Corporate crocodile tears


Alden Graves

I’m sure you have seen the commercials on television about how great the Gulf area in the United States is doing these days. Serious people are talking about how hard British Petroleum has worked to recover from the catastrophic blowout of its Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010 that killed 11 men and spewed an estimated 200 million gallons of oil into the ocean. The water sparkles now we are told. The marimba bands are tuning up and the crabs are steaming on the stove. It’s enough to make you want to throw some things in a suitcase and pay a visit.

Except, of course, that it is probably grounded in as much hard fact as the ads that touted cigarette smoking as a harmless way to calm your nerves and look incredibly sophisticated at the same time. BP can hire its spin merchants to photograph pretty images of happy people and ocean waves lapping up on pristine beaches. They can enlist the most earnestly photogenic of the company’s employees to reassure us of how hard BP is working to restore our faith in its good intentions and make the future look as sparkly as the water.

A truth less anchored in self-interest presents a much grimmer picture. It is unlikely that BP’s battalion of sympathetic lawyers, scientists, and engineers, or anyone else at this scant four-year point from one of the most significant environmental calamities in history, can possibly know the real and long term ramifications of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

According to a disturbing editorial recently in the New York Times, the Obama administration has made very little substantive progress in forcing the oil industry to take the necessary steps to prevent another incident like the Deepwater explosion. BP, it seems, would rather spend money buffing up its tarnished image than develop a blowout preventer that would actually cut off oil flow at significant depths in the ocean.

The best argument that anyone could muster in BP’s favor is that the corporation certainly didn’t have any foreknowledge of an impending disaster. I know it’s scant praise, but it is still more than you can say for General Motors right now. The next time you hear someone whining about government’s constant intrusion into the sanctity of their private lives or into the holy grail of free enterprise, just keep the words "General Motors" in mind. The alternative to government oversight, with all of its faults and inconveniences, pits the individual against gigantic entities like GM and we all know what the odds are there.

The legendary Detroit carmaker was once a living symbol of American industrial might. ("As GM goes, so goes the country.") Perhaps that is why the story is such an appalling one, even by the standards of today’s corporate ruthlessness.

(It should be noted, too, that the response of the National Highway Traffic Safety Authority was plainly lax in this instance and argues for a further separation from the too-cozy relationships between government and industry.)

General Motors has been aware of a problem in the ignition switches of some of their smaller vehicles for over a decade. A design flaw in a tiny component of the assembly can cause the car to completely shut down. Among other consequences, the driver suddenly looses the power steering and the air bags fail to deploy.

A recall to fix the problem would have been massive, involving an estimated 2.6 million vehicles. Although the defective part costs less than a dollar to replace, the overall expense would have been especially burdensome for a company that was inching its way back to financial viability from bankruptcy. ("As GM went, so nearly went the country.")

So a corporate decision was made. Michael Moore, never a big fan of General Motors (See "Roger and Me" for further elucidation), put it bluntly in a written piece that fairly dripped with a perfectly justifiable outrage. GM executives thought it would be a more prudent course of action, economically speaking, to pay out claims to the victims of their faulty cars than to foot the expense of recalling and fixing them. They decided to ignore the thousands of consumer complaints and let millions of customers get behind the wheels of their product every day on the assumption that the cost of claims by families of people killed or maimed in them wasn’t going to exceed the expense of simply fixing the defect.

General Motors, currently awash in contriteness, will publicly admit to 13 deaths due directly to the faulty switch, but the number is almost certainly more and probably a great deal more. The company’s willingness to pay the piper, however, is not quite as boundless as its expressions of sympathy. GM is asking the courts to exempt them from legal claims because the bad behavior was symptomatic of the old, pre-bankruptcy GM, not the blameless new company that has emerged from its ashes.

I would like to know how executives at General Motors, intelligent people who consciously made the decision to ignore a lethal problem in their cars, are any less guilty of manslaughter than an adult who puts a loaded gun into a child’s hands and then regrets the harm it causes. The decision goes beyond the usual corporate greed scenario that Americans have become inured to. This behavior is criminal and until the people responsible for choosing bottom lines over peoples’ lives are marched off to jail, it will continue.

Alden Graves is a Banner columnist.


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