America Needs to Rethink Its Views about Government and Corporations

Yesterday I read in the newspaper about a former executive of Volkswagen who had been sentenced to seven years in prison for his role in his company’s notorious scheme to defraud the U.S. by rigging the emissions tests of VW autos. I also read about the CEO of a company who resigned in the face of allegations of serious misrepresentations of financial information (another Enron although of much smaller scale).

Once again I am left to wonder, How did we get it into our heads in this country that government is inherently bad and corporations are inherently good? My reaction is always the same: people who think that way have never worked for a corporation (or at least never held an executive position in one).

That’s not to say corporations are evil and that everyone who works for one is bad. Hardly. And it’s not to say that everyone who works for government is good or conscientious, either. Hardly.

It is to say, however, that government has a proper role to play. Government is not inherently bad. It’s necessary. And, through government, a lot of good has been accomplished in the world. We should stop trying to tear it down and put a little more effort into making it as good as it can be. But that doesn’t seem to be our goal these days. Instead, we seem to be ceding control to our corporations, because, as we’re led to believe: government is bad, business is good. You’d think the flaw in this position would be obvious, but you’d be wrong. Many smart people now believe it to be true.

Most of us who’ve spent a career in business — and particularly those of us in the legal field — know that claim is a bunch of bull. Indeed, there is a helluva lot of criminal, fraudulent and unethical activity going on within our corporations. We should stop pretending there isn’t. Just read the frinkin’ papers. We also should stop pretending that corporations are so incredibly efficient. Most aren’t.

Some of the most conscientious, ethical people whom I’ve had the privilege of dealing with work for government. And for business. And some of the slimiest people whom I’ve observed in action have worked for corporations. And for the government. You even elected some of them.

It’s indisputable that there are good and bad actors in both government and industry. That’s the point. Both ethical and unethical behaviors can be found in both. And both corporations and government can be inefficient and wasteful.

I don’t understand what’s behind this extreme deference we’re showing to business these days, other than to conclude it’s just one more example of the power of propaganda.┬áRepublicans have been trying to tear down government for the past 40 years or more, and they’ve largely succeeded, principally through the tool of relentless propaganda. As a result, the corporations’ lobbyists are now writing our tax code, corporations (e.g., Facebook) are allowing themselves to be used by foreign agents to influence our elections, corporations are polluting our environment in violation of laws, corporations are shipping jobs overseas and still other corporations are acquiring monopoly power, unchecked by our neutered government antitrust enforcers. Indeed, we seem to be on the verge of handing corporate America the keys to the car.

We’re paying a steep price. And we’ll pay an even higher price in the future if we take these misguided ideas to their illogical extremes. But at least the corporations will be happy. And why shouldn’t they be?

What To Do When Confronted by Bad Behavior

Everyone is confronted (aka victimized) by bad behavior from time to time. Sometimes it comes at the hands of a boss. Or spouse. Or friend. Or customer service rep. Or fellow driver. Or any number of other people whose paths cross ours.

It was tempting to write bad “people” versus bad “behavior.” But that would be an overreach. I used to think there were bad people. And perhaps there are. But I now try to distinguish people from their behavior, recognizing that all (or at least the vast majority of us) do some bad things at times. Moreover, I’m weary of the demonization of people, which seems to be a national pastime among certain groups. So I’ll focus on behavior.

All of us are imperfect of course. All of us wear gray hats. When we think our hat is pure white, or others’ hats are pure black, we delude ourselves, not in a benign way, but in a toxic way. Unfortunately, it’s a story that sells, particularly in times such as this. But it’s based in something other than reality.

In any case, no matter where people land on the morality and ethics continuum, people are capable of behaviors that can fairly be described as bad — at least from our perspective. Basically, it means it’s hurtful to us. Or disadvantages us or others in a way that seems unfair to us. You’ll know it when you see it, Vera. And when you feel it. And I guarantee you, you will see and feel it in your life. Perhaps many times.

I’m writing about this because I haven’t been very good at dealing with bad behavior, at least not in my personal life. I’m better at it in my professional life, that is, when representing people or organizations as their lawyer. I suppose it’s easier in that context because it’s not personal with me and, therefore, I’m not emotionally invested. In one’s personal life, it’s hard not to react emotionally.

So what have I learned over the years about reacting to bad behavior? Continue reading