Capitalism Without Shame Begets Stupid Socipathy…

Its been an tough 2 weeks for the fantasists of “unfettered” free market capitalism.

  1. Volkswagen admitted they had written their diesel engine’s control software to detect and cheat on emissions testing.  Actual particulate emissions were 40 times higher than the EPA allowed.  Done deliberately and methodically.
  2. A 55x price increase (from $13.50 to $750) for an semi-orphan drug.  The drug’s maker was recently bought by a company run by an ex-hedge-fund manager who, if nothing else, comes across as a supremely slimy twerp in TV interviews.
  3. The CEO of a peanut butter plant was sentenced to 28 years in prison for knowingly shipping peanut butter tainted with salmonella.  Which killed several people.  Emphasis on “knowingly.”
  4. GM signed a deferred prosecution agreement for knowingly installing defective ignition switches on cars.  Which killed several people.  Although no-one is going to prison for 28 days much less 28 years.

Each case is horrifying.  And horrifyingly stupid.

  • Horrifying is the clearly negative “net gain” to the common good in pursuit of individual gain.   The magic of the invisible hand doesn’t always solve for the “best” outcome.  Even the cleverest college Libertarian in his best bow-tie can’t spin their way out of that obvious truth.
  • Horrifyingly stupid is how long-term self-damaging those decisions turned out to be.  If the idiots involved in these decisions had stuck to just shaving a bit off here and there, they would have come off much better in the long-run.  Even the deepest believer in homus economicus would struggle to craft a rational, profit maximizing explanation for the collective or individual behavior above.  In all cases, a modicum of common sense would have led to be a less damaging long-run outcome for all concerned.

But the more worrying thread tying all of these together is the total lack of shame.  Its worth starting with a tight definition of “shame.”  Take it away Wikipedia.

Shame is a painful, social emotion that can be seen as resulting “…from comparison of the self’s action with the self’s standards…”.[1] but which may equally stem from comparison of the self’s state of being with the ideal social context’s standard….  shame is a violation of cultural or social values while guilt feelings arise from violations of one’s internal values.

Yet the players in my wall of shame above are mostly notable for their truly shame-less behavior.  They have been named.  It is not clear they have been shamed.  Even if they do end up in jail.  “Society” is too quick to equivocate.  To shy away from moral judgments.  Or just to tempted to get to the next Facebook post.  Oooh look!  Kittens!

The enforcement arm for those “social standards” is too often caricatured as “regulation.”  That is a convenient hop, skip, and jump away to railing against  “obtrusive government nanny states run by limp-wristed, arugula-eating dilettantes who have never had to make a payroll.”    But that takes the debate away from the awkward questions of how does a society define and enforce its standards.  Regulations are part of that.  So is the law.  But they are last lines of defense against the truly bad actors.  The real enforcement mechanism is (or was?) “naming and shaming.”  That threat serves (or served?) to keep the non-sociopaths from crossing too far over the line.

If you look at this politically, the global Left is holding up its end OK.  Still plenty of shrill, anti-capitalists dreamers out there.  (Especially out here in Berkeley, but I digress…)  But the Left isn’t really too useful here.  Naming and shaming is a function of the Right.  Thunderous opprobrium from the pulpit.  Shunning by “polite society.”  A bit of self-policing at the club to keep things civilized – “Not how we do things, you know…”

Today that “conservative” voice is timid, hushed, or absent altogether.  “Naming and shaming” has been replaced by a shrill sort of “gotcha.”   Think Sarah Palin vs George Bush the 1st.  The social engine is mis-firing without it.  Even if it makes us cringe, we need someone to set and voice standards.  The disapproving Uncle.  The clucking Aunt.  To name.  To shame.   That lower-case “conservative” voice is worryingly quiet thus far in this new millennium.

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