Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

The Corporation Code: Where Is Responsibility?

Audio for this story from Tell Me More is not available.

Money Figurines Against American Flag i

Now that the Supreme Court has said corporations have the same rights to free speech as individuals, who will hold them to moral standards? iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption iStockphoto.com
Money Figurines Against American Flag

Now that the Supreme Court has said corporations have the same rights to free speech as individuals, who will hold them to moral standards?

iStockphoto.com

New jobless figures came out last week. The government says that the unemployment rate has dipped under 10 percent. Although, of course, 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 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 mortgages owe more than their homes are actually worth, according to the report by Alex Blumberg. And yet the vast majority of people stay in and continue to pay on those mortgages, rather than walking away from homes that have lost value and just buying another.

Of course, walking away carries a penalty — you take a hit on your credit rating. And, anecdotally, credit counselors report that 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 they don't, Blumberg says, is that more of us might be motivated by shame than math.

According to another study, he said, 4 out of 5 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, 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 is walking around feeling ashamed for being their enablers?

I know, I know. I took economics in college, too, so I have heard same spiel we've all been taught — that 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 that we demand of individuals.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues