Thugs in Blue Suits: Corporate and Political Crime in America

 

A cursory look at prime-time television reveals that about one out of every five shows deal with the subject of crime.  What kind of “crime” do these programs deal with?  Most commonly these programs focus exclusively on what Jeffrey Reiman calls “one-on-one harm.”  What they don’t deal with is what Reiman refers to as “indirect harm,” which is what corporate and political crimes are.  It is not that no one is harmed with these crimes, but rather there is not a direct intent to harm someone.  The mugger, burglar, serial killer and the like say to their victims, in effect, “I am going to rob/kill you.”  The corporate or political offender, on the other hand, is not deliberately targeting a specific person, even though the behavior ends up costing lives and/or dollars.  A book appropriately called A Job to Die For (Lisa Cullen, Common Courage Press, 2002) notes that an estimated 165 Americans die each day from occupational diseases and another 18 die from an occupational injury, while there are 36,400 non-fatal injuries on the job each day.  Occupational diseases, death and injuries cost us around $155 billion each year, dwarfing the crimes shown on television.

            In his book, The Corporation (now also on DVD), Joel Barkan asked Dr. Robert Hare, an expert on psychopathy, to submit the corporation to his diagnostic checklist of psychopathic traits.  Without exception, every one of the traits normally associated with the psychopath applies to the corporation! The corporation is irresponsible, manipulative, and grandiose, it exhibits a lack of empathy along with asocial tendencies, it refuses to accept responsibility for their own actions, it is unable to feel remorse and corporations relate to others on a superficial level.   

                The total estimated cost of all forms of white collar and corporate crime come to an astounding $1 trillion or more each year. To this we must add the costs of what are normally consider “political crimes” like the current scandal enveloping the Bush Administration known as “Plamegate,” the costs of which are almost impossible to estimate, as most come in the form of our basic trust in our leaders.  Speaking of this current scandal, following the indictment of the VP’s Chief of Staff “Scooter” Libby, rumors abound about how far this will go.  Given the hierarchal nature of bureaucracies, it would be far-fetched to believe Libby was not following orders and that Bush did not know about this.  This might turn out to be much worse than Watergate as far as White House scandals are concerned (for more on this see Arianna Huffington’s most recent commentary, posted on my web site).

            Starting with the classic study by Edwin Sutherland back in the 1940s called White Collar Crime, criminologists and investigative journalists have uncovered literally en epidemic of law violations committed by virtually every Fortune 500 corporation in America.  Several web sites keep tabs on the crimes of the powerful.  Examples include the Multinational Monitor (http://www.multinationalmonitor.org/) and CorpWatch (http://www.corpwatch.org/).  The former publishes an annual list called the “Ten Worst Corporations.”  The list from 2004 includes such giants as Abbott Laboratories, Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, GlaxoSmithKline, among others.  The authors, Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman (who wrote the book Corporate Predators, Common Courage Press), say that they have a rule that each year the top ten cannot be anyone on the list the year before, otherwise several companies, such as like Bayer, Boeing, Clear Channel and Halliburton, would be “repeat offenders” or what we in criminology call “recidivists.”  (Here’s a link to the list: http://www.alternet.org/story/21088/.)  CorpWatch contains a non-stop reporting of corporation criminality.  Stories from these two web sites and others will be reported here on a weekly basis, complete with direct links.

            In one of the rare best-selling books on the subject, criminologists Stephen Rosoff, Henry Pontell and Robert Tillman (Profit without Honor, Pearson Prentice-Hall) provide an updated rundown of all sorts of corporate criminality, ranging from unsafe products, environmental crimes, securities fraud, medical crime, governmental crime and many more.  Name a law on the books, a corporation has committed it.  Similarly, David Friedrichs’ book Trusted Criminals, explores the same topic but adding more history and a more detailed analysis of what is known as “state crime” and “state corporate crime.”  Both books have been well-received within academic circles, illustrated by the fact that the former is in its third edition and the latter in its second edition.

            Speaking of “state crime” here we have a situation where large American multinational corporations, in their quest to secure cheap labor and identify “markets” for their products, will go to almost any extreme, even supporting dictators in Third World nations to insure that the “natives don’t get restless” and, heaven forbid, dare to challenge them (e.g., by trying to “nationalize” their resources).  Name a Third World country and a dictator and you’ll find a cozy relationship between the U.S. government (especially the military), a local dictator and a corporation.  William Blum’s book Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II (Common Courage Press, 1995) documents more than 50 cases.  His most recent book, Rogue State (Common Courage Press, 2000), brings his analysis up to date.  In the latter book he provides what I consider the best summary of what state crime is all about and especially the connection with corporations.  Here he writes that the “engine of American foreign policy has been fueled not by a devotion to any kind of morality, nor even simple decency, but rather by the necessity to serve other masters, which can be broken down to four imperatives: 

 

1) making the world open and hospitable for – in current terminology – globalization, particularly American-based transnational corporations;

 

2) enhancing the financial statements of defense contractors at home who have contributed generously to members of Congress and residents of the White House;

 

3) preventing the rise of any society that might serve as a successful example of an alternative to the capitalist model;

 

4) extending political, economic, and military hegemony over as much of the globe as possible, to prevent the rise of any regional power that might challenge America’s supremacy, and to create a world order in America’s image, as befits the world’s only superpower.

 

The crimes committed within this general category include wholesale murder of innocent civilians, as was done throughout Central America (e.g., Nicaragua and Guatemala) and South America, Indonesia (especially East Timor, where an estimated 200,000 were killed by the American-backed Suharto regime) and many other places (even Saddam Hussein was once our ally).  All in the name of corporate profits.

            It has been estimated by several detailed studies that corporate and white collar crime causes the deaths of at least 100,000 people each year (80,000 from medical malpractice alone, such as unnecessary surgery, dangerous prescription drugs and the like). 

            Crimes like these have begun to seep into public consciousness after the fall of such giants as Enron and the scandals exposing tobacco and drug companies. Speaking of drug companies, a look at the titles of some recent books are telling. Some examples include “The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It”; “On The Take: How Medicine's Complicity with Big Business Can Endanger Your Health”; “Overdo$ed America: The Broken Promise of American Medicine”; “Critical Condition: How Health Care in America Became Big Business - and Bad Medicine.” 

            In this new section of my web site I will post current news and reports on this important subject.  In most cases I will merely post the title of the article/report and give a direct link.  On some cases I will reproduce the entire report.  Feel free to contact me with your comments.