Big Business and Crime
BIG BUSINESS! It affects all of us. It helps us—and it harms us. And there are things we can do about it.
A giant, or “big,” corporation may have assets worth $1,500,000,000. Many have far more. That kind of money represents power. Giant corporations have tussled with countries—and won. No wonder so many are suspicious of them!
Yet in some ways big business has created the world we know. It builds railroads, controls oil and in many lands provides electricity, gas and transportation. Because of it, a person can wear shoes made in Brazil and clothes made in Hong Kong, drive a Japanese automobile, eat tropical food, and drink German wines. Thanks to big business, foreign travel is no longer the exclusive privilege of the rich. And if you possess an automobile, a television or a telephone, likely it is because big business mass-produced them and thus made them cheap enough to own.
But there are problems. These articles discuss a few of them.
THE problem of crime in our streets is not new. Every day we hear of muggings, knifings, murders and other indications of a general breakdown in law and order. However, were you aware that each day other crimes of almost unimaginable scope are committed? Each year a staggering sum of money is lifted from your wallet or purse without your even noticing. In the United States alone, these insidious crimes net at least 200 billion dollars a year. Who commit them? The big corporations, whose executives turn to illegal methods to make themselves or their companies richer.
Big business crime affects everyone. Often it is deadly and destructive. What kind of people commit such crimes? Often the highly respected “pillars” of society.
Big business crime is so commonplace that most officials cannot cope with it. “Corporate crime remains an obscure and seriously misunderstood phenomenon,” said Connecticut law professor Leonard Orland. If accurate figures were available, he feels, they would show that “the amount of ‘hidden’ corporate crime is vast, and that true corporate crime is substantially underprosecuted.”—U.S.News & World Report.
When white-collar criminals are prosecuted, what happens? In contrast with the prison terms routinely handed out to muggers and burglars, this kind of criminal usually gets off lightly. For example, 25 milk companies in the New York metropolitan area admitted that they had overcharged their customers for ten years. It was impossible to determine how much they had gained from the crime, but a $6.7-million customer refund was imposed on the companies. What happened to the executives whose misdeeds had cost customers millions of dollars? They simply pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and were fined.
Another example: One of the largest drug-discount firms in the United States was discovered double-billing the state of Ohio for prescriptions filled under the Medicaid program. This corporate crime robbed the taxpayers of more than half a million dollars. Yet the guilty company was merely fined and obliged to return the stolen money.
Guilty executives may very well argue with those who maintain that crime does not pay. To them it obviously pays very well. U.S.News & World Report tells of one case where a company’s board chairman and president were found guilty in a $12 million tax-evasion case and were sentenced to perform public service in lieu of prison time. While they served this time, they continued to enjoy all the company fringe benefits, and the president drew $100 an hour as a consultant.
Sometimes the public pay with their lives. For example, in 1981 a new, low-priced cooking oil began to enter food markets in Spain. Hard-pressed working-class people began buying it as a bargain. Alas, consumers began to have strange symptoms! More than 20,000 became sick, and as of May 1983, according to government statistics, 339 had died. Why? Because businessmen were purchasing cheap industrial oil in France and processing it to sell as edible oil in Spain.
Corporate crime is also involved in the dumping of toxic chemicals. Five years ago the Love Canal section of New York State was featured in the headlines when people were driven from their homes by noxious poisons seeping out of their backyards. Where had the chemicals come from? A large chemical company had dumped hazardous wastes in the area.
Five years later the inhabitants of the town of Times Beach, Missouri, had to leave home, and barricades were put across the streets with skull-and-crossbone signs and large-lettered words: “DANGER! DO NOT ENTER.” Why? Because the town was contaminated by dioxin.
Despite these experiences, some businesses are found to be, with criminal irresponsibility, disposing of toxic wastes. Using “midnight dumping,” poisons are released into storm drains, mixed with ordinary garbage, or even mixed with heating oil for sale to landlords at bargain prices. “Midnight dumping . . . is not just another white-collar crime. It directly threatens the health of the unsuspecting—and the unborn,” commented an editorial in The New York Times.
Yes, the average person is vulnerable when big businesses turn to crime. Often, though, they are vulnerable for other reasons. What happens when big corporations, while sticking strictly within the law, show a lack of moral sense? Then many people may suffer horribly.
[Blurb on page 4]
When white-collar criminals are prosecuted, what happens? Often very little