Corporations Would Literally Kill You to Turn a Profit

Coca-Cola killed trade unionists in Latin America. General Motors built vehicles known to catch fire. Tobacco companies suppressed cancer research. And Boeing knew that its planes were dangerous. Corporations don't care if they kill people — as long as it's profitable.

A Boeing 737 MAX 9 in its first flight on April 13, 2017. Wikipedia

Boeing’s dirty laundry was aired this month when the company released over a hundred pages of emails and instant messages exchanged by employees of the aerospace company to congressional investigators. The communications offered a grim snapshot of Boeing corporate culture — high-level employees insulting the intelligence of FAA officials, discussing ways to mislead aviation regulators, lamenting their own moral turpitude.

Lawmakers professed shock at the documents, calling them “astonishing and appalling” and “incredibly damning.” House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure chair Peter DeFazio said the emails “paint a deeply disturbing picture of the lengths Boeing was apparently willing to go in order to evade scrutiny from regulators, flight crews, and the flying public.”

In a piece for the Financial Times, Bjorn Fehrm, an analyst at aviation consulting firm Leeham, blames Boeing’s apparent “cultural problem” on its merger two decades ago with defense contractor McDonnell Douglas, whose CEO Harry Stonecipher prioritized the company’s bottom line above all else. Cynthia Cole, a former engineer at Boeing, agrees. In an October 2019 interview with NPR, Cole says that following the buyout in 1997, safety and quality began “taking a second seat to schedule and cost.”

It’s a bit mystifying that there are still some who are surprised that corporations and their executives, left to their own devices, engage in unscrupulous, and sometimes deadly, behavior. Coca Cola killed trade unionists in Latin America. General Motors built vehicles known to catch fire in collisions. Tobacco companies hid the cancer-causing properties of their products for decades. The catalog of the ethical and moral crimes of corporations is impressive.

These ethical and moral failings of Boeing, Coca Cola, General Motors, and so many other companies are the norm, not the exception.

Of course, it may well be that, in the case of Boeing, a newfound obsession with increasing profits disrupted long-held corporate norms, transforming Boeing’s culture into one that would put people’s lives at risk if it meant a healthy quarterly return. Certainly, it’s easy to find examples of companies whose corporate culture changed for the worse after the board put a Jack Welch clone at the helm, or a private equity company looking for windfall gains bought out the original owners.

But we should be wary of reading too much into the “Boeing gone bad” story. Its appeal rests on a powerful fiction: that the ground state for corporations, barring infection from a malign force, is to operate according to the moral standards of the community in which they exist.

This assumption elides how the elevation of profit above all else — a defining feature of capitalism — creates a permanent misalignment between the motivations and goals of corporations and those of their stakeholders.

Indeed, we see evidence of this misalignment all around us. The desire for access to high-speed internet runs up against the unwillingness of telecom providers to invest in low-income neighborhoods or rural areas. Dirty energy companies work tenaciously to prevent communities from developing viable solar and wind alternatives. Pharmaceutical companies jack up the price of life-saving medicines.

This misalignment doesn’t just drive a wedge between corporations and their customers, however. It also sours the relationship between bosses and workers, and among workers themselves.

The Boeing case is an extreme example of a broader phenomenon. Every day we’re implicitly and explicitly asked to keep quiet in the face of accounting malfeasance, health and safety violations, harassment and abuse of coworkers, and wage theft. The effects are corrosive, destroying trust and solidarity, and strengthening the power that corporations have to pursue profits with impunity.

In the face of a steep decline in the power of organized labor and the defunding and defanging of federal regulatory agencies, options for American workers to highlight corporate abuses —without risking their job or reputation — are extremely limited. In the choice between exit and voice, most people just try to find a different job, or voice their concerns by griping to their coworkers rather than confronting their boss. This leaves rotten practices and people in place, perpetuating abuse and malfeasance.

In capitalism, the fundamental divergence between the values of corporations and the values of ordinary people is constantly papered over. But sometimes, as in the case of Boeing and the hundreds of lives lost over the past year and a half, the disconnect is impossible to ignore.

It is in these moments that we should emphasize this misalignment — shout from the rooftops that, despite the power of corporations to shape the existence of ordinary people, the values of corporations do not define us.

Love, honesty, kindness, dignity, and pride are the values that motivate most people. Instead of allowing capital to shape society according to its values, we should create institutions that force companies to operate according to our values.