During a TED presentation, David Puttnam, told the story of the Paisley snail. It seems that a lady in the English town of Paisley, drank an ice cream float that contained a partially decomposed snail and died 3 days later from it.
The event raised the question of the responsibility of the company who had bottled the drink that contained the snail for the health and welfare of their customers. The debate revolved around the issue of "duty of care."
Wikipedia defines it thusly, "In tort law, a duty of care is a legal obligation which is imposed on an individual requiring adherence to a standard of reasonable care while performing any acts that could foreseeably harm others."
As I heard the story, I couldn't help but wonder what happened to this concept as it applies to life in postmodern America.
Now we are being flooded with news about the latest GM failure to keep their concern for customers on an equal level with their concern for their profit margins. In case you've been out of the galaxy and haven't heard, they allowed automobiles to be sold knowing full well that there was catastrophic risk associated with a faulty ignition switch. Thirteen people died as a result. The cost to fix the switch? It depends on what news source you trust, but between 57 and 90 cents each.
Recently, Toyota paid a $1.2 billion fine because of how it handled more than 4 million recalled cars with unintended acceleration in 2009 and 2010. They admitted they "misled U.S. consumers by concealing and making deceptive statements" about the safety issues created by unintended acceleration.
I wasn't surprised by either case. I managed a company that supplied the automobile industry for twenty years. A more arrogant bunch you'll never meet. I remember being a part of a supplier revolt when the Ford Motor Company decided to unilaterally cut our prices across the board. Enough of us said no and they discovered just how important we were to keeping their assembly lines running. They backed off and our prices remained the same.
My point is that the only way to get a corporation to do something in the interests of someone or something other than their shareholders is to take a coordinated action that affects their ability to make profit for their shareholders.
So we can protest, write critical columns, tweet, call them names, and any combination of other activities that make us feel good, but don't expect any of that to make a difference if it doesn't affect their bottom line. Instead we continue to purchase their products and services.
We are complicit when we support businesses that are willing to risk our health and welfare for the sake of their bottom lines. These are the companies that consider damages to the populace as externalities that can be absorbed by the public, while their profits soar. That forget the societal context within which they thrive and the billions of dollars in infrastructure, public services, and taxpayer funded bailouts, subsidies and tax shelters they enjoy. That outsource our jobs to overseas operations for the sake of their bottom lines, leaving a gaping hole in our economy. That will fund propaganda campaigns blaming all the ills they cause on everyone else.
Now I know it's very difficult to not blame the executives who make these decisions. But before we do, consider that the current capitalistic system demands those decisions. A business executive must do everything possible to improve financial performance for the benefit of the shareholders. It is his or her legal obligation to manage the assets owned by the shareholders for their benefit.
My point is this: Our current form of unfettered, unregulated, neoliberal capitalism is creating the circumstances that are damaging us as a society. Until this changes expect more faulty ignition switches.
Robert De Filippis