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Corporate Sellout Wackos*

September 30, 2011
Hudson River PCBs

Does it make more sense to advise individuals not to fish in a tainted river that it does to advise corporations not to taint the river?

Every semester, I take part in a discussion group on a different topic as per my involvement with one of my scholarships at school. Last semester, I was in a group that explored the concept of creativity as transcendent act, and found that, if you’re not careful, creativity will scare the bejeezus out of you.

This year, the discussion group seems to be turning out to be just as stimulating, but also just as scary…or maybe just depressing. The group is called Historic Perspectives on Corporate Responsibility and Environmental Protection, and the topic is historical environmental disasters, but more particularly, the role of various corporate and non-corporate entities in perpetuating those disasters.

What’s depressing isn’t that environmental disasters happen, but more that they seem to happen over and over again, and we don’t seem to have a way to fix it. (Perhaps those who take a pessimistic approach to religion are right that there’s something fundamentally broken about humanity…) We can’t seem to find a way because several elements of the system are too weak or are not “inclined” to doing the right thing.

But what was most depressing was discussing that even as we talk about companies like Monsanto and GE and their role with PCBs and how these companies move beyond a reasonable attempt to maximize profits into a land of absolute evil (protip: if your firm is funding fraudulent surveys in order to raise uncertainty about the fact that your waste is causing all sorts of health problems…and the goal of raising uncertainty is to delay regulations so you can maximize the profit before the entire thing collapses…you’re not just “maximizing shareholder value.”)…the fact is that these firms are going to be hiring people like us.

(Normally, our discussion groups are just people of very different backgrounds, but for this group, only half of the members are scholarshipped members of different backgrounds…the other half are honors students within the bioenvironmental science program. So, in a very real sense, companies that we discuss as unethical or sociopathic really are going to be trying to hire these people.)

In a way, it’s easy to say that you’d never work for a “bad” company. Yet, “bad” companies do pay well (although even this must be evaluated…who wants to be paid well in a firm that has a known track record of exposing its employees to hazardous material?). And, in many instances, they do a lot of good things in addition to their bad things. (In fact, the reason why PCBs were so popular is because other than the fact that it’s incredibly toxic, it’s a miracle material in electrical applications…it’s difficult to find materials with the same properties.)

Thank you for smokingI have friends who have interned for BP. One of them accepted a full-time job offer there. She’s in finance, so no one really thinks much of that as being part of BP’s problems, but in a related sense, how does someone really live with themselves at a company like Altria Group (the parent of Philip Morris and U.S. Smokeless Tobacco, among others)?

I’d like to think that I’m immune to it, but then Francine McKenna had to repost an older Going Concern post of hers at re: The Auditors…the top ten reasons you still want to work for the auditors. It’s certainly easy to buy into the marketing campaign the firms have, but if you’re keeping track of them, there’s always something that lies underneath all the marketing. Yet…even when you are aware of a lot of the bad that is done, what if you just feel numb to it?

(In a similar vein, one thing that becomes really apparent in environmental disaster cases is the extent to which the Environmental Protection Agency is susceptible to being captured by the firms that cause the disasters. Is this something that doesn’t apply to auditing? Well, actually, here’s a case of regulatory capture in the accounting world.)

I’m sure that if my parents were to see this blog post, they would advise me to take it down. After all, couldn’t I lose my job for speaking ill of the industry and of the firms? Isn’t it perverse that having an intelligent discussion of controversy and scandal can be just as hazardous to one’s employability as posting compromising photos from a party?

*The title of this post comes from the idea I’ve read about “black conservative sellout wackos**,” which usually is a label applied by black liberal commentators to people like Clarence Thomas or Thomas Sewell. Speaking of Clarence Thomas, he was an attorney for Monsanto in the ’70s. So how suspect is this:

Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas was an attorney in Monsanto’s corporate-law department in the 1970s. He wrote the Supreme Court opinion in a crucial G.M.-seed patent-rights case in 2001 that benefited Monsanto and all G.M.-seed companies.

**I’m sure that there is a way that reasonable black people can be conservative. I just don’t know how one pulls it off without seeming like a jerk.

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6 Comments
  1. You know, I suspect you’ve already figured out how this post ties into other discussions (i.e., those random forays involving something called Mormonism… haha). Where those are concerned, I can take full advantage of my righteous outsider status. Where this present discussion is concerned, not so much. If it makes you feel any better, as someone who makes a living selling cheap musical instruments from Asia to the rest of the world, I spent my afternoon chatting with our CPA after our work was done and he gets it. I mean, even though we’re both just taking care of a small operation that’s not big enough to bother with much beyond the bottom line, we both can relax and talk about the bigger picture, and that counts for something in my book. We both know we’re selling product that is competitive, in part, because nobody in China is currently factoring in costs that everyone knows are gonna have to be paid down the road. And as the Chinese begin to factor in those costs, as they should, the reality is that I’ll probably start spending more time in Indonesia by way of response. Rinse. Wash. Repeat. Until there’s no more advantage to be gained from the imbalances on offer.

    • But will it ever be the case that there will be no more imbalances? I mean, it seems that there can always be room for disruptive technology, for one.

  2. Or maybe it’s Wash. Rinse. Repeat. The mystery of my recent hair loss revealed. Ha!

  3. Seth R. permalink

    Well, there is Collin Powell….

    • good example.

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