Business Ethics in the News 5/12/2015
Reading the business news every morning as is my habit is a depressing experience. Every single day some business person is doing something illegal, immoral or stupid. And often it is not one or two stories but a half dozen.
Is there is a war between the ethical and unethical in the world of business, the news media tend to give the impression of a strongly successful offensive on the part of the vile and the cruel. The pursuit of the profit motive in the not so distant past often involved providing a service or selling a product. Today, you get a real sense of predatory practice.
The military has been grappling with the financial impact of predatory lending on service members for years. In 2006, Congress passed legislation cracking down on some forms of high-interest credit, particularly payday lending. Lenders responded by exploiting loopholes in the law, and late last year, the Department of Defense proposed a new set of regulations designed to curb these creative workarounds that target troops.
Feel nauseated yet? Certain companies (I wouldn’t want to tar all banks and lenders.) are lobbying Congress to make sure their ability to charge incredible interest rates to the troops goes unchanged. And the House of Representatives has already tried once and is trying again to nullify these regulations. I assume they’ll trot out the usual arguments about free markets and individual responsibility.
And how about this –
Blue Bell Creameries, the ice cream and frozen desserts maker that’s been tainted by a listeria crisis, had “strong evidence” that the bacteria was in its Oklahoma plant as of early 2013, the Houston Chronicle is reporting. According to reports the Chronicleobtained from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Blue Bell’s tests had turned up a “presumptive positive” for listeria on the floors, storage pallets, and other nonfood surfaces of its Oklahoma plant. In 2014, Blue Bell tests also found that the level of coliform bacteria in products exceeded the maximum allowed by the state of Oklahoma. On top of all that, the FDA said water condensation in the plant had been trickling into the company’s frozen sherbet containers and possibly its ice cream during production. So yeah. Gross.
So, when did they decide to do something? – When three deaths linked to their ice cream occurred. And now there are ten dead whose demise may be related to eating ice cream.
So, I ask you two questions.
First, how does our form of capitalism reconcile itself with patriotism? Perhaps, you could argue that business is value free, it’s only morality the dictates of the marketplace. And if that is true than selling pay day loans at very high interest rates is the correct thing to do. The ideas of duty and loyalty to a nation are obsolete relics of a time before the great revelation of free market fundamentalism.
Secondly, how does our form of capitalism reconcile itself with public safety? It is obvious that you can make a lot more money making food in unsanitary conditions. Keeping the premises clean and protecting the food from contamination is expensive, time consuming and often subject to failure through human, animal or insect action. What is more important, keeping costs low or protecting the public?
Here is an actual working example. The company knew that they had a problem for more than a year. That’s a lot of ice cream. So, how important was human safety to the decision makers? It appears to have been low on their list of priorities.
So, let me ask a third question. What human value, be it patriotism, be it the preservation of human life, honor, religion, or even love that cannot tossed casually aside in the pursuit of profit? Under free market fundamentalism, isn’t greed the only quality worth cultivating, the great motivator, the basic rule of objectivism?
The proliferation of pay day loan stores around military bases is not an accident; it is the result of a philosophy that says making money is more important than the welfare of American serviceman. Selling contaminated ice cream for more than a year with the direct knowledge that you are doing it, is not an accident, it is not a miscalculation. It is again a result of a philosophy that put profits ahead of one of the most basic rules of humanity, thou shalt no kill.
So, tomorrow morning, I will get up and there will be new articles, new affronts to morality, new descriptions of stupidity and greed, and sometimes, I look at those headlines, those stories, those crimes and I wonder why I believe so firmly in the right in the face of so much evidence that doing wrong is profitable.