Between good and evil - The Explorer: Columns

Between good and evil

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Posted: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 4:00 am

“Don’t be evil.” That’s Google’s unofficial motto, adopted when it was young and idealistic. But now Google is all grown up, and it’s willing to do whatever it takes to boost corporate profits. Among its questionable practices: tracking our every move on the web to boost its “targeted ad” revenues, even overriding security measures people set up to protect themselves from unwanted invasion of privacy.

Goldman Sachs, one of the investment firms that brought the economy to its knees in 2008, would never be foolish enough to adopt a “Don’t be evil” motto. But according to an exec who recently quit his $300,000-a-year job and wrote a scathing oped, things have gone from bad to worse. He described a “toxic and destructive” environment where employees are increasingly encouraged to sell bad investments to clients if it adds to the corporate bottom line.

Sometimes you have to wonder if people who climb the corporate ladder are different from other folk. According to a recent research paper, it turns out they are. Seven separate studies indicated rich people are more likely to lie and cheat than the rest of us, and they’re less likely to empathize with other people’s suffering.

Huge, powerful corporations that put profits first and customers last run by people who are long on deception and short on compassion? It sounds to me like we consumers need some serious protection in the form of strong government regulation against these land-based sharks. Otherwise, we’ll be eaten alive.

Is it unfair of me to compare corporations to sharks? Let’s take a look.

Sharks have no concept of good or evil. They do what they do because they’re sharks. If a shark eats a human being, there’s no animosity involved. It’s just taking whatever happens to be swimming nearby. A seal would have done just as well. If sharks could talk, their motto would be, “Eat and keep moving or you’re a dead shark.”

To corporations, the concepts of “good” and “evil” are irrelevant. The only words that matter are “profits” and “stock values.” If a corporation can boost its bottom line by screwing over its consumers and damaging the earth - well, that’s what a corporation does. It would be equally willing to create the ultimate solar panel that would cut energy costs in half and make imported oil a thing of the past if that would bring in the big bucks. The corporate motto? “Grow and diversify or you’re a dead corporation.”

Actually, sharks come out slightly ahead in the comparison since they lack something humans are supposed to possess: a conscience.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-shark or anti-corporation. I imagine the ocean’s ecosystem needs sharks to thrive, and I know corporations are vital to our economic system. But I’m as skeptical of a corporation saying to me, “I have your best interests at heart” as I am of a shark waving to me with its fin.

We can protect ourselves from sharks by staying out of the water, but we need help when it comes to protecting ourselves from corporations’ natural predatory instincts. That’s why I’m amazed when I hear ordinary citizens scream, “No government regulation!” Either they’re hopelessly naive or they’re gluttons for punishment -- people who relish the thought of eating tainted meat, buying dangerous toys for their kids and paying hidden fees to banks and mortgage companies.

By definition, too much government regulation is a bad thing, but the notion that raw capitalism will regulate itself through the miraculous intervention of “the invisible hand of the marketplace” is both wrong and dangerous.

We have to keep searching for that sweet spot where there’s enough regulation to keep our health, our pocketbooks and our planet safe from corporate greed.

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