Carefully Restrained Creatures

Corporations, which should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters. … He mocks the people who proposes that the Government shall protect the rich and that they in turn will care for the laboring poor.

— President Grover Cleveland, The State of the Union, 1888

In this week’s Sift:

  • Corporations are Sociopaths. It’s tempting to think that there are good and bad corporations in the same way that there are good and bad people. But it’s not true.
  • Wikileaks. The craziest thing in the WikiLeaks story is the bloodlust directed at Julian Assange and Bradley Manning.
  • The Tax-Cut Twilight Zone. Wonder why the Democrats are about to abandon a position that is both sensible and popular? Me too.
  • Short Notes. OK, it didn’t land on one wing. McCain’s moving goalposts on DADT. Cheney gets indicted. A masterpiece of data visualization. A Tea Party leader literally wants to disenfranchise me. Stephen Colbert’s Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude. Anti-Christmas-music music. And more.

Corporations are Sociopaths

Yesterday I once again saw the Budweiser Christmas commercial. You’ve probably seen some version of it in previous years: It’s classy. Not a word about beer or anything else you might buy from them, just those iconic Clydesdales pulling an old-fashioned beer wagon down snowy lanes, hauling a Christmas tree up to some lovely country manor, while a narrator sends holiday wishes “from our family to yours.”

It’s hard not to be touched. What a great bunch of folks those Budweiser people must be.

Miller made a similarly non-commercial Christmas commercial (though they did end on an image of a six-pack): Christmas lights at their brewery flashing on and off to the tune of “Wizards of Winter”. Coke has had so many touching Christmas commercials that it’s hard to pick a favorite. Ditto Pepsi. Even Victoria’s Secret manages to produce something appropriately heart-warming at Christmas.

We all have feelings about corporations sometimes. Our economy forces us to have relationships with them, and it’s hard not to project a human personality onto anything you have a relationship with. So while we easily recognize that some corporations are our enemies, we also can’t help thinking of some of them as our friends.

For example, there’s the corporation whose product you hope someone gives you this year. Or the one that made that one special car that you had all those adventures in — it ran for years and years and never gave you any trouble. Or the corporation you worked for and maybe still work for — you served your customers well and got paid for it; wasn’t that good? What about Google, who provides all those useful tools for free? Personally, I have soft spots for Apple and Sony — it’s fun to wander around their stores at the mall and see what’s new and cool.

Almost every week I say something nasty about corporations, and occasionally I review books like Merchants of Doubt or Doubt Is Their Product that explain how corporations make products that kill people — and then manipulate the situation to make sure they can go on killing people as long as possible. But that can’t be all corporations, right? Corporations are probably like people. There are good ones and bad ones, corporations that make cigarettes or asbestos, and other ones who just want a chance to put out an honest product at a fair price. Right?

It would be nice to think so, but no. I believe that when you come down to it, all corporations are fundamentally the same: They’re sociopaths.

A sociopath (or, if you want to get technical, someone with antisocial personality disorder) is a person without a conscience, who lacks any authentic empathy for other people, and is motivated mainly by a desire to “win” at some social game of his or her choosing.

Just like corporations, the vast majority of human sociopaths are not serial killers. As psychologist Martha Stout describes them in The Sociopath Next Door, they can appear to be pillars of the community — businessmen, teachers, ministers, and even psychologists. In fact, if appearing to be a pillar of the community helps them win whatever it is they’re trying to win, then they’ll learn how to cast that image. If that means they have to do some actual good deeds once in a while, they’ll manage.

So if you meet a sociopath in a tightly controlled social environment, chances are he or she will behave perfectly, even charmingly. If you were in their way and they could easily get away with it, they might kill you. (I mean, why not? It’s not like it’s wrong or anything.) But most of the time, killing people is way more trouble than it’s worth, so they don’t bother.

Just like corporations.

Diagnostic criteria for sociopathy include symptoms like: persistent lying or stealing, apparent lack of remorse or empathy, cruelty to animals, recurring difficulties with the law, disregard for right and wrong, tendency to violate the boundaries and rights of others, irresponsible work behavior, and disregard for safety.

Any of that sound familiar? Or what about the behavior that Stout says is the most surefire way to spot a sociopath:

[T]he combination of consistently bad or egregiously inadequate behavior with frequent plays for your pity is as close to a warning mark on a conscienceless person’s forehead as you will ever be given.

Keep that in mind and then read this reaction to the BP oil spill:

It should be obvious that BP is by far the leading victim, but I’ve yet to see a single expression of sadness for the company and its losses.

Sociopathy isn’t the aberrant behavior of a few corporations. It’s in every corporation’s DNA, and whether it gets expressed is purely a matter of environment and opportunity. A sole proprietor could decide to run his or her business in a moral way, even if it made less money. But having a conscience violates a CEO’s duty to his stockholders. One entrepreneur told this story about the “angel investors” who funded his start-up:

I was in one board meeting, and I said, “I started this to do positive things with the world and to do good in the Amazon, not necessarily to get a big payout.” And one of these guys looked me in the eye and said, “Well, the problem is, then you went out and took $9 million of other people’s money.“

In other words, investors are counting on CEOs to behave like sociopaths, to win the money-making game at any cost. Perversely, then, a moral CEO is cheating his stockholders of the sociopathic management they bargained for.

Thom Hartman claims this is why executive pay is so high:

[W]hat part of being a CEO could be so difficult — so impossible for mere mortals — that it would mean that there are only a few hundred individuals in the United States capable of performing it? In my humble opinion, it’s the sociopath part.

CEOs of community-based businesses are typically responsive to their communities and decent people. But the CEOs of most of the world’s largest corporations daily make decisions that destroy the lives of many other human beings.

Only about 1 to 3 percent of us are sociopaths — people who don’t have normal human feelings and can easily go to sleep at night after having done horrific things. And of that 1 percent of sociopaths, there’s probably only a fraction of a percent with a college education. And of that tiny fraction, there’s an even tinier fraction that understands how business works, particularly within any specific industry.

Thus there is such a shortage of people who can run modern monopolistic, destructive corporations that stockholders have to pay millions to get them to work. And being sociopaths, they gladly take the money without any thought to its social consequences.

Stout’s best advice for dealing with sociopaths is to get them out of your life. But that’s impossible, because most of us couldn’t function in today’s economy without corporations. So given that we have to deal with them, we should try to meet them only in situations where their lack of conscience has no freedom to operate.

That’s the rationale behind government regulation and behind antitrust laws that keep the marketplace competitive. The idea that corporations should be free to do what they do best is incredibly stupid: What they do best is to act without conscience or remorse. Instead, we need them to be, in President Cleveland’s phrase, “carefully restrained creatures of the law”, so that we may interact with them only in tightly controlled settings.

Don Blankenship, the anti-union anti-safety-regulation CEO who last April presided over the deadliest American coal-mining disaster in 40 years, has announced that “it is time for me to move on.” He rides into the sunset without expressing the slightest remorse to the families of his 29 dead employees.

I’m sure some of you are getting ready to point out to me that there is no Budweiser family, except maybe in the Czech Republic.


People who have been reading my stuff for a while know that I am a fan of Daniel Ellsberg, the guy who leaked the Pentagon Papers back in 1971. I’m also a fan of Mike Gravel, the Senator who entered the Pentagon Papers into the Senate record so that they couldn’t be suppressed. I’m also a fan of James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, the New York Times reporters who told the world that the Bush administration was spying on American citizens without a warrant. I don’t know who their sources were, but I’d be happy to buy them a drink too.

It’s not that I think governments shouldn’t keep secrets. If, say, the CIA has a mole inside the Iranian nuclear program, I’m content not to know his name or anything else about him. And the codes that President Obama could use to launch all the missiles — don’t tell me. I really don’t want to know.

But as soon as there is a process for keeping secrets, the temptation to abuse it is overwhelming. Far too often, the only people being kept in the dark are the voters.

That’s why we need whistle-blowers. In the old days, whistle-blowers would deliver their leaks to journalists, who would take months or years verifying and packaging their revelations for the public. WikiLeaks is removing the middleman. By putting vast numbers of leaked documents on the web, WikiLeaks makes it possible for anybody with time and patience to be Woodward and Bernstein.

The latest WikiLeaks dump is a quarter million US diplomatic cables, which so far the NYT describes as “Good Gossip and No Harm Done“.

But what I find amazing is the virulent responses that have been unleashed against Julian Assange, who is a public spokesman for WikiLeaks and is sometimes described as its founder, but whose actual significance is not known. Washington Times columnist Jeffrey Kuhner has called for his assassination:

we should treat Mr. Assange the same way as other high-value terrorist targets: Kill him.

Sarah Palin asks why Assange has not been “pursued with the same urgency we pursue al Qaeda and Taliban leaders?”

Kuhner also regrets that WikiLeaks alleged source, Pfc. Bradley Manning, “was not interrogated aggressively” — tortured, in other words. This says a great deal about how things have changed since the idyllic days of the Nixon administration: Ellsberg was harassed illegally, but I can’t recall any public discussion of torturing him. Potential presidential candidate Mike Huckabee thinks Manning has committed treason and “anything less than execution is too kind a penalty.”

For links to more threats against Assange, see Glenn Greenwald. The best ongoing coverage of WikiLeaks is in Greg Mitchell’s blog at The Nation.

Glenn Beck tied WikiLeaks to his ongoing conspiratorial fantasy about George Soros. Soros, you see, has some tenuous connection to Wikipedia, which Glenn has mistakenly confused with WikiLeaks.

Daniel Ellsberg says that “silence and lies”, not leaks, are what endanger lives.

A James Bond element comes into this story from looking at the servers on which much of the WikiLeaks material has been stored: It’s in a former Swedish bomb bunker drilled into a mountain. See the slide show.

The Tax-Cut Twilight Zone

The Sift’s motto is “Making sense of the news one week at a time.” But this week I’m failing in that mission, because I can’t make any sense at all of the Democrats’ strategy on the Bush tax cuts. In particular, I can’t explain why they aren’t willing to risk a confrontation.

Let me summarize: The Democratic position is that the Bush tax cuts should be extended for families making less than $250,000 and for individuals making less than $200,000, but that wealthier people should go back to paying the tax rates they paid during the Clinton administration. Republicans want the Bush tax cuts extended for everybody, and are blocking the whole deal in the Senate — threatening to raise taxes on everybody, even if the Democrats compromise to let the cuts expire only for millionaires — if they don’t get what they want for their rich benefactors.

I’m with Senator McCaskill on this:

I feel like I am in the twilight zone. It’s depressing to me that we have gotten to this level of posturing, that they are saying if you do not give people a tax break on their second million, that nobody gets one.

Everything is on the Democrats’ side. If you’re worried about the national debt, the Republican plan will add hundreds of billions more to it over then next decade. If you’re worried about jobs, economists say that tax cuts — particularly tax cuts for the wealthy — are among the least effective kinds of stimulus. Wayne State University’s Linda Beale writes:

The idea that tax cuts for those at the very top of the wealth and income distribution will trickle down to create jobs for all is part of the policies that got us into this mess. We’ve tried that approach for four decades: U.S. workers have contributed to significant productivity gains, but the owners and managers have kept those gains for themselves.

And you don’t need to be an academic egghead to see that: Since we passed the Bush cuts in 2001, job growth has been awful. If you aren’t clear about why that is, let a small businessman explain it to you:

My tax rate doesn’t affect hiring. If I think I can do more business, I hire more workers. … So if Congress wants to help my company — and other small businesses — create jobs, it should support tax and economic policies that boost broad-based consumer income and spending.

Broad-based, not focused on the rich, as the Bush tax cuts are.

Finally, if you’re a congressman who doesn’t care about what’s best for the country and just want to do what’s popular — the Democratic position is overwhelmingly more popular. Not even all the billionaires support the billionaire tax cuts. There is literally no reason for Democrats not to take a stand here.

But the way it looks now, the Democrats will cave on this and extend the tax cuts even for zillionaires. The deficit will run higher because of it. And in 2012 the voters will blame the Democrats for the deficit. Go figure.

Paul Krugman can’t make sense of a Democratic cave-in either.

Short Notes

Department of Corrections: The myth-checking web site believes that the one-wing-landing video I linked to last week was fake. This annotated version describes how it might have been done. Still a great video, though. Remember when seeing was believing? (Thanks to David Wiegleb and Charlie Frean for the links.)

General Electric has come up with a radical strategy for getting its profits back to where they were in 2007: GE plans to make stuff people want and sell it to them.

Bill in Portland Maine assembles John McCain quotes about don’t-ask-don’t-tell since 2006.  Basically, McCain consistently takes what sounds like a reasonable position against repealing DADT: He’s willing to repeal the policy if the right people in the military tell him to, but until then he wants to continue throwing gays and lesbians out.

The problem is that who “the right people” are keep changing. As soon as someone like Colin Powell or the Secretary of Defense or the current head of the Joint Chiefs tells him to repeal DADT, they’re not the right people any more, and he needs someone else’s approval.

Jon Stewart has the video to back this up.

A German company claims to have made the most secure bikelock in the world. Watch the video.

Whenever Dick Cheney has a health crisis, he probably imagines people like me rooting against him. Not so, Dick. I want you to live long enough to stand trial. I hope you make it to 100, if that’s what it takes.

This isn’t the case I had in mind, but Nigeria has indicted Cheney for a bribery scandal that involved Halliburton while Cheney was its CEO. (Maybe that’s why that Nigerian guy needs my help getting money out of the country.)

Kevin O’Rourke on what the Irish did wrong: They backed up their private banks with a public commitment. “Now … it is the State rather than the banking sector which is insolvent.” And the Irish have essentially lost their sovereignty to the EU and the IMF.

The reaction to the news that Irish taxpayers are to be squeezed while foreign bondholders escape scot-free has been one of outraged disbelief and anger. … Iceland is an obvious model for us. In a referendum, her voters have already rejected a proposal to pay back their banks’ creditors, who will take major losses. Now they have elected a constitutional assembly charged with drafting a new constitution. Ireland probably needs this more than does Iceland; I wish I were more confident that we will follow the latter’s example.

The BBC’s Hans Rosling presents an amazing feat of data representation: 200 years of country-by-country health and wealth data animated.

Stephen Colbert answers the War on Christmas with his Blitzkrieg On Grinchitude.

Of course we all know the real hazard of the Christmas season: Overdoses of Christmas music can rot your brain. I recommend you inoculate yourself. Whenever you worry that one more dose of “Jingle Bells” might make you strangle an elf, start humming “Christmas at Ground Zero“, “I Saw Daddy Kissing Santa Claus“, or my personal favorite “I Found the Brains of Santa Claus“.

OK, but what about Hanukkah music? I mean, Hanukkah in Santa Monica is cute, but shouldn’t there be a pop song that explains what the holiday is about?

When Tea Partiers talk about restoring the vision of the Founders, they don’t usually mention the unsavory parts of that vision: slavery, no votes for women, and so on.

But sometimes they do. Here, Tea Party Nation founder Judson Philips says on the radio that “it makes a lot of sense” to restrict the vote to property owners. (That leaves me out. I rent.)

Matt Yglesias pulls together some Krugman analysis with a chart explaining why Social Security cuts would be a direct attack on the working class.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift’s Facebook page.

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  • Dirk Wright  On December 6, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    There you go. An excellent movie about corporations and their power.

  • John L  On December 6, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    I agree that caving on high income taxes is pretty strange. I see in the papers today that the deal on the table pairs an extension of the millionaire's tax cut with unemployment extension and a bunch of other stuff that basically makes it StimPak II. This may be an astounding example of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.

    In other news, among his other virtues, Grover Cleveland was the last Republican president to balance the budget. He is buried in the same cemetery as Aaron Burr and Kurt Goedel.

  • kimc  On April 18, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    I have read Stout's book, The Sociopath Next Door, and she says the number of sociopaths in the USA is more like 4%. It's that high because our culture encourages it.

  • Doug Muder  On April 18, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    I have no idea where Thom Hartman got his 1-3% number, or where Stout gets 4%. It's probably one of those definitional issues: How bad do you have to be to get counted?


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