I Robot, Modified: Capital Punishment for Criminal Capital

Years ago I worked at a place called Winterland. It was a merchandising company that was spun off from, as I recall, the Bill Graham concert promotion juggernaut. Winterland had started out in a venue in The Fillmore of the same name, which was where, among other things, The Band’s The Last Waltz took place (and where a condo complex now stands).

Winterland sold t-shirts and other stuff with images of musicians on them, mostly in concert venues but also in stores and the like. It was a pretty nice business (other than the dealing with the musicians and their business managers part . . . ), although it did cycle through a bankruptcy reorganization in the late 90s.

Winterland is also one of the few companies that has ever pleaded guilty in a criminal court to killing someone. This came about after an employee was crushed to death in a silk-screen machine which had a safety mechanisms that someone at Winterland had disabled. Ouch.

After being brought up on criminal charges, Winterland pleaded guilty and paid a $350k fine; even though Winterland had, for all intents and purposes, killed this unfortunate person, no one went to jail. There was no eye-for-an-eye.

The lesson of that episode, at least to a jaded perspective, might be that corporations can get away with things that human beings cannot get away with — like killing human beings.

Kinda like I Robot, but with a corporation playing the role of the robot.

* * *

Much has been written lately about the personhood of corporations, with the trend being towards giving corporations more and more rights previously considered to be rights that only human beings should have. Nowhere, though, have I read anything about corporations, as a kind of quid pro quo, also being subject to all the penalties of the criminal law, including capital punishment.

Now this is not the place to talk about capital punishment of human beings. Those of you who know me or my writing can well guess how I feel about it. But this is the place to talk about capital punishment of corporations.

Yesterday BP’s stock price fell a third, which means that the value of BP fell by tens of billions of dollars. And there is talk that BP might be the target of a hostile takeover or other buyout or a bankruptcy.

On the other hand, as people tally up BP’s exposure for the oil volcano, it looks possible that BP could pay the full bill. Yup, it looks possible that BP has enough money to pay for all the damage it has caused.

I want to go on record as saying, though, that if half of what has been said about the recklessness with which BP dug this hole is true, then I think we should have a debate about applying capital punishment to the entity (leaving aside for the moment the discussion of jail for the perpetrators).

Now market-lovers will argue that the invisible hand will do its magic, and BP will be adequately punished, either through bankruptcy (Texaco did it . . .) or a buy out (Texaco did it . . . ).

But I’m thinking that that very well might not be sufficient. If BP did, as some say, overrule safety precautions, gerrymander the regulatory process and, in general, act like the biggest, baddest oil company around, and that behavior necessarily led to this calamity, then I say let’s execute BP. Yes: let’s use capital punishment on the worst capitalist.

Now we can all debate ’til the cows come home the wisdom of governments killing human beings who have killed; the whole eye-for-an-eye approach is a flashpoint for wedge politics. It seems to me the debate is a bit easier, though, when it comes to governments killing business entities that have killed human beings.

Here, then, let’s do consider a-corporate-charter-for-an-eye, with the proceeds from the corporate carcass used to right, as well as possible, the wrongs perpetrated by the corporate perp, and the excess, if any, going to the federal government to further support whatever regulatory framework needs to be strengthened to decrease the risk of a similar occurrence.

So how would that work? I’m doing my best to write short in here, so I have to leave that topic for another day. But I do have room for the financial health tie-in, and for the fold-back.

In terms of our overall financial health, we’ll all be better off when business decision-makers everywhere know that especially egregious and harmful-to-others behavior on the part of the entity risks the very existence of the entity itself (as well as the freedom of the decision-makers themselves).

Because it seems that, currently, some of them (a lot of them?) think they can get away with murder.

Until tomorrow, then, here’s to your overall financial health, and may it continuously improve.


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