Corporate Insanity Starts with Us

Imagine you paid someone to build a house for your child, and imagine one night you get a call. The house has collapsed. Your child is dead.

A year after you bury your child, a letter arrives. It is from your builder. Get out of the house, it says. There may be some defects.

You learn that other houses have collapsed, other people have died. The builder knew of the danger for years. So you get a lawyer, you go to court, you demand compensation—not that any amount of dollars will bring back the child you have lost. You demand the money because it is the only way you know to punish the builder, and to make sure everyone knows his wrongdoing.

The builder sends his lawyers to the judge, and they tell the judge he is not liable. He isn’t liable, because the fool who used shoddy materials was the old him. He is a new man. He can’t be held responsible for the actions of his past person.

Preposterous, right? Yet this is precisely the argument employed by General Motors in response to numerous lawsuits, in response to at least thirteen deaths from engineering defects that cause its vehicles to lock up, rendering their power steering, brakes, and airbags inoperable. In a recent court filing, GM’s lawyers claimed the engineering mistakes were committed by “the old GM.” They represent, you see, “the new GM.”

This is quite possibly the first-ever instance of the insanity defense applied to a company. That wackiness a few years ago? We don’t know what we were thinking. We weren’t ourselves.

It’s an odd twist on the personhood of the corporation, a legal fiction developed long ago to, among other things, make it easier for wronged parties to receive damages in lawsuits. Not only did GM receive $40 billion in taxpayer money in 2009, it got the opportunity to shed its legal personhood, becoming a new person who just happens to possess the same name, and almost identical assets.

It was a convenient sleight of hand that kept the government bailout from being much steeper. At the time, it seemed only rich investment firms were getting stiffed, strong-armed by the Feds into relinquishing their legal claims to GM assets. Now it looks like average folks are getting the shaft as well.

I say “average folks” because the locus of GM’s errors was its engineering in small cars, which it produced in bulk and on the cheap, primarily to satisfy federal fuel-economy standards, along with autoworkers unions who had a sweet deal that entitled their members to full pay whether or not they actually worked. So GM built crummy cars like the Chevy Cobalt, which typically ended up in the low-end, used-car market within a year of rolling off the assembly line.

It’s just one of many ways we place the costs of our high-minded aspirations on the backs of the poor. Conveniently, those costs are usually hidden. This time, there’s a body count.

And the culpability extends farther than perhaps we would like to admit. It extends beyond the decades of inept, corrupt, self-seeking corporate and union bosses who steered GM into incompetence and bankruptcy. It extends even beyond the politicians on Left and Right, who for decades have been far more solicitous of large, campaign-donating corporations than of small businesses that are the real engines of domestic job growth and creativity.

Culpability extends to every one of us who has accepted a series of devil’s bargains: Reduce dependence on foreign oil and protect the environment, not by changing our own lifestyles, but with government rules that mostly affect other people. Protect executives from the accountability a market correction brings so that our home values and 401Ks won’t dip as sharply. Keep in office the very politicians and bureaucrats who create the perverse incentives that led us to the brink of financial collapse, so long as they promise to keep the whole rotten, rigged, crony-laden system creaking along a bit longer, hopefully until we retire. Bid the piper play another tune, and tell him the bill goes to our grandchildren.

Most of us are culpable, because most of us have supported—with willful blindness—politicians who tell us we can consume more than we produce, buy virtue on the cheap, drink liquor and call it medicine. The chain of events that led to thirteen people burying their loved ones did not begin with a handful of inept engineers at a drafting table, and we all know it.

But not to worry, because even now, phalanxes of political hopefuls are waging campaigns to set things right. Some oppose the corrupted presidential administration, others the do-nothing Congress. All tell us our brightest days are ahead. We can have better schools, a smarter workforce, increased security, improved health, more of every good thing. And the best news? It won’t cost us one thin dime. The other guy, maybe, but not us.

It probably sounds like politics as usual, but you don’t understand. These are new politicians. And by throwing our support to them, rather than the scoundrels we used to support (what were we thinking?), we can ourselves be renewed. We can be new people, without obligation to fix our mistakes. What’s good for GM, after all, must be good for America.

Tony Woodlief lives outside Wichita, Kansas, and is the author of a spiritual memoir, Somewhere More Holy. His essays on faith and parenting have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The London Times, and WORLD Magazine. His short stories, two of which have been nominated for Pushcart prizes, have been published in Image and Ruminate. His website is www.tonywoodlief.com.


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