What does “corporations are people too” tell us about Mitt Romney’s view of safety?

Sorry for the delay, owing to several technical glitches my weekly post was delayed for almost two days.  All I can say is if you subscribed to the blog you would get a notice when there is an update.  Anyway, sorry to all those who came to the site expecting new witticisms from me and were disappointed.  It will probably happen again in the near future—-Phil

In August, presidential candidate Mitt Romney made the statement that “Corporations are people too” and I wasn’t sure that what to make about the statement until I eventually came around to “yeah, so what’s your point?”  The statement has been used to tar Mitt as an indifferent intellectual who is indifferent to the suffering of normal folks. The eyes and ears  of safety professionals around the world should turn focus on this (and similar statements from presidential hopefuls and world leaders from around the world).

While I’m sure that Mitt meant something  by the statement “corporations are people too, my friend”; it  just sounds dumb to me.  I’m not going to make this a political monolog, or use my bully pulpit to wax political— I’ll leave the political rhetoric to other blogger.  Okay, Mitt let’s say for the sake of discussion that Corporations ARE people too, so what?  The Nazis were people too (Before anyone gets themselves all in a lather, I’m not equating corporations with the Nazis) but does that excuse the evil done by the individuals?  Would we ever say that while you might have had some bad eggs in the Nazi party you can’t condemn the entire party simply because of them? On the other hand I have a 401K portfolio that holds stock in many different funds that in turn owns stock in many individual companies.  Should I be held accountable for the malfeasance of one of the many corporations in which I own stock? By not knowing exactly what companies in which I indirectly own stock should I be charged with the sin of omission?

Osama Bin Laden defended his cowardly attacks on civilian Americans by claiming that because we Democratically elected our leaders all Americans were culpable for the actions taken on their behalves;  a specious argument at best.

But in all these cases it is fair to say that the more insulated one is from the crime the less accountable one feels. But what has that to do with safety? What inferences relative to safety policy can be appropriately made from the statement that Corporations are people too.  Will President Romney allow criminals to hide behind a corporate shield? or will he hold corporations who negligently injure workers or engage in recklessness so wanton that workers are killed to the same criminal standard that he would ordinarily reserve for an individual?

It’s easy to see both sides of this argument. While a CEO may never knowingly lie, cheat, pollute, or subvert safety regulations for his or her own sake, said CEO is far more likely to justify these actions when reporting to a board.  To a large extent its easy for an executive, worker, or share holder to see him/herself innocent of any wrong doing; far fewer bear witness to a workplace disaster that kills 30 people and say, “I did that, it was I who killed those people”.  Does anyone believe that a single BP share holder watched the Gulf of Mexico disaster and shed a tear for their culpability in the disaster?

“We the People” carries with it onerous responsibility, both in country and incorporation.  It’s a damnable dichotomy: we can’t realistically keep diligent eye on the day-to-day activities of the companies in which we have an interest—not really—and we can’t in good conscious blame a nameless corporation for all the world’s evil.

Again, what does this all have to do with safety? Well I think individuals may take pains to keep themselves and others safe, I think it’s easy to see corporations as evil empires; cold and indifferent to the suffering of workers.  It’s easy (and I’m not saying necessarily wrong) to see corporations as quick to put profits before worker well being.  The argument that they were willfully blind is probably accurate.  Individuals working on a corporation’s behalf wants to believe that he or she is doing everything he or she can to protect workers and tend to ignore life’s unpleasantness. We don’t see it, because we don’t want to see it.

Organizations aren’t that much different than organisms—their primary goal is survival and they will fight like a cornered rat to protect what is theirs and to stay alive.  They will ignore facts that don’t support their world view.  They will lash out against anyone who threatens the status quo.  And in this case they will excuse the truly wicked for the sake of the greater good.  As in the case of corporate behavior, we cannot turn away from unpleasantness in hopes that someone else will step forward and address the evil among us.  It’s tough for corporations and organizations to do the right thing when the smart or profitable thing to do is to turn a blind eye to the situation.  And it’s tough for a person to do the right thing when doing so means jeopardizing one’s life, one’s livelihood, one’s station, or one’s standing.  In these fires of adversity heroes are forged.  So Mitt, maybe corporations are people, but they will never be heroes, or role models, or friends.  So Mitt, (may I call you Mitt?) when forced to choose between corporate conscious and good old fashion human nature,  I will put my faith in people and hope others do likewise.

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