A Fox Guarding a Hen House Being Guarded by a Fox Already in the Hen House

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CURIOUS CONUNDRUM - How do we prevent the unethical from being unethical?

CURIOUS CONUNDRUM - How do we prevent the unethical from being unethical?

The corporate world isn’t where most people go to find model of ethical behavior – not unless they’re marketing a new product made of lead and margarine called, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Ethical”. For many corporations, pretty much anything is “ethical” provided it turns a profit. Still, a company has to really suck to stand out amongst their fellow gougers, cheats, and soulless greedheads.

The Swiss firm Covalence has ranked the 12 least ethical companies in the world. The diabolical dozen contains the usual crapulent corporations. Phillip Morris, Chevron, and Halliburton all made the list as you might expect. In fact, the only thing odd is how Covalence managed to pair it to only a dozen and resist squeezing in candidates that didn’t even rank – AIG comes to mind, for example.

Despite popular belief, corporations – like governments – aren’t inherently unethical. They are run by people though, many of whom are as unethical as they come. Unethical business and government leaders – sometimes embodied in the same person – seem drawn to graft and greed like junkie moths to a flame. They represent the dark side of humanity and are roundly and justifiably called out when they can’t regulate their behavior.

But that’s no reason for the humanitarian and philanthropic to get on their high horses. Humans are a lazy bunch preferring shortcuts to the hard work of the direct route. Sometimes unethical behavior starts small and gets big – in a hurry. And as bad as charlatans are, even the worst have small bits of humanity still buried in their defective characters. It’s not as if Bernie Madoff rolled out of bed one morning, rubbed his hands like Simon LeGree, and chortled at the thought of stealing the life savings of some poor widow from Rancho Cucamonga. For example, he donated money to several charitable causes. True, it was stolen, but it’s the thought that counts.

gotethicsAnyone who believes unethical behavior can be legislated out of existence is smoking a pipe of conflagrated dreamweed. However, those who believe that lifting legal restrictions from proven unethical companies is taking a strong hit of heroin to boot.

The problem is, we’ve reached a point where the regulators are every bit as unethical as the regulatees. It’s like the fox guarding the hen house metaphor carried one step too far – the fox is guarding a hen house being guarded by a fox who is already in the hen house.

Our options to combat unethical behavior are few and the douchebags are many. As a country, we need to start regulating companies and the government so they become more ethical and serve the people rather than each other. We can only do this by withholding votes and sales from those who are the most unethical and who wouldn’t bat an eye at picking your pocket while you and everyone else is watching in slow motion on the Jumbotron.

But then, maybe I’m the one smoking the dreamweed and shooting the heroin – all while firing up the crackpipe for a long deep pull.

12 thoughts on “A Fox Guarding a Hen House Being Guarded by a Fox Already in the Hen House

  1. This, by the way, is why I don’t look to government for ethics. No one with solid ethics would want the job while the job attracts those whose goal is power, corrupting power.

  2. And, by the way, if Democrats cannot find a way to govern with a potential filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a vast majority in the House and a Democratic president, I’m not sure the Democrats deserve to be in power. You may not have liked everything W did while in office but at least he got things done and without a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. If this past year is an example of Democratic governance, I wouldn’t be impressed if I were a Democrat, let alone an independent or Republican.

  3. Regarding the Market; the problem with leaving the market in charge is that it favors only the strong.

    I’d say it favors the business model that best does three things: one, maximizes profitability for the owners (stockholders in the case of publicly owned corporations which would include many who are far from rich but invest via various funds and retirement accounts) and two, arrives at the best price — which isn’t always the lowest price, since it provides for a wide variation on quality, options and so forth at a variety of prices — for purchaser of the various goods and or services on offer and three, maximizes choice to the purchaser. Yes, that means that those whose business models are inferior may be forced out of the market, if they are not able to move to a competitive business model or, alternatively, to find a niche not yet filled in the marketplace, but nothing is going to guarantee that a business owner is never going to go out of business short of totalitarian central planning/fascist type corporatism which doesn’t play well with individual freedom.

    You want a society based on jungle law, that’s great, but I myself prefer civilization, where people are not thrown away simply because they dont have whatever it takes to become the strongest lion (or the fiercest dog).

    Yes, there is something to the “jungle law” charge, I admit. Capitalism does require people to be willing to adapt to changing business atmospheres. On the other hand, capitalism has brought the most fantastic advances in technologies at ever decreasing prices — bringing modern marvels within the budget of most people — and ever increasing variations of choice. And yes, I think that’s great. But I take exception to the characterization that unless one becomes the strongest lion or fiercest dog that one is simply thrown away. Everyone benefits from the price lowering of competition within the marketplace and from the wide choice availability and the advances in innovations in every area of life that the marketplace brings.

    I also prefer my governments to work in opposition to business (much like liberals and conservatives both need to exist); that way they keep each other marginally honest and (hopefully) from overdoing things.

    Well, I agree about government working in opposition to business to this extent: they should be concerned about things like work-place safety, advertising honesty, open transparency regarding the actual health of a business, prevention of fraud and looting of workers’ pension benefits in addition to the monopoly prevention that I mentioned earlier. I am not a total laissez faire capitalist; I recognize a place for government in policing businesses. However, see my comments under your next quote.

    When the two combine, that’s when you get trouble – it is almost always at the interface of public and private that corruption occurs.

    I very much agree with this statement, however, I come to a different conclusion regarding the solution that we two are likely to suggest: you, greater regulation and more government interference; me, less. Here’s why: The the more government regulates business, the greater the perceived need on corporations’ part for lobbying and, thus, greater opportunity for graft. Business doesn’t need lobbyist where government is minimally involved in the marketplace whereas the more involved government becomes, the greater the problem with lobbying and buying off of government officials so I think it is definitely a double edged sword and I’m not sure that greater government involvement in the marketplace results in a net positive to society.

    Much of the current problems in Congress comes from the Democrats apparent misunderstanding of the roll of the Opposition (Republicans, on the other hand, understand it a little too well). Democrats get nothing accomplished because they are far too willing to roll over for the Republicans, and the GOP knows this, which is why they can stand so steadfast against them. The public knows this too, which is why the Democrat’s support is waning.

    Interesting take. I’d like it if you would be willing to expand upon that point.

    I dont think the GOP is resurgent, it’s just gathering heart at the Dems’ spinelessness, which is then amplified by the corporate press. There’s far less enthusiasm for Republicans than there is disgust for the Democrats among their own people. The power that Dems gained in 2008 was driven by enthusiasm, which has withered in the face of the party’s almost complete inability to use the power handed them by the electorate.

    Republicans are doing better than I ever expected in elections at the state and federal level — until it actually happened, how frozen would hell have to have been, in your opinion, for Kennedy’s Senate seat in Mass. to have fallen to a pol with an ‘R’ after his name, for example? I guess you can say that the Republican wins in governors’ races in several states and the minor miracle in Mass is all about disgust with Democrats and not about people’s preferences for Republicans but I’m not sure it matters at the ballot box.

    Cheers!

  4. “By the way, Dave, is your glass half empty or half full?”

    Ah, that’s always the question, isnt it?

    Regarding the Market; the problem with leaving the market in charge is that it favors only the strong. You want a society based on jungle law, that’s great, but I myself prefer civilization, where people are not thrown away simply because they dont have whatever it takes to become the strongest lion (or the fiercest dog). I also prefer my governments to work in opposition to business (much like liberals and conservatives both need to exist); that way they keep each other marginally honest and (hopefully) from overdoing things. When the two combine, that’s when you get trouble – it is almost always at the interface of public and private that corruption occurs. Much of the current problems in Congress comes from the Democrats apparent misunderstanding of the roll of the Opposition (Republicans, on the other hand, understand it a little too well).
    Democrats get nothing accomplished because they are far too willing to roll over for the Republicans, and the GOP knows this, which is why they can stand so steadfast against them. The public knows this too, which is why the Democrat’s support is waning. I dont think the GOP is resurgent, it’s just gathering heart at the Dems’ spinelessness, which is then amplified by the corporate press. There’s far less enthusiasm for Republicans than there is disgust for the Democrats among their own people. The power that Dems gained in 2008 was driven by enthusiasm, which has withered in the face of the party’s almost complete inability to use the power handed them by the electorate.

  5. Daveawayfromhome,

    When I say that government is not the place I look for ethics, I do not mean to say that there are no ethical people in government but that government is not, in my way of thinking, about ethics but about power. I want a government to be powerful enough to protect us to the degree that protection is possible but also a government whose power is limited. I don’t want the government to be trying to remake people into whatever it might be that the current party in power thinks people ought to be. That is, I’m not a social conservative when it comes to politics, though I am when it comes to personal conduct and belief and so forth.

    Politically, I am more toward the libertarian end of the spectrum (though by no means an anarchist). I want government to stay the hell out of my life. I want government to stop picking winners and losers, by which I mean subsidizing certain industries and protecting them from competition from within the country and from without and hamstringing others with prohibitively harsh regulation. Except for checking monopolistic activity and policing things like fraud (white collar crimes) and such, I believe that markets will sort themselves out better than bureaucrats trying to centrally manage economies. Yes, there will always be boom times and bust times but that will be true whether the economy is centrally managed or if the marketplace is essentially left to itself.

    I mostly vote Republican, although in this last presidential election, I simply could not bring myself to pull the lever for either party’s candidates. McCain is anathema to me if for no other reason than for the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act. He only compounded my distaste for him by picking Palin — with ethics investigation looming overhead and distinct lack of experience to take over for McCain, should he have been unable to complete his term of office — for his running mate. In Obama-Biden, I pretty much felt he’d be mostly the opposite of what I want in a president.

    Which is not to say that I disagree with everything Obama has done. To the extent that he has pretty much maintained Bush’s policies, I pretty much agree with him. I am particularly impressed that he has chosen to boost the military presence in Afghanistan and that he has conducted attacks within Pakistan’s borders and elsewhere against the Taliban and al Qaida.

    In any case, I have concluded that single party governance, whether by Democrats, as we have now, or by Republicans, as we had for much of George W’s administration, is a bad idea. We need both parties to have power to check each other, just as we have a bicameral Congress and three branches of government. It looks like the Republicans are making a come-back (much more quickly than I ever imagined they would) and, while they may not retake the majority in either chamber, it seems clear that they may come close in the House.

    I detest the fact that neither party seems particularly willing to work with the other to produce legislation that takes seriously the concerns of both. When the Republicans were in the majority, they seemed to do whatever they could to keep the Democrats out of things and likewise the Democrats now. I don’t know what to do about it. Partisanship has become so polarized now and I seriously doubt that any third party of independents will ever arise in this country.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful comments. While we disagree on much, I respect your opinions.

    Cheers!

  6. “By the way, government is not the place to which I look for ethics or morality, either”

    It ought to be. While the primary function of government may be protection, unless we are no better than chimps there is an ethical facet to it, also. Ethics is what makes the difference between a good government and a bad one. Americans are lucky in that we get to (theoretically) choose which set of ethics we would like running our government every couple of years. Some choose Democrats, who tend to believe that the duty of the government is to make life better for its people. Some choose Republicans, who, whatever they may say, appear to believe that the duty of government is to make profit better for its people (the ones lucky enough to be able to make a profit, something that gets harder and harder the less capital you have), with an exception to this, perhaps, for social conservatives, who seem to believe that the duty of government is to make the people better.
    I tend to side with Democrats, not because I particularly like them (I dont), but because far too often, Republicans put profit before people, except occassionally when its Authoritarian wing is using government to remake people in its own image of what they thinks God wants.
    As for Libertarians, if the only function of government is to “protect” its people (and their property), then we might as well go back to medieval times, ’cause we havent got enough open space for the Wild West. Maybe if Libertarians worked to unshackle people from the chains of corporations as well as the chains of government, I’d be more sympathetic to them, but as it is they strike me as anarchists, and anarchy is only good for the strongest few.
    Democrats these days are spineless cowards, afraid of upsetting their corporate sponsors, but at least the base impulse is the right one, so there’s always hope that they might actually grow a collective pair. I find Republicans to be more and more heartless as the years go by; whether that’s them or just my perception I’m not sure, but I find their naked worship of money absolutely loathsome and antithetical to the basic purpose of government (except to a lucky, lucky few, who are very well protected indeed). I still have hope that Democrats may wake up one day and discover just how many people actually like the policies they’re supposed to be advancing, or at least realize that the Opposition is as important to any organization as those in power are – so far, they havent manged to be either. Obama has sadly turned out to be, perhaps, just another pol, but he gave us all a taste of something better, and if we get mad enough we may just decide to demand a whole bowlful.

  7. By the way, when I wrote that some people write as though they are shocked to find that there’s no ethics in the marketplace, I did not mean you, Poobie. You cover that as well as the lack of ethics in government. I do mean to suggest that those who expect government to force ethics into the marketplace are expecting the fox to guard the hen house. Which is to say, good post!

  8. Then again, the marketplace will be as ethical as the people within it…which is to say, not so much. There’s a reason we’ve had religion and philosophy for millennia: people are not, by nature, moral or ethical beings. People are narcissistic and egocentric and greedy. They want something for nothing if they can get it and they want it for as little expense as they can get away with when they can’t get it for nothing. The law of the jungle is buried deep within their make-up from the survival-of-the-fittest jungle from which they evolved. Tens of thousands of years of civilization has yet to root that out of them.

    By the way, government is not the place to which I look for ethics or morality, either. People are people are people wherever one finds them.

  9. Frankly, if I want ethics, I’ll contemplate the golden rule, or contemplate my navel and chant “OM” or some such. When I want groceries, I shop at Wal-Mart because that’s where I can afford to shop. Caveat emptor is still the best advice I’ve heard yet. It’s an old concept but people still write today as though they are shocked, SHOCKED to find that there’s no ethics in the marketplace. Who ever said that the marketplace was the place to go for ethical enlightenment? That’s what religion and philosophy are for.

    That’s my take.

  10. I think corporations are inherently unethical, simply because most are set up to make money, not morality. If something makes money, and that their competitors might do it also, and they can get away with it, they will probably do it, because profit demands it. When profit is your primary goal, all other things come second. This has always been my problem with any for-profit health-care organizations, that no matter what, in order to survive or meet shareholders expectations or to keep stock prices up or some other reason, profit will win out in the end.
    This is not to say that corporations cannot be ethical, but ethics get in the way of profits, and a corporation that declines methods of competition due to ethics will be working at a disadvantage unless all of its competition agrees to do the same (and sticks to that agreement). Ironically, the greater the competition, the greater the pressure to engage in unethical behavior will be, contrary to conservatives “market forces” clap-trap. The Market regulates nothing but profit and cost; ethics are up to the fickle whims of the human heart and mind.

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