Why Does Big Business Have a Bad Reputation?

No matter who you are or where you are in the world, you are going to have some interaction with big business in today’s world. Whether it is a trip to the local Target, a quick fast food lunch at McDonald’s or Burger King or, on the more serious end of the spectrum, a hospital or a pharmaceutical company, anyone in the world and U. S. citizens in particular are constantly in contact with the world of business. However, these companies don’t seem to grasp the concept of “customer satisfaction” but entirely get the concept of “maximizing profits.”

There are many that try to defend big business by saying “it’s just a few bad apples in the bunch” (an argument heard far too often on far too many subjects, to be honest), but historical evidence doesn’t support that connotation. Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle depicted the atrocities that occurred in the meatpacking industry in the early 20th century, including people losing body parts in food vats (or, in some cases, entire bodies), child labor, long working hours and inadequate wages (and Sinclair knew about these cases by experience; he worked in the Chicago meatpacking industry for several weeks researching the subject). A couple of decades later, John Steinbeck penned the story of the migrant farmer in his epic novel The Grapes of Wrath.

Throughout the last century, the mistreatment of those who worked in the coal mines of West Virginia, Kentucky and other Appalachian area by big business has become well known to the world, including coal companies cutting back on safeguards that might keep their employees alive. The rail industry, construction industries (how many men were killed just during the building of the Hoover Dam? Officially 96, in case you’re wondering) and other high risk jobs also have many incidences where those that employed the workers cut corners or unnecessarily risked their employees lives all to make a little extra money. Following the financial crash of 2008, only 15% of U. S. citizens trusted business leaders to make the proper choices – the ETHICAL choices – when faced with a decision, something that got worse during the British Petroleum oil spill in 2010 and the insistence by the then-President of the company, Tony Hayward, that he’d “like his life back.”

The actions over the past week aren’t exactly looking to improve on those numbers any further for big business. First up was the automaker Volkswagen, who was found last week of purposely sending out 11 million vehicles with a serious defect in their product. These vehicles, for the most part the diesels that Volkswagen is known for producing, had their emissions software tampered with to make it appear that the emissions weren’t violating U. S. regulations. VW attempted to call the tampering with the software “an irregularity” but it soon became apparent that it went much further.

Other countries such as Germany, France, Italy and South Korea – all big customers of Volkswagen’s product – are examining their own laws to see if there were any violations and the company itself is looking to stem the damage. Officials with the company have decided to put together a $7 billion war chest to help pay for damages to customers, potential fines to government authorities and other costs. There is still a huge question as to how Volkswagen will make this right, but their first step instead of fixing the issue was to pull all unsold diesels off the market.

Now, some would say this is an example of “free market” economics working (Volkswagen’s stock has fallen 41% in the past week), but that isn’t enough to cure the reputation of big business as being callous to its customers in putting the almighty dollar over its performance.

One of the most heartless acts that big business committed over the past week was done by Turing Pharmaceuticals. The company and its CEO, a former hedge fund manager by the name of Martin Shkreli (because he couldn’t go by the name of Richard Dick), in August bought the rights to a critical drug called daraprim, which is used by those with weakened immune systems (primarily infants and AIDS patients). Almost immediately, the company raised the price on the pill from $13 (still pretty pricey) to $750.

It isn’t uncommon for the pharmaceutical industry to pull bullshit like this. Many times a company will obtain the rights to a drug and, by putting a couple of useless changes into the chemical makeup of the product, be able to change its name and resell it, usually at a higher price. If the drug is a “one of a kind” product – meaning that there isn’t a generic equivalent – the price for the drug can be outrageous from the start. But this case, and in particular Shkreli’s response to criticism of his company’s actions, has shown how bad big business can be.

In 2012, Shkreli tweeted “Every time a drug goes generic, I grieve,” demonstrating that he didn’t care about helping society but only helping his bank account. He was on Twitter again on Monday attempting to diffuse the situation but only seemed to throw more gasoline on the fire. Shkreli disparaged those that disagreed with him, including fellow industry leaders, the media and other opponents by snottily responding to complaints on Twitter before heading to CNBC to further insult people.

If there’s any justice in the world, then there will be reaction against drug price gouging like this. Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has stated that she will be presenting a plan against this type of price inflation; currently, the GOP candidates do not have any response. But perhaps the only things that big business might understand are humongous fines and the long arm of the law.

Also over the past week, the former CEO of a Georgia peanut company was sentenced to 28 years in prison and two other high ranking executives received jail time for their part in causing an outbreak of salmonella that killed nine people. Stewart Parnell, the CEO of Peanut Company of America, could have received life in prison for his actions but only got the 28 year sentence. His brother Michael, a broker for the company, received a 20 year sentence and a quality control manager at the plant in Georgia, Mary Wilkerson, was sentenced to five years.

So what did these people do? The Food and Drug Administration, upon inspecting the plant where the tainted peanut products came from (the company sent peanut paste to several outlets for usage in different products), found rat feces in the warehouses, dirty equipment used to process the peanuts into paste and forged certifications that said products were untainted despite actual lab results that indicated differently. Perhaps most damning was an e-mail reporting to the elder Parnell that salmonella levels were high on a shipment. His reply to the e-mail? “Shit, just go ahead and ship it.”

Look, we know that the object of a business is to make money; hell, there isn’t another reason to be in business unless that is what you’re doing. Along with the ability to make money, you also have to have the interest of your employees and your customers first and foremost in your company’s mind. You have to provide a decent job and wage to your employees; perhaps more importantly, you have to provide a product to your customers that is safe for their consumption (we could talk about how weak the laws are regarding this in some areas of business, but that is an argument for another time). If a business cannot do these things, then they shouldn’t be in business.

Ethics seems to be the weakest area of knowledge for plenty of businesses and industry’s biggest players. Perhaps if customer sentiment following a company’s error or fines implemented by government officials had an effect, the companies would work from an ethical standpoint rather than one simply driven by greed. Unfortunately, this starts with the customers because, by the time the government acts on any incidences of misconduct in the business world, the companies have already made their millions (billions?) from the product they’ve foisted on the public and are more than willing to part with a bit of those profits to escape jail or some other punishment.

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