Corporate Killings Condemned
Op-Ed Opposes Inconsistent Treatment for Killers
The below article is distributed by ReclaimDemocracy.org
Why Is Killing for Capital Not a Capital Crime?
by Jeff Milchen and Jonathan PowerBy knowingly sacrificing human lives for corporate profit, executives at the Ford and Firestone Corporations recently surpassed Timothy McVeigh's body count for American citizens lives taken over the past five years. Unlike McVeigh, these executives have received no punishment for their actions. Indeed, there has not been a single indictment of either corporation, nor of any culpable corporate officers to date.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has recorded 185 deaths (McVeigh killed 168), and more than 700 injuries, amid thousands of complaints involving rollover-prone Ford Explorers that crashed following sudden tread separation on factory-installed Firestone tires. The deadly duo also was implicated in at least 48 deaths in Venezuela and the Middle East.
Last August, the tire manufacturer Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. announced a voluntary recall of 6.5 million tires, most of them original equipment on Explorers. By that time, Firestone had been replacing the defective tires in 16 other countries for up to a year, all the while concealing the danger from U.S. citizens.
Ford and Firestone officials received complaints as early as 1997 and knew of at least 35 deaths and 130 injuries before the federal government launched a probe early last year. How do we know? They were defending lawsuits from scores of survivors and the families of dead victims.
It is clear that executives at Ford and Firestone willfully and knowingly kept unsafe products on the market that they knew would kill many more innocent people -- ultimately more than McVeigh's bomb.
The two cases provide graphic illustration of a dual standard for accountability and justice in America. Nearly every candidate for public office talks tough on street crime, but then ignores the fact that corporate crime costs our society more than street crime in both dollars and lives taken. If you loan your friend a car you know to be unsafe while withholding that information, you could be convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the event of a fatal accident. Yet we permit corporate officers to commit the same offense with impunity if they do it on the job.
Corporate executives regularly deploy cost-benefit analyses that weigh the potential cost of civil lawsuits or fines for the rare criminal convictions (such fines are tax-deductible as a cost of doing business) against the cost of recalls or other safety measures. Their job simply is to decide which option is more profitable, as demonstrated by the famous 1973 memo that Ford executives wrote about the Ford Pinto gas tank problem.
Then-president Lee Iacocca and other Ford executives estimated a human life's value at $200,000 -- a number created by the NHTSA at the auto industry's urging -- and calculated the company's cost from severe burn injuries at $67,000 per incident.
Next they calculated the cost of saving an estimated 180 people from being burned to death (actually, more than 500 were killed) and preventing scores of serious injuries by recalling the Pintos and fixing the fuel tank. Ford executives chose to sacrifice 180 lives, maim hundreds more and shatter families' lives rather than spend $11 per auto (Ford's own estimate) to make them far safer.
So how can we prevent corporate crimes from killing more innocent people? First, we must change laws that exempt corporate employees from liability for crimes committed on company time. Officials like Ford CEO Jacques Nasser, Masatoshi Ono (who since resigned as Firestone Inc.'s CEO) and their respective boards must be held accountable for fatalities, injuries, and illnesses caused by their actions.
But we'd deceive ourselves to think that serious corporate crime could be blamed on a few bad actors. Rather, we must change radically a system that permits cost/benefit analyses to take precedence over human health and life.
To reclaim democratic authority over corporations, we can learn much from our country's founders. They protected citizens from recidivist corporations by regularly exercising a corporate "death penalty," i.e. revoking the charter of a corporation if its products or actions harmed society, and refused to let individuals hide from personal accountability behind the corporate form.
By their nature, terrorist acts like the Oklahoma City bombing often are unpredictable and difficult to prevent, but the criminal actions in corporate boardrooms that kill many more Americans are neither. A smart cost-benefit analysis would direct us to focus more attention on these larger, preventable threats.
Let's better protect ourselves by reinstating appropriate punishments for criminal corporations and those who run them.
Jeff Milchen is the founder of ReclaimDemocracy.org, a non-profit organization devoted to revitalizing grassroots democracy and revoking illegitimate power of corporations. Jonathan Power is a volunteer with the organization.
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