11/04/2005 11:54 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mighty Corporate

We are a nation of hustlers. So says historian Walter A. McDougall, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Freedom Just Around the Corner.” Of course, being hustlers has a positive side – a nation of “builders, doers, go-getters, dreamers, hard workers, inventors, organizers, engineers and a people supremely generous.” But, McDougall points out: “Americans have enjoyed more opportunity to pursue their ambitions, by foul means or fair, than any other people in history. No wonder American English is uniquely endowed with words connoting a swindle.”

Here’s just a sample of some of the verbs he lists, starting with the “B”s: “Bait, bamboozle, bilk, bite, blackmail, bleed, blindside, bluff, buffalo, burn, caboodle, cheat, chisel, clip, con, connive, conspire…”

Now, the list goes on – and on – but it looks to me like he missed one of the supreme swindling “C”s: corporation. Because, if you’re looking to defraud, delude, double cross, dupe, embezzle, fleece, gouge, hoodwink, hornswoggle, mislead, mug, rig, rip off, sandbag, scam, screw, shaft, shortchange, snooker or just plain sucker the public in the Grand American Tradition, you’ve got to have a corporation.

Now don’t get me wrong. Commerce is great, and business is business. As for free trade, I’m all for it. Let’s give it a try. But that doesn’t seem to be part of the current corporate business model.

When George W. Bush began his first term, the news media heralded his arrival as the first MBA president, a CEO commander-in-chief. This master of the universe trumpeted the depth of his A-list corporate lineup: Dick Cheney from Halliburton; Donald Rumsfeld from Searle Pharmaceutical; Andy Card from General Motors; and of course Condi Rice from Chevron, who even had an oil tanker named after her.

Their promise was to run government with the ruthless efficiency of a corporation. This is one promise they’ve delivered on. They are mighty corporate.

Now when you hear a spokesman for the Interior Department say “We’re looking at how we’re doing business in the 21st century,” you know they’re going to give you the business. It started when deputy assistant secretary Paul Hoffman proposed some seemingly “minor word changes” to the Park Service’s basic policy document. Kind of a “small is beautiful” approach that would end up clearcutting environmental protections. “Illegal uses,” he said, instead of just harming park resources, must “irreversibly” harm them. Commented a former National Park Service official: “Taken to its extreme, I suppose you could do anything to a wildlife population as long as you preserve the last breeding pair.” Why Mr. Hoffman, that’s mighty corporate of you.

Are you fed up with all these no-bid corporate contracts the government is doling out? In retrospect they may look pretty good. Following Saddam’s ouster, the US government airlifted $12 billion in cold hard cash to Iraq to take care of business. That’s 281 million bills weighing 363 tons headed for American contractors and Iraqi ministries. It turns out several billion bucks are MIA. As the Coalition Provisional Authority reported to a Congressional Committee, contractors were told to “bring a big bag.” Now that’s mighty corporate.

You go to war with the army you have, not the Army you’d like, right? You’d think that two years into the Iraq war, the Pentagon would have patched the deadly gap for armor-plated vehicles for our troops. Think again. Half of them remain unprotected. Why? The Defense Department relies on just one small Ohio company to armor Humvees. The military offered to buy out the rights, but the company claimed it was a threat to its “current and future competitive positions.” That’s mighty corporate.

I bet you don’t remember the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004. It started as a law to terminate a $5 billion a year corporate tax subsidy that the WTO outlawed. Then it magically shape-shifted into $137 billion dollars in NEW corporate tax breaks. Hey, shouldn’t our government show compassion for the nearly 95 percent of corporations that were already paying less than five percent in taxes? Commented a former Reagan Treasury Department official: “The only question was whether this was the worst tax bill in our lifetime, or the worst tax bill in US history.” Said one tax lobbyist who worked on the bill: “The way you get votes is you buy them.” Now THAT is mighty corporate.

Or maybe, in this unstable economy, you’re worried about your pension. Robert Miller’s not. He’s the turnaround artist who takes failing companies and pumps up the balance sheet. How? He offloads their pension liabilities onto a federal safety net program. Then he makes a killing selling the newly unburdened companies for a pretty penny. Miller’s nifty innovation is catching fire as a business strategy. The problem is that the federal pension program is already $23 billion in the red, and you’ll get your pension cut. Now is that mighty corporate, or what ?!

By now you’re probably asking yourself, “What kind of person would do these things?” Clearly they’re not like you and me. Now obviously, a corporation is not a person. But actually by law it is a person. So what kind of corporate person would do such things?

According to criminal psychologist Robert Hare, whom you may have seen in the documentary “The Corporation,” there’s a name for them: psychopaths. Hare created the Psychopathy checklist. It’s a personality test that’s the gold standard for making clinical diagnoses of that one percent of the population that is devoid of conscience.

Hare says psychopaths are callous, cold-blooded individuals with no sense of guilt, remorse or empathy. He asserts that corporations are psychopathic because they ruthlessly seek their own selfish interests without regard for the harms they cause to others. As he told Fast Company magazine, “If I wasn’t studying psychopaths in prison, I’d do it at the stock exchange.” So he modified his Psychopathy Checklist to identify so-called sub-criminal or corporate psychopaths. Of course, the peril of this new test is that companies will deliberately use it to hire the candidates with high scores. That would be mightily corporate.

Unlike most other criminals, corporate psychopaths usually grew up in middle- or upper-class or affluent families. They attended college and may hold advanced degrees. That’s only natural. White-collar crime is worlds more profitable than street crime. Even if you get busted, it’s usually a government catch-and-release program. And you’ll probably get to keep most of your winnings, too.

One prominent figure who fits Hare’s profile is the aspiring bathtub killer Grover Norquist. You probably remember Grover from his famous “reduce government to the size I can drown it in the bathtub” routine. Or perhaps from the time he compared the estate tax to the holocaust. He’s got a really serious issue about taxes, especially on the rich.

Grover is best known as the influential head of Americans for Tax Reform. In his Beltway office, he hosts a weekly neo-conservative strategy session of government officials, corporate lobbyists and the think tanks who love them. It’s the sizzling ticket in town if you want to drown the baby and do business with it at the same time. Grover calls it the “Leave Us Alone” coalition.

Grover is hard-wired into numerous big business interests and powerful politicians. Maybe a little too hard-wired. In fact, Congress recently subpoenaed his records for a federal investigation into his close ties with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He’s the formerly high-flying K Street wheeler-dealer who’s now under felony indictment. The feds say he defrauded Native American tribes who wanted to avoid taxes on reservation gambling, and he defended free trade in the sweatshops of the Northern Mariana Islands by throttling proposed minimum wage laws.

Now we all have our wounds, and in the wound can sometimes be found the gift. I searched for Grover’s wound, the Rosebud that might illuminate his psychopathic descent into the heart of corporate darkness. There it was – hiding in plain sight on Wikipedia.

You see, Grover learned his politics by the tender age of ten. His father would liken each bite Grover took out of his ice cream cone to a different type of tax levied by the federal government. The horror, the horror.

So, next time some corporate psychopath - invisible hand-in-glove with the government - tries to stiff, sting, trick, trim, wangle - or just plain hustle you out of a bite of your ice cream cone, you’ll know what to say. “That’s mighty corporate of you. Now leave me alone!”