THE BLOG
09/22/2015 12:15 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2016

"Unbridled Capitalism": New Evidence

If you want to know what Pope Francis has in mind when he points out that capitalism is running amok, or -- in his words -- has become "unbridled" and needs to be reined in, you do not have to go far.

On September 18, Volkswagen admitted to cheating on air pollution tests of its diesel-powered vehicles. In particular, the corporation is in serious violation of the Clean Air Act, having produced about 482,000 cars that "'emit up to 40 times more pollution' than allowed under U.S. standards." Volkswagen outfitted the cars with "defeat devices" that cause the cars to emit much lower levels of emissions when being tested than they do under actual road conditions. In plain English: they deliberately and systematically cheated, on a very large scale.

Recently, we learned that General Motors knew for more than a decade that an ignition switch used in some of its cars was faulty; the defect has caused at least 124 deaths and 270 injuries so far.

In the last days we learned that pharmaceutical companies regularly release products that are rife with harmful side effects. The New York Times recently reported, based on an expose from The Huffington Post, that Johnson & Johnson manufactured a drug, Risperdal, and aggressively marketed it to the elderly and to boys -- despite the fact that it knew the drug can cause strokes and abnormal breast development in boys. It covered up these side effects and offered kickbacks to doctors that prescribed the drug.

And we just found out that according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC), poison centers handled more than 6,000 calls to save young children ages five and under who ingested concentrated laundry detergent "pods" in 2012; that number increased to 10,000 in 2013 and 12,000 in 2014. At least five children and two senior citizens had been killed by ingesting the pods as of May 2015. Most poisonings occur because children are attracted to the pods' bright coloring, which makes them resemble candy. Consumer Reports called the laundry pods a "serious health hazard for young children," and in July 2015 it withdrew its support for the products, saying that it would no longer place laundry pods on its list of recommended laundry detergents.

After long deliberations and discussions, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) approved, years after the product's risk to children had become apparent, voluntary industry standards for packaging these pods. While some producers took note, none are required to follow these or any other standard with regard to these pods. Some lawmakers have moved to require the federal government to more strictly regulate laundry pods' packaging and chemical composition. Multiple bills have been introduced, but none have been enacted.

Not convinced? On September 22, The New York Times carried two reports next to one another. One shows that drug companies increased the costs of select drugs by many times over -- in one instance from $13.50 to -- $750, despite the facts that manufacturing or marking these drugs encountered no significant new costs. And that a car safety seat was recalled--after long resistance by the industry.

You cannot fool all people all the time. True, currently, much of the anger on the right is aimed at the federal government, and on the left at the super-rich. However, if such revelations continue -- and the Pope and Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders continue to flag them -- more and more Americans will realize that the economic system is at fault. Economic interests gained great power over the elected officials, who do not regulate the corporations that seem to lose any sense of self restraint. We shall face such harm as long as capitalism, which works best when it is reined in, remains unbridled.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and the author of Privacy in the Cyber Age. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. To subscribe to his monthly newsletter, send an e-mail to icps@gwu.edu.