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General Motors, Corporate Morality, and the Call for Less Regulation

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As reported in detail yesterday in the New York Times, it seems a number of people have been killed in GM Cobalts because the ignition switched itself off as the car was being driven. If the car then crashed, the airbag would not deploy.

According to the New York Times, GM knew this design defect was killing people as early as May 2009. In some cases the company settled with the relatives of the dead, in one case it threatened to come after a family for reimbursement of legal fees if it did not withdraw its lawsuit. Only now, about five years (and many deaths) later are a million and a half cars being recalled.

The mistake we make is to say "GM knew people were getting killed," when of course this is absolutely inaccurate. GM is a brand, a hood ornament, an institution. No, a group of human beings were responsible for this.

Presumably they did it under some kind of duress, financial, social, the corporate culture, the fear of being accused of disloyalty, the fear of unemployment. We don't know who or what at GM exerted such power that engineers, executives, and lawyers - who were also mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters - became complicit in decisions that led to more deaths, if indeed this turns out to be the case.

Until we understand the obvious weakness of the individual conscience within the corporate machine, politicians like Rick Perry who call for getting rid of the EPA because it puts "an undue burden on American industry," should be strongly resisted.

With the many environmental dangers we now face, and which our children will face to an even greater extent, the last thing on earth we should do, as GM reminds us yet again, is trust industry to behave morally or to police itself.