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Renouncing Sins Against the Corporate Faith
11 July 2002
Just about every politician and pundit is eager to denounce wrongdoing in business these days. Sinners have defiled the holy quest for a high rate of return. Damn those who left devoted investors standing bereft at corporate altars!
On the surface, media outlets are filled with condemnations of avarice. The July 15 edition of Newsweek features a story headlined "Going After Greed," complete with a full-page picture of George W. Bush's anguished face. But after multibillion-dollar debacles from Enron to WorldCom, the usual media messages are actually quite equivocal - wailing about greedy CEOs while piping in a kind of hallelujah chorus to affirm the sanctity of the economic system that empowered them.
At a Wall Street pulpit, Bush declared that America needs business leaders "who know the difference between ambition and destructive greed." Presumably, other types of greed are fine and dandy.
During his much-ballyhooed speech, the president asserted that "all investment is an act of faith." With that spirit, a righteous form of business fundamentalism is firmly in place. The great god of capitalism is always due enormous tribute. Yet wicked people get most of the blame when things go wrong. "The American system of enterprise has not failed us," Bush proclaimed. "Some dishonest individuals have failed our system."
Corporate theology about "the free enterprise system" readily acknowledges bad apples while steadfastly denying that the barrels are rotten. After all, every large-scale racket needs enforceable rules. Rigid conservatives may take their faith to an extreme. ("Let's hold people responsible - not institutions," a recent Wall Street Journal column urged.) But pro-corporate institutional reform is on the mainstream agenda, as media responses to Bush's sermon on Wall Street made clear.
The Atlanta Constitution summarized a key theme with its headline over an editorial: "Take Hard-Line Approach to Restore Faith in Business." Many newspapers complained that Bush had not gone far enough to crack down on corporate malfeasants. "His speech was more pulpit than punch," lamented the Christian Science Monitor. A July 10 editorial in the Washington Post observed that "it is naive to suppose that business can be regulated by some kind of national honor code." But such positions should not be confused with advocacy of progressive social policies.
"There is one objective that companies can unite around," the Post editorial said, "and that is to make money. This is not a criticism: The basis of our market system is that, by maximizing profits, firms also maximize the collective good." Coming from media conglomerates and other corporate giants, that sort of rhetoric is notably self-serving.
It takes quite a leap of faith to believe that when firms maximize profits they also "maximize the collective good." A much stronger case could be made for opposite conclusions.
The Washington Post Co. itself has long served as a good example. A quarter-century ago, the media firm crushed striking press workers at its flagship newspaper. That development contributed to "maximizing profits" but surely did nothing to "maximize the collective good" - unless we assume that busting unions, throwing people out of work and holding down wages for remaining employees is beneficial for all concerned.
Current news coverage does not challenge the goal of amassing as much wealth and power as possible. For Enron's Ken Lay and similar executives, falling from media grace has been simultaneous with their loss of wealth and power. Those corporate hotshots would still be media darlings if they'd kept their nauseating greed clearly within legal limits.
Why "nauseating" greed? Well, maybe you can think of a better adjective for people who are intent on adding still more money to their hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in personal riches - while, every day, thousands of other human beings are dying from lack of such necessities as minimal health care and nutrition.
One day in the mid-1970s, at a news conference, I asked Nelson Rockefeller how he felt about being so wealthy while millions of children were starving in poor countries. Rockefeller, who was vice president of the United States at the time, replied a bit testily that his grandfather John D. Rockefeller had been very generous toward the less fortunate. As I began a followup, other reporters interrupted so that they could ask more news-savvy questions.
Basic questions about wealth and poverty - about economic relations that are glorious for a few, adequate for some and injurious for countless others - remain outside the professional focus of American journalism. In our society, prevalent inequities are largely the results of corporate function, not corporate dysfunction. But we're encouraged to believe that faith in the current system of corporate capitalism will be redemptive.