Thursday, December 30, 2010

On corporations the corporate culture

"When Salt Lake City was established, the Temple of Latter Day Saints was built to be the tallest building in the city. Then, when strong government was established, the Salt Lake City Capitol Building was built to be taller than the Temple. Now, you see financial, commercial and corporate buildings that are taller than the Capitol. What that tells me is that in the beginning, people treated their religion as the entity that exerted the most influence and power on society. Then, strong government overtook that influence. Now, it seems that people feel that corporations are the most influential segments of society. And if we want to deal with large social issues, maybe corporations will exert the most influence on the outcome."


I was watching Frontline on PBS last night. The show, titled "Flying Cheap" explores the complex relationships between airline carriers and their regional contractors, as well as with government regulators, around issues of aviation safety. (I encourage you to watch it online, for free, on the Frontline website.) In an effort to make flying cheap, it is quite evident that safety has been compromised upon, and a sad example of this is the crash of Continental flight 3407 in Buffalo. In fact, Continental had contracted this flight out to Colgan Air (a regional carrier), and at the same time were not to be held responsible for the safety of the flight. Colgan Air was being paid for the completion of flights, incentivising flying when it was probably prudent not to do so. Behaviour of captains was affected to the extent that first officer calculations on gross take off weight were modified and forged to make it seem that flights were conducted safely and responsibly, when in fact, they were not. Complaints of the first officer were dismissed, while in Congressional hearings, Colgan Air defended the integrity of the captain. Regional airline trade groups have stressed that safety has not been compromised upon, ever. In speaking to a family member advocating for improved security and safety of regional carriers, the President of a regional carrier had the temerity to say, after one of the first Congressional hearings, that "It has been fixed." Of course, this is a lie. How do you fix a corporate culture?

It has been shocking to me to read about the events leading up to and following the BP-Macondo well blowout, as have been chronicled through in-depth interviews of survivors of the rig explosion. (Click here to see interactive maps and graphics of the blowout.) In a presentation by Professor Winter, who is heading up the federal disaster commission looking into the investigation, and a recent National Geographic article by Joel Bourne, I became aware of the hasty, reckless, careless and insensitive decisions that were made by BP, Transocean and Halliburton with the Macondo well. Furthermore, regulatory policy for oil drilling is primarily set by the industry itself, with much of the expertise in drilling and oil recovery lying in industry, and with the (of course) huge number of former industry officials now in government. (The same is true for the Federal Aviation Administration and regulatory policy for airlines; the FAA works for the airlines.) In the end, corporations work for themselves. 

In a friend's experiences dealing with the aviation industry in heading up the effort to set a greenhouse gas emissions standard for international aviation, in fact, corporations and companies crave regulation - a regulation will set a legal limit within which corporations and companies can operate, often, almost always, to the detriment of society and the environment. Furthermore, when we patronise corporations, we patronise also the regulatory structure and government institutions that hold corporations accountable. Unfortunately, even though we want the government to work for the people, it is quite often the case that the government works for industry and profit, with revolving doors between government and industry. Indeed, the corporate culture can permeate government culture. What this means is that we must be responsible ourselves, and take up the cause to fight such collusion, while at the same time reducing our reliance on this culture.

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