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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Murderous Corporations

            A while back I was reading a mystery novel (a reasonably good one, actually) that left me feeling at the end that something wasn’t right about the story. It had to do with several mysterious deaths that turned out to be related to a large corporation trying to cover up pollution for which it was responsible. At the end, the case was cracked and the CEO of the company was frog-marched in front of the TV cameras after being arrested for murder.
            And I found myself saying, “I don’t think so.”
            I don’t think so, not because I believe in the wonderfulness of large companies and the free market. I concede they do some things well and provide some value, but on the whole I think they need to be encouraged less and tamed more. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about big corporations during my time on the planet, it’s this:
            They are incredibly conservative and risk-averse.

Lawyer Them to Death

            Few things, really, are riskier than committing a murder. When a body is found or someone mysteriously and inexplicably disappears, the police tend to take it seriously. Once experienced detectives start poking around in something like that, there’s no telling what they’ll find and where their inquiries will lead. If you kill somebody, one oversight, one person talking out of turn could lead to your being in a position where you have far worse problems than worrying about your retirement plan.
            So why take the chance when there’s a safer alternative? In the case of a corporation, that would be to keep up the illegal activity until caught, pin it on some mid-to-low level flunky, and have your lawyers negotiate the best deal possible with whatever regulatory agency is overseeing the activity in question.
            Once that’s done, you calculate the costs to the decimal and decide whether it makes more sense to stop the illegal activity or keep doing it and pay any future fines and legal costs if caught again. Then you make that decision and move on. Viewed from that perspective, it makes a lot more sense to lawyer your tormentors to death than to actually kill them.

But It Happens on TV

            Nevertheless, on TV, in the movies, and in popular novels, corporations are frequently depicted killing people who threaten them. Yet stop and think about it. How many real-life cases can you name of corporations having someone killed? And don’t mention Karen Silkwood, because suspicious as her death appears, there’s no hard evidence to connect Kerr-McGee to it.
            Which raises another question: Can it be that corporations are bumping people off wholesale and doing it so well they get away with it? Again, I have my doubts. From my observation and experience, most big companies are at least somewhat inefficient, and it’s hard for me to believe that large numbers of them suddenly become deadly effective if they decide to kill someone.
            Unless we’re talking about an outright criminal enterprise, murder is not going to be a standard business practice. Nearly all murders are committed by individuals acting on emotions and impulses they can’t control. Corporations are more systematic and have far more options than individuals. The Supreme Court may have ruled that corporations are people, but when it comes to murder, that’s seldom the case.