The Multinational Monitor


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The Executive Mindset

by Morton Mintz

The executive of a large corporation, en route to his office one morning, drives through a school zone posted with 20mile-per-hour speed limit signs. Here are two scenarios:

In the first, the man drives 50 miles per hour, in clear violation of the law, and unintentionally hits and kills a child. He is arrested and prosecuted for manslaughter; he is emotionally shattered, his life thereafter is darkened, and his career is imperiled if not ruined. His wife and children may suffer terribly although, of course, they are altogether innocent.

In the second scenario, he drives 20 miles per hour, takes care, and does not hit a child. Arriving at his office, he does one of the following, depending on the nature of his company:

He allows the marketing of hundreds of thousands of automobiles with braking systems he knows are defective or with gasoline tanks dangerously exposed to rear-end collisions.

He approves the marketing of millions of steel radial tires he knows may blow out.

He sets exceedingly high production goals for a deep coal mine although he knows this will force the foreman to allow particles that cause the diseases collectively known as "black lung" to accumulate in the mine atmosphere at levels prohibited by law. As a result, the foreman will feel compelled to conceal the black lung hazard with false reporting to the Mine Safety Administration.

He knows that some 30 persons who took his company's new prescription drug have died in other countries where it was being sold, but decides to conceal this information from the Food and Drug Administration, which is considering whether to let the same drug go on sale in the U.S. Not being alerted, the FDA approves the medicine for sale to Americans.

He knows that scientific studies almost without end have incriminated cigarettes as the principal cause of preventable disease, but he prepares an advertising campaign to induce youths to start smoking.

He knows that chemical discharges from his factory are poisoning the air, rain, and streams, but his response is to establish a political action committee to invest in those candidates for public office who will legitimate continuation of his contaminating activities.

He knows that his law client, an antibiotics manufacturer, has suppressed a study showing that a widely prescribed mixture literally causes hundreds of thousands of needless adverse reactions each year, some of them serious, a few of them fatal, but he prepares for a court proceeding in which his primary purpose will be to keep the product on the market for additional profitable months or years.

He knows that breast milk is the nearly perfect food for infants, but he devises promotions to induce women in the Third World to substitute formula, which they must mix with contaminated water.

He knows that an agricultural chemical which finds its way into our food is a probable carcinogen, but he sells it anyway, and he pays his trade association in Washington to beseech the Environmental Protection Agency to validate what he has done.

What happens to the executive who while driving safely and endangering no child, may proceed to cause injury or death to dozens, or hundreds, or even thousands of people? Chances are, nothing unpleasant.

He is extremely unlikely to find himself, or his conduct, denounced in a house of worship. He is nearly as unlikely to find attention drawn to himself, or his conduct, by editorial writers, pundits, professors of business or even philosophers or theologians.

There may be a bath of adverse publicity, but this is by no means guaranteed. Besides, publicity is mostly fleeting, and most important, publicity will focus not on him, but on his employer, the corporation.

In fact, chances are not only that nothing unpleasant will befall this safe-driving but dangerous executive, but that something positively pleasant will happen to him instead.

The grateful owners may promote him or give him a bonus. The workers and the community may also be grateful; he has, after all, preserved investments and jobs. He may be applauded in sectors of the press. An admiring White House may honor him with an appointment to one or another federal body, particularly if he has contributed-invested-in successful candidacies. If he is a generous philanthropist, a university may name a professorial chair or the wing of a building after him.

His good fortune may even grant him a state of mind in which he is comfortable with the notion that it is right and just for him to be punished were he to speed in a school zone and accidentally kill a child, but wrong and unjust for him to be punished for having acted in the assumed best interests of the corporation.

Consider how the late Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., while president of General Motors a half-century ago, defined his reponsibilities. In an extensive memo, Lammot du Pont urged Sloan to equip Chevrolets, GM's lowest-priced cars, with safety glass. The DuPont company, of course, stood to profit from this, but Lammot du Pont nonetheless was acting in the interests of the vast public which was being denied elemental protection from shards of automotive glass that were causing death, injury, and disfigurement. Sloan resisted. "Accidents or no accidents," he wrote, "my concern in this matter is a matter of profit and loss."

Sloan acknowledged "the comparatively large return the industry enjoys and General Motors in particular," but said he felt that GM "should not adopt safety glass for its cars and raise its prices even a part of what the extra cost would be. I can only see the competition being forced into the same position."

Lammot du Pont pointed out that Ford was by then using safety-glass windshields. Sloan replied: "That is no reason why we should do so. I am trying to protect the interests of the stockholders of General Motors and the Corporation's operating position-it is not my responsibility to sell safety glass. . . You can say, perhaps, that I am selfish, but business is selfish. We are not a charitable institution-we are trying to make a profit for our stockholders."

In July, 1962, Dr. Frances Kelsey of the Food and Drug Administration, supported behind the scenes by some of her colleagues and her immediate superior, refused to permit marketing of thalidomide. This was a sedative and tranquilizer which for some time had been sold in many other countries, and which, it turned out, caused a catastrophe: several thousand children whose mothers had taken it early in pregnancy were born without arms, legs, or without any limbs at all. The executives of some of the world's pharmaceutical houses that had sold thalidomide engaged in efforts to discredit the association between the drug and the birth defects and also engaged in various lies and cover-ups.

Nowhere was there discussion of the troubling moral anomalies, such as why it was that those business executives who engaged in such abhorrent behavior were seen, and seemed to see themselves, as good people, solid members of the community.

In 1979, Congressman George Miller had an asbestos plant in his district, in Richmond, California. Many men who worked there suffered grievous lung diseases and had sued their employer. The litigation developed some astonishing information. For example, the company had a policy under which it regularly took chest x-rays but withheld the results from the employees, thus preventing those who were diseased from seeking timely preventive treatment.

Miller introduced a bill, which he knew would get nowhere-and it didn't-but on which hearings were held by Congressman John Conyers. The bill went to the heart of the problem. It said in terms of legal art that a corporate manager who discovers an imminent hazard to the safety or health of members of work force, or to the public, in a process or product, must report it to the appropriate federal agency within 30 days; if-he fails to file a report he risks prosecution, and if convicted, imprisonment.

A man named Edward Ross wrote about these issues in a 1907 book, Sin and Society.

"The grading of sinners according to badness of character," he wrote, "goes on the assumption that the wickedest man is the most dangerous. This would be true if men were abreast in their opportunities to do harm. In that case the blackest villain would be the worst scrounge of society. But the fact is that the patent ruffian is confined to the social basement, and enjoys new opportunities. He can assault or molest, to be sure; but he cannot betray. Nobody depends on him, so he cannot commit breach of trust-that arch sin of our time. He does not hold in his hand the safety or welfare or money of the public. He is the clinker, not the live coal; vermin, not beast of prey. Today the villain most in need of curbing is the respectable, exemplary, trusted personage who, strategically placed at the focus of a spider-web of fiduciary relations, is able from his office chair to pick a thousand pockets, poison a thousand sick, pollute a thousand minds, or imperil a thousand lives."

The man who sped in the school zone caused a death. He suffered and paid a price demanded by society and probably his own heart.

The man who heeded the speed limit went on to cause many deaths. He did not suffer and paid no earthly price.

Morton Mintz is a reporter with the Washington Post. This article is adapted from a speech he delivered at the Washington Hebrew Congregation in 1983.

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