Written by Richard Eskow
Remember the “superpredators”? They were the supposedly super-violent youngsters of dark complexion that conservatives kept screaming about in the 1990s. We were told they were about to unleash an unprecedented wave of vicious crime any day now.
Those superpredators don’t exist, and never did. But the myth of the “superpredator” offers us a new (and, admittedly, partially ironic) lens through which to view today’s corporate executives, a class of people which is apparently remorseless about the harm it causes in the pursuit of self-enrichment.
Let’s be clear: No group of human beings is uniquely predisposed toward evil. But society and government are supposed to discourage people from from acting on their worst impulses, and when it comes to the corporate class they – and we – have failed.
Now the rise of the Corporate Superpredator Class could culminate in the election of one of its own to the highest office in the land.
Fear of Children
The myth of the juvenile “superpredator” was promoted by conservatives in the 1990s and 2000s. As Fairness and Accuracy in Media reported in 1998, politicized professors and mainstream commentators were terrifying the public with stories about the “remorseless brutality” we can expect to see from the “teenaged time bomb” that TIME Magazine’s scare piece described as follows: “They are just four, five and six years old now, but already they are making criminologists nervous.”
But those superpredator children never existed. In fact, juvenile crime rates have declined “significantly” since the early 1990s, according to FBI statistics. But the fear engendered by superpredator scare tactics has distracted millions of Americans from their economic plight, and the forces behind it. Maybe that’s why ALEC and other corporate-sponsored organizations have funded the “Stand Your Ground” laws that led to the death of Trayvon Martin and a number of other young people.
If stoking fear of our minority children was a tactic to divert attention from the behavior of corporate leaders, it’s been remarkably successful. Stories that “superpredators” were preying on the survivors of Hurricane Katrina helped distract the public temporarily from the real horror taking place there – the horror of government neglect.
The “superpredator” described in now-discredited sociological works was a person who was inherently amoral and criminal because he lived in a social milieu which lacked both a moral framework and a means of restraining and punishing bad behavior.
Which gets us to Mitt Romney and today’s top corporate executives.
One of Their Own
A highly wealthy American is now running for the highest office in the land with a nomination bought and paid for by his ultra-wealthy backers. The corporate class finally has the chance to elect one of its own, rather than depending on the compliance of someone else in that office.
Am I saying that the country’s top executives, some of whom I have known and worked with, are the real-life equivalent of those mythical, ultra-violent young people described in the “superpredator” scare stories? No. Many of them are good, decent people who are doing the best job they can.
But there is a new culture of corporate leadership, one that’s been growing over the last thirty to forty years. This new culture is less moral and more selfish then the leadership culture that preceded it, and it is almost sociopathically indifferent to the effects of its own behavior on other people.
Spotting a Superpredator
The now-discredited theory laid out the characteristics of those mythical teen superpredators. DeIulio said each generation of predator would be “three times as dangerous” as the generation that preceded it. They would, said DeIulio, be amoral, “radically impulsive,” and “brutally remorseless. ”
Consider the evidence regarding corporate America:
No current bank CEO has expressed remorse for the global impact of their misbehavior: tens of trillions of dollars in lost wealth, hundreds of millions of un- or under-employed people worldwide (and roughly 24 million of them here in the US), millions of foreclosures, nearly one home in three underwater, and a steep rise of families (including children) living in poverty.
Many of these bank CEOs are second- and third-generation bankers. But then, as John DiIulio wrote, “kids of whatever race, creed, or color are most likely to become criminally depraved when they are morally deprived” in their upbringing.
Superpredators in Everyday Life
The near-sociopathic disregard for others isn’t limited to Wall Street, either. When I flew from New York to Los Angeles on Saturday I stood in a crowd of people for over an hour waiting to pass through security. The temperature was high, there was no water, no place to sit, nobody coming through to check on the well-being of the people in line (some of whom were elderly, disabled, or carrying small children). This radical disregard for customer well-being on behalf of an entire industry would have been considered unthinkable a couple of decades ago.
Other companies, including cable television outlets, provide inferior service and then force customers to sacrifice hours out of their day in order to correct a mistake which was not theirs to begin with.
Facebook is in a category of its own. Its interface is badly designed. It treats its customers’ privacy with arrogant disregard. It hasn’t provided a real innovation since it was first conceived, an idea which was not what it ultimately became (and which was not exactly original to Facebook’s founders). Like other corporations of the corporate super-predator class, Facebook believes that its customers (like other members of society) are there to be used, not served.
The corporate-superpredator mentality isn’t limited to customers, either, or even to innocent bystanders. Shareholders, once considered the true owners of a publicly traded company, are now considered just another class of human being to be bilked, swindled, and misled. That viewpoint has been encouraged by the SEC, through the collusion of the Justice Department, which has often allowed investor fraud to be settled with no criminal charges for the wrongdoers and a big settlement that’s paid by … the swindled shareholders themselves.
Maybe you can relate to this. I actually said this once to somebody working at a router company’s call center:
“For the love of God, as one human being to another, I have already gone through your scripted process with other employees for two and a half hours. On behalf of the souls within each of us, please do not start the twenty-minute script that begins, ‘First unplug your router and wait twenty seconds’ because I’ve been through that four times already.”
As you might imagine, there was a confused pause. Then he said: “First, unplug your router and wait twenty seconds.”
That router company was exhibiting one of the characteristics of the Corporate Superpredator Class: a near-pathological indifference to its own customers’ humanity. It doesn’t have to be that way.
“Je ne regrette rien …”
John Iulio: “(T)he super-predators are radically self-regarding. They regret getting caught.”
The only banker who has publicly expressed real remorse at what the industry has done is former Citigroup chair John Reed, in his thoughtful interview with Bill Moyers. But Reed’s a member of the earlier, non-predatory breed of corporate executive who believed in the executive’s traditional mission: to deliver a service or product well, to build a company that will last for the long haul, and to treat everyone fairly in the process.
That’s the ethic that typically motivated executives across political boundaries. Even industrialists like Howard Hughes and Henry Ford, both of whom became virulently right-wing (Ford also became publicly anti-Semitic), were genuine engineering and business innovators. That distinguishes them from the executives in today’s bloated financial sector, or predatory executives in non-innovative businesses.
So too did Steve Jobs’ dedication to creating the best possible products for his customers. His offshoring practices brought him well-deserved criticism from me and others, but his success was built on creation and not predation.
It’s unlikely that a new Steve Jobs could succeed in today’s super-predator business economy. Today’s corporate model is Mark Zuckerberg’s: no manufacturing costs, no attention to detail or design, no bothersome concerns about quality. Just capture a market aggressively and protect yourself from all comers until you can really enrich yourself with a pumped-up IPO.
You’re so vain, you probably think these words are about you
How “radically self-regarding” are today’s superpredator CEOs? It’s not enough to escape censure or conviction for their deeds. Like JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, they demand adoration from the public that they’ve so badly abused, and they’re furious if they don’t get it. Like Dimon, they’re capable of claiming they’re far better than their peers, while at the same time arguing that none of them should ever be criticized.
(DeIulio: “Under some conditions they are affectionate and loyal to fellow gang members or relatives …”)
And, like Dimon, they’re more than happy to propose cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits for the elderly in order to pay the costs for their own malfeasance and ensure that their own taxes are kept low. (DeIulio: “…. but not even morns or grandmorns are sacred to them.”)
The self regard can become truly stunning, as when Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein said “We’re doing God’s work.” The apotheosis of corporate super-vanity may well have come when hedge fund manager Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone claimed that raising his taxes to the level paid by ordinary citizens was “like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.”
To a superpredator, being treated like other human beings is like being subjected to a war of extermination.
Superpredators Are Made, Not Born
How do people like this rise to positions of prominence?
My own business experience included a number of experiences that served as a training ground for predation: Corporate ‘team building’ exercises that rewarded cynicism and idealized the abuse of customers. Tests of my willingness to bend ethically. Slang terms from my bosses and peers that fostered a culture of insensitivity toward other people.
And mine was a pretty mild corporate experience. The people I worked for and with tended to be moral, fair, and ethical people for the most part. There are many of them out there, and a lot of them are still running corporations. But the financial inequities between the 99 percent and the 1 percent are at play among the 1 percent, too. The wealthiest and fastest-rising corporate stars are those who display the characteristics of the corporate predator.
But the superpredators couldn’t exist if government policy didn’t encourage their rise: through tax policy, through deregulation, through a refusal to enforce and strengthen antitrust laws (it’s hard for customers to avoid a predatory company if it has no real competitors) through lax enforcement of current laws, and through the unwillingness of our leaders to “name and shame” those who exploit their customers, their shareholders, or their society in pursuit of selfish ends.
Outsourcer in Chief?
Is David Axelrod right to describe Mitt Romney as the “Outsourcer in Chief,” as he did in a recent press call? Yes – provided that he’s allowed a little poetic license. Axelrod was also right when he added that Romney’s job at Bain Capital was maximizing value for his investors, not creating or preserving US jobs. Many corporate executives, including me, have been obliged to consider outsourcing when working in a for-profit environment.
The issue is deeper than that. Bain Capital’s fortunes, and Mitt Romney’s, were always dependent on the kindness of strangers – specifically, strangers in high government office. Bain’s first big success was made possible because of tax concessions granted to it by the government of Massachusetts.
Romney’s personal wealth was greatly increased by the Federal government’s decision to treat much of his income as investment income and tax it at a much lower rate than many schoolteachers or secretaries pay. Romney was able to pay the low 15 percent rate, which was supposedly create to encourage personal investment, even at times when the income in question came from services fees and not from investing his own capital.
Romney and his partners also benefited from the fact that government leaders chose to offer this low tax rate even for investments that took jobs away, destroyed companies, or shipped jobs overseas. The failure to distinguish between productive and destructive investment was a choice – a choice to reward destructive financial behavior as richly as we reward constructive financial behavior.
And that decision encouraged the growth of superpredator capitalism. After all, which is harder: To come up with a new idea and build a company around it, or to swoop down on companies, force it to acquire huge debts, use the borrowed money to pay yourself huge fees (for which you’re taxed as if you were a real investor), and then use some of your new fortune to pervert the political process even more?
Enriched by government generosity, encouraged by government policy to act against the public interest: That’s the Bain Capital story – and the Mitt Romney story too. Romney wasn’t born bad, in a financial sense. He was encouraged to be bad by government policy, which he then entered political life in order to continue the cycle of encouragement.
There’s a moral to this story, and it’s a simple one: If you reward predatory behavior, you will create more predators.
Stopping the Superpredators: It’s Everybody’s Job
But if our corporate predators have behaved poorly, so have our political and social leaders. They’ve failed to censure them for their misbehavior – not just legally, but by using the ‘bully pulpit’ to lecture them on their misdeeds. President Obama began to do that this year, ever so gently, and even these mild words have driven the corporate class into a frenzy.
Yet it is the misbehaving executives of corporate America, along with their political enablers (Republican Rep. Spencer Bachus: “Washington exists to serve the banks”) that has led these executives into a life of “moral poverty.”
John DeIulio defined moral poverty this way: “It is the poverty of being without loving, capable, responsible adults who teach you right from wrong. It is the poverty of being without parents and other authorities who habituate you to feel joy at others’ ioy, pain at others’ pain, happiness when you do right, remorse when you do wrong. It is the poverty of growing up in the virtual absence of people who teach morality by their own everyday example and who insist that you follow suit.”
It’s up to our leaders – and us – to lead tomorrow’s corporate executives away from a life of corporate super-predation. Fortunately, you can help. You can be one of the adults who provides a moral role model the next generation of business leaders from turning into Corporate Super-Predators.
And you can help prevent Mitt Romney from becoming President of the United States.
Conscience of a Conservative
But if society turned Mitt Romney into a corporate predator, it is Romney’s conscience that must carry the burden for his lack of remorse. He has never expressed regrets for the lost jobs or human suffering created by his work.
Whatever your disappointments with Obama, we cannot allow a member of the Superpredator Corporate Class to lead this nation. Members of the Superpredator Corporate Class reinforce each other’s immoral behavior, whereas Obama’s genteel remonstrations of corporate America – buffered as they are by words of undeserved praise for the likes of Jamie Dimon – have driven the Corporate Predator class into a frenzy.
To his great credit, John Iulio distinguished himself from the corporate predators – and from Mitt Romney – by expressing profound remorse for his actions. His expressions of regret, and his genuine efforts to undo the wrongs he had helped perpetrate, marked him as a human being of conscience and consciousness.
But before that happened, DeIulio wrote with horror about young criminals’ “vacant stares and smiles, and the remorseless eyes (that) were at once too frightening and too depressing.”
Which reminds me: Did you happen to catch Jamie Dimon’s Capitol Hill testimony last week?
About the author
Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer, is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future. This post was produced as part of the Curbing Wall Street project.