I was on a climate panel recently when anger at BP boiled over. The world is being ruined, said an angry man in the audience, by villainous oil companies and their rape of the environment. He won a rousing cheer from others in the audience.
The first big environmental story I covered was in Valdez, Alaska, documenting the vulgar smear of oil left on a stunning corner of the earth by the errant Exxon Valdez tanker. I have watched in the 21 years since as oil companies reaped obscene profits while treating the air, the land, water, and the atmosphere like open sewers.
But I have to disagree with the angry man at the panel. Our wrath should not be directed at BP or Exxon or even the next oil company that fouls our nest. We should be no more shocked at these companies' offenses than we would be to see a snake strike, or a pit bull bite, or a scorpion sting. Like these creatures, the companies are simply doing what they are made to do.
Corporations are created to make money. The sole measure of a corporation is the profit at the bottom of its P&L statement, the dividends and gains they return to the people who own their stocks. They are obligated by this imperative to do anything and everything they can to increase their profits. It doesn't matter if they act in the public good, to the public detriment, or in ways that are unethical, or underhanded, or downright dirty.
Corporations will not spend money to refrain from polluting, make safer products, help their communities, or in any other way "do the right thing" unless they are forced by laws or consumer demands that threaten their profits.
There is nothing in the corporate goals requiring a corporation to act in a way that helps society. It's simply not on the balance sheet. So BP or Transocean may have taken shortcuts on the drilling protection mechanisms? Until it backfired, these were all in the name of the corporations' interests -- that is, the efficiency in drilling and the speed in making money faster.
Why should we be appalled by this? We expect corporations to chase money, nothing more. In fact, the corporate directors have a fiduciary duty to do everything they can to bring in more and more money. We have institutionalized and embraced this greed in our social fabric, deceived into thinking it necessary.
Of course, it is vogue for corporate CEO's and their public relations mavens to talk about "social responsibility." It is small talk. Perhaps it is heartfelt by some in the organization. But the conversation always is motivated by the effort to grasp more profits by making consumers feel good about their product. Make no mistake, the lip service to "social responsibility" will never stand in the way of a corporation's perceived route to profits. Or, as we have seen, the bonuses of the CEOs.
What is more appalling is how we in this country have embraced this system and built a patriotic shrine around it. This system has resulted in an enormous economic chasm between the tiny rich contingent of corporate owners and the rest of America's workers. It has spawned a culture of advertising deception and gouging, all in the pursuit of higher profits. It has somehow sanitized the dirty business of firing people in the name of "cost cutting," as though workers who support their families and communities are expendable widgets, and their impoverishment has no consequence.
It has dragged us into the Great Recession, and has left 15 million Americans stuck in that economic quicksand without jobs, even as corporate bigwigs walked away with bonuses.
Why is this something we should wrap in the American flag? More to the point, why is every attempt to put legitimate curbs on this corporate imperative of greed seen by so many as a sinister limitation? Why, when an elected official proposes a modest set of consumer protections or a new attempt to police the actions of a wayward industry, are these ideas met with howls of "big government interference"?
Interference to what? Interfering corporations from screwing us even more? Why do so many Americans view government with contempt and distrust, but see "free enterprise" as some sort of civic savior? Governments can fail, can be corrupt, inefficient and ineffective. But at least their purpose is to improve the common good, and they succeed far more often than they fail. There is no pretense of a beneficent goal with corporations: their very genetic purpose is to reap as much money from the public, irrespective of whether that is done in good ways or bad.
Yet political candidates campaign -- and win -- on promises of reducing taxes on companies and muzzling even meager regulatory attempts to harness corporate actions in ways that limit the damage to society. It is the most cunning success of corporations that they have effectively brainwashed a large portion of America into opposing any curb on corporate excesses, while the corporations profit and pollute with abandon.
BP is not to blame. We have given them the keys to exploit us and to plunder our environment, and we resist any governmental attempt to stop it. The crime is being committed while we handcuff the police.