Big Shot Corporations Should Lead By Example

In her weekly commentary, host Michel Martin asks why giant corporations should be held to the same standards of responsibility as individual home owners.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Finally, new jobless figures came out last week. The government says that unemployment has dipped under 10 percent. But that's a phony figure. The real figure is always higher than that because the people who have been out of work the longest and are no longer looking for work are not counted. And the fact that I even know that tells you something about how closely we are all watching these numbers these days.

The unemployment figure, of course, is more than just numbers. What it really is, is a collection of stories. Being unemployed in this country, anyway, isn't just an economic hit. It's a personal hit, a blow to the sense of self because in this country, so many people are what they do. Many of us complain about the work ethic of our fellow Americans, but the fact is Americans are still some of the hardest-working people in the world, with not just a commitment to work, but a strong sense of work as noble and important in its own right.

And apparently, Americans have the same sense of conviction about paying their bills. Last week, I heard a story on NPR's Planet Money series that got my attention. It turns out that a third of all people with the mortgagees owe more than their homes are actually worth, according to the report by Alex Blumberg. And yet the vast majority of people stay and continue to pay into those mortgages rather than walking away from homes and just buying another or renting. Of course, walking away carries a penalty. You take a hit on your credit rating, and anecdotally, credit councilors report, more people are willing to take that hit.

But from a strict cost-benefit standpoint, according to a study by the University of Arizona that Blumberg told us about, more people ought to be willing to walk away than actually do. And the reason, Blumberg says, is that more of us might be motivated by shame than math. According to another study, he said, four out of five people think it is immoral to default on a mortgage. So, the question I have is: Why doesn't it work the other way? Why don't more corporations have a sense of shame about walking away from us, laying us off, defaulting on loans people are trying to pay? Haranguing people at all hours of the day and night, trying to get them to pony up, even as they are going through hard times?

And while we're at it, why isn't there more of a sense of shame about poor service, deceitful marketing practices and executive pay that has no relationship to performance? If you want to go back to the mortgage issue, it is certainly a fact that millions of people in this country purchased homes they could not afford, using mortgages they could not pay over the long term. But who encouraged them to do it? Who stopped building affordable homes for people with modest incomes? Who wrote those mortgages with little or no proof of earnings?

Just as some of these homeowners feel ashamed for taking on commitments they could not possibly meet, who was walking along feeling ashamed for being their enablers? I know, I know. I took economics in college, too. So, I've heard the same spiel we've all been taught: The corporations have no soul or conscience, and their sole purpose is to create value for their owners or shareholders. But now that the Supreme Court has told us that corporations have free speech rights equal to that of individuals, I want to know, why don't we have a right to expect the same moral sensibility of corporations that we demand of individuals?

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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