will wonder why oil gushes into the sea, and our food makes us sick. Men with money and connections exploit the system to make more money and connections, and rely on the everyday citizen not knowing or caring about how he gets screwed in the process. The game is rigged to reward theft and deception, war and destruction, crass materialism and consumption, the worst aspects of humanity — and it will continue to do so as long as we, collectively, do nothing to stop it.
It’s time for a new version of the corporate charter, one which recognizes the burden to society of greedy mismanagement and cost-cutting. As corporations have now nearly all the rights of individuals before the law, they should have all of the responsibilities as well. First of these is the responsibility to be a good neighbor and citizen. As in, someone who doesn’t release poisonous compounds into the water. Corporations that harm others should have severe penalties imposed on them, including possibly the corporate death sentence. Companies that cheat and lie, or companies that grow too large and abuse their power, should be taken apart and sold off.
America’s place in the world is at stake here, because we have been vigorously exporting our system for about a century, with mixed results. While we have conquered the globe economically, other nations have been quicker than us to grasp the destruction and inequality that have accompanied the rise in world GDP, probably because, until recently, most of it was confined to their countries. Now unemployment and endless war have fractured the once assured sanctuary of the American working class at home.
How we conduct ourselves in the world will help determine how others act. When we set the example that might makes right, that international law does not apply to the strong, that the poor and dispossessed do not have the same rights as the wealthy and well-connected, we invite our own ruin. Character requires that we acknowledge our own wrongdoing and work for its redress, that we consider the consequences, intended and otherwise, of our actions, and that we act always with honor and respect toward others. The current paradigm in American business and foreign policy is based in selfishness and destruction. That is something we will have to correct if we are to survive as a great nation.