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Big Institutions—Immunities, Impunities and Insanities

One of the first times I used the phrase “institutional insanity” was in 1973 to describe the behavior of scientist Dixy Lee Ray, chairperson of the presumed regulatory agency, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). I pointed out that her personal and academic roles were quite normal. But her running of the AEC—pressing for 1,000 nuclear plants in the U.S. by the year 2000 (there are 99 reactors left in operation now), and going easy on a deadly, taxpayer subsidized technology that was privately uninsurable, lacked a place to put its lethal radioactive wastes, a national security risk, replete with vast cost over-runs, immunities and impunities shielding culpable officials and executives, should a meltdown occur and take out a city or region (all to boil water to produce steam to make electricity)—was a case study in “institutional insanity.”

Both the AEC and its successor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), captured by the atomic energy industry, operate this way to this day, no matter the near misses, the spills, growing corporate welfare outlays, and the inadequate maintenance of aging nuclear power plants.

Our moral and ethical codes and our civil and criminal laws were originally designed to hold individuals accountable. The kings of yore operated under a divine right of being above the laws.

With the rise and proliferation of ever more multi-tiered governmental and corporate bureaucracies, methods of immunity, impunity and secrecy were built into these structures to shield them from moral/ethical codes and laws. Increasingly, we are ruled by no-fault big corporations and their no-fault toady governments.

Some comparisons are in order. If your neighbor entrusted you with her savings and paid you a fee for doing so, you then purchased stocks for her account while you’re selling them for your account, deceiving the cheated neighbor in the process, would you escape the law? That is just some of what the Wall Street Barons did on a massive scale about ten years ago. No one was prosecuted and sent to jail for this corporate crime wave.

Suppose you hired a security person for your defense who, at the same time, wasted your money and couldn’t account for your payments because his books were unauditable. Would you keep doing business with him? Wouldn’t you demand an audit? Well on a hugely larger scale, this is the Pentagon contracting system and your tax dollars. Why not demand that the defense department stop violating federal law, as it has since 1992, and provide Congress with auditable information so that its accounting arm, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) can audit the notoriously porous Pentagon books.

Suppose the head of your neighborhood association kept sugar coating problems, kept lying to you, kept describing conditions that weren’t so and kept doing things that would enrich himself in conflict with his duties. Would you keep supporting him in that position? Probably not. Well, that is your President, day after day.

What if your neighbor kept dumping polluted water and solid waste pollutants on your lawn and all around your house? Would you demand that your town or city stop this contamination, or sit quietly and accept this abuse because you don’t believe in regulation? Well, Trump’s EPA wrecker, Scott Pruitt, is busily going weakening environmental protections and even taking away environmental crimes investigators and forcing them to be his personal security guard.

Let’s say your farmers’ market vendors sensed that you were very dependent on the food they provide and they proceeded to triple the prices, it’s not difficult to predict your reactions. Yet that is what the drug companies have done with many of your important medicines over the past 10 years. Yet where are the outraged demands for the government to have the power to negotiate volume discounts, facilitate generics, restrain prices for drugs rooted in your taxpayer funded research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and allow imported competition from Canada?

You get into a bus or cab and the driver regularly cheats you into paying several times more than you should pay and then covers it up. When you find out about it, all hell breaks loose next time you confront him. What about Wells Fargo bank—they knowingly created unauthorized, false credit card and auto insurance accounts, wrongly billing customers millions of times. Imagine: no criminal prosecutions yet, no wholesale resignation of the well-paid Board of Directors, and very few customers are leaving the bank. Wells Fargo keeps reporting great profits while hassling victims into settlements. What’s one takeaway? The bigger the crook, the bigger is our surrender. Too big to fail or jail!

The neighbor in charge of the rural, communal drinking water well knows it’s being contaminated by a party that was his previous employer and expects to be hired back by his old boss. Your children as well as their parents are at risk. Well, welcome to Trump’s deregulations of food, drug, auto pollution, and workplace investor safety. They’ve come from the industries’ payroll and expect to come back with a big raise.

There are just a few contrasts between individual and institutional crimes and wrongdoing and our different responses toward them. Facebook, Google and Equifax can misuse your personal information to your perceived disadvantage and they repeatedly get away with it.

The White House under Bush/Cheney can unconstitutionally ignite wars, lie to the people about the reasons, produce millions of casualties and untold destruction of innocent peoples’ homelands, get re-elected and later retire with huge speech fees without being chased by the “sheriffs.”

It is doubtful whether you would allow your hamlet’s political leaders to get away with such violent assaults, even if they wanted to do so.

If our moral/ethical/legal codes cannot reach up to the tops of these institutions on behalf of wronged, injured individuals and communities and societies, we’ll get what we’ve been getting, which is worse and worse immunities/impunities with each passing decade.

Isn’t this a fault/no fault paradox worth thinking about?

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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