Even Sinclair Lewis—first American winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1930)—got it right. In Babbitt (1922), cited by the Nobel committee when Lewis received the award, one of Babbitt’s friends explains how his business operates: “You know, my business isn’t distributing roofing—it’s principally keeping my competitors from distributing roofing. Same as you. All we do is cut each other’s throats and make the public pay for it.”
Babbitt is far from being alone in presenting a negative picture of businessmen in particular and American capitalism in general. From William Dean Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) to Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (1973) and David Mamet’s Glengary Glen Ross (1984), American novels and dramas have dealt with unethical business characters who are willing to take advantage of others in order to make a profit. One of the saddest victims of this worldview is the archetypal Willy Loman of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, where it’s the salesman himself who has been led out to pasture by the company to which he gave his soul.
The realities of business are much more disturbing than most literary depictions of how American businessmen operate—machinations that are far removed from such matters of job creation. All we need to do is read the business section of our major newspapers. Kickbacks, bribery, price-fixing, monopoly, fraud—these are terms of the parlance in most news stories. Even with sending jobs overseas to save money, the intent to often to exploit workers who can’t rely on the regulations that protect workers in the United States (shades of Apple and its Foxconn supplier)?
Earlier this year, in an article (“A Remarkable Week of Corporate Crime”), Russell Mokhiber cited the following current and on-going examples of corporate crime for the week of April 23rd:
–Sunoco to Pay $2.2 Million to Resolve Double Dipping Charge
–Merck to Pay $322 Million Criminal Penalty
–Pharmacy Fraud Kills Three: ApothéCare, Walgreen’s, and the Medical Debt Collection Agency, all cited for criminal violations, kickbacks, or overstepping their legal bounds with deceptive procedures
–ATK Launch Systems Rips Off the Army
–Freeport-McMoRan Pays $6.8 Million to Settle Pollution Charge
–Giant Construction Company, Lend Lease Construction LMB Inc., Ripped off NYC
–Criminal charges against BP PLC for destroying evidence relating to the Deepwater Horizon disaster
–Wall-Mart Bribery” in Mexico
That’s for one week! But all you have to remember is that in some industries the crimes are multiple, endless, and continuous. Take Big Pharma, for example. Most of our largest pharmaceutical companies have paid huge fines for price-fixing, double billing, overcharging government agencies, distorting information concerning clinical and follow-up trials of their products, marketing a drug for use other than what was approved by the FDC. The crimes are so ubiquitous and the fines so enormous that pharmaceutical companies have apparently factored these expenses into their expectations for developing the next big blockbuster drug.
Then there are the names we all recognize at the center of corporate scandals: Dynegy, Arthur Anderson, Enron, Adelphi Communications, Hewlett-Packard, WorldCom, Exxon, Tyco, Global Crossing, Halliburton—these are only the tip of the iceberg. And some of the more infamous scoundrels: Ken Lay, Bernie Madoff, Martha Stewart, Jeffrey Skillings, Bernie Ebbers, Sanjay Kumar—again, simply a random sample of a list that has no end. An on-line search will give you separate lists for corporate fraud by industry: banks, energy companies, makers of medical devices and medicine, brokerage houses, manufacturing, even religious organizations and non-profits. Anything to make a quick buck, anything to satisfy greed, and yet Americans never appear to catch on to the enormous fraud that increases the price of virtually everything they buy.
Then there are the less visible but ubiquitous examples of what we used to call the butcher’s thumb on the scale syndrome: packaged and canned foods, where the net weight does not equal what is cited on the label; toothpaste (and other products) packaged in tubes that make it impossible to squeeze out the last half ounce or so; aerosol cans with nozzles that stop releasing the product after only a portion of the contents have been used. Let’s not forget shrinking contents: nine-ounces of coffee in the old sixteen-ounce can but at the older price. Fewer tissues in the same size box as the previous one. All designed to give you less for more, often so that you must purchase a replacement before the contents are consumed. You believe these practices are not intentional on the part of manufacturers, businesses? Then why do they happen with such regularity? Shades of quack medicine—snake oil—hyped to cure every disease known to man.
Do any of these tricks bother the people who produce and sell their products? Not if William Deresiewicz’s conclusions in his recent article (“Capitalists and Other Psychopaths”) mean anything. He cites a recent study that found “that ten percent of people who work on Wall Street are ‘clinical psychopaths,’ exhibiting a lack of interest in and empathy for others and an ‘unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation.’” These tendencies show that “Wall Street is capitalism in its purest form, and capitalism is predicated on bad behavior.” And later, “Ethics in capitalism is purely optional, purely extrinsic…. Capitalism, which entails the single-minded pursuit of profit, would have us believe that it’s every man for himself.”
My own university teaching for half a century showed me the same. Which students were most likely to cheat and plagiarize? Business majors. That’s an observation I have had confirmed by faculty at dozens of colleagues and universities where I have had contacts. The issue of ethical lapse has become so egregious that some business schools have introduced ethics courses in their graduate curriculum. But it may be too little, too late. Morality is instilled in children while they are growing up—not superimposed onto a curriculum after personalities and values have already been formed. And that takes me right back to Deresiewicz’s article: “Capitalist values are…antithetical to democratic ones.” Certain kinds of people go into business because of a lack of ethical regard. Their intent is fraud.
So you still want a businessman for President of the United States? Be careful what you wish for.
Re-elect Herbert Hoover.
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.