predation in the corporate world

Many people seem to have a strong and non-nuanced opinion on predatory corporations. An NY Times opinion on the subject summarizes things nicely. My interest in the commentary was actually that the initial publication got the facts wrong on an important point. I’ll discuss that point first, then focus on the broader view.

The first draft of the piece made the claim that one-tenth of those who work in Wall Street firms fit the clinical definition for psychopathy. As someone who has worked for a Wall Street firm, I can tell you this is bullshit. Most people who work in big banks, and that includes investment (non-retail) banks and hedge funds, are certainly not psychopathic. A huge number of people at any big bank work in support, operations, product control, information technology, research, and so forth. A very small percentage fit the stereotypical snake-in-suit paradigm. So the blanket statement itself strikes me as absurd. To the credit of the NY Times, they corrected the claim. I’ll add that some people have spoken up to correct the record, including Dr Robert Hare, who knows perhaps more about psychopathy than anyone else on the planet.

Now let’s focus on the broader claims. Roughly speaking, your average person with an opinion will to some degree fall down some stereotypical line of thought on this issue, roughly coinciding with the “right” or “left” political camp. The Times writer in question clearly falls into one category more so than the other.

Shafting your workers, hurting your customers, destroying the land. Leaving the public to pick up the tab. These aren’t anomalies; this is how the system works: you get away with what you can and try to weasel out when you get caught….

The answer [as to what kind of person a corporation would be] was, precisely, psychopaths: indifferent to others, incapable of guilt, exclusively devoted to their own interests….

Capitalist values are also antithetical to democratic ones….

A person who takes out a mortgage — or a student loan, or who conceives a child — on the strength of a job she knows she could lose at any moment (thanks, perhaps, to one of those job creators) assumes as much risk as someone who starts a business.

You get the idea. This is not to say that we should let corporations do whatever the hell they want, or they all companies are led by great, virtuous people. Of course that’s nonsense. But the extreme characterization by the editorialist isn’t helpful at all in enlightening the reader or anyone else. The title of the Times article says it all: “Capitalists and Other Psychopaths.” Complete bullshit. I could argue that the term “capitalist” here is meaningless, in fact. What is a capitalist, and what is capitalism? Do we have a “capitalist system” in the US, and to what degree? What does it mean to say we do or do not?

There are a myriad of reasons for debate as to where to draw the line between corporation and state. Should the government (local, state, or federal) have burdensome regulatory requirements on medical devices? To what extent? What if these (perhaps well-intentioned) regulations make the devices unaffordable to some people? Still worth it?

I don’t have the answers to all these questions. We have governance for good reason. One of those reasons is both to support and curtail the actions of corporate entities. In general, my argument would be to allow by “default” actions that do not impose negative externalities on other, unrelated parties. Having said that, it is extremely hard to govern this behavior in all cases. Even behavior by a company or companies that might seem wrong or harmful might actually provide benefit (i.e., harmful to some but beneficial to others, or harmful sometimes but not others). It’s difficult to make blanket statements on the subject.

(As an example, is “fracking” for natural gas a bad thing? What if it is a source of affordable energy, the kind that provides heat for families in the winter? Should the government forbid its use completely, or partially, or what?)

What is not difficult at all though is writing an editorial on the NY Times that makes blanket, ideological statements that demonize “capitalists,” corporations, business leaders, or whoever the heck the article is demonizing. That’s easy.

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