The American Model

Who says the US of A doesn’t have any influence internationally?

For forty years we’ve heard how much other nations fear the incursion of American values in their food, their habits, their language, their customs. Stronger civilizations have fought back (France); weaker ones have given in (Japan.) McDonald’s and Burger Kings abound across continental divides; American films have always influenced those of Germany and Latin America. American cars still patrol Cuba; American fashions are worn by kids throughout the world.

Now we discover, much to our own dismay, that many other American customs have been translated and transplanted in nations around the world, as well.

Take, for example, the American purposeful ignorance of other peoples’ health and welfare, indeed of their safety. Think how many corporations – besides General Motors – have “sinned” and made the pearly gates anyway.

Of course, we’re talking about Toyota. We’re not bashing only Toyota. Years ago we owned two, one a five speed stick shift during the gasoline crunch in the early 70s. We followed that up with a Toyota station wagon, kept alive and running for nineteen years until a neighbor wanted to de-accession an Audi. We bit. The car was at the very tipping point, and did: we learned that every repair on that model Audi cost $600, no matter what.

What concerns us now is the idea – right in line with GM and other US firms of all kinds (think JPMorgan Stanley) – that it’s easier to pay a fine than admit wrong-doing. It’s easier to pay a fine than be involved in a series of long court battles that will eat up far more than the proposed fine.

What particular American value has leapt international boundaries and landed safely on the good side of customer relations? The idea that the company is worth more than any human beings who might have been harmed inadvertently – or not – by company policy. To make it short and sweet, the company and its share-holders are more highly valued, one by one, than any singular customer, driver, or even family that might be injured by the company’s decision to ignore warnings about safety, accountability, and honesty.

Forget cars. What about industrial giants that pollute waterways, indeed the very sources of entire towns’ water supplies? How much more satisfying it is to pay a fine, make a half-assed apology, and press on with business as usual than it is to actually clean up a ruined ecological site. Think about BP. What would appear to be a staggering amount of money in fines to be paid for the largest oil spill in history amounts in effect to a fraction of any year’s income. This is far less expensive than actually doing something about the safety of drilling rigs and working conditions on them. Then, after four years’ of public mea culpas and full page ads in the New York Times, BP can come right back and is now allowed once again to solicit government contracts. Does anyone think their business decisions and practices have changed?

The same thing applies to this country’s mining industry. Annually we hear or read about an accident or spill or disaster hitting a mining community. We also hear that each of these companies has a history of mining deficiencies and warnings. Each pays a minimal fine, admits no wrong doing, and continues with business as before.

So Toyota now has adopted the American attitude towards fines versus court battles, fines versus repair and recalls, fines versus passenger and driver safety. Never mind that the people who suffer are in fact Toyota customers. Toyota has learned its American lesson. It’s a lot cheaper to part with one per cent of your company’s annual income than it is to fight to correct, re-design, re-market your wares.

A secondary lesson from all this is that court battles last longer than human beings. Dupont, Pfizer, Archer Daniels may be just a few of the names we recognize as betting on cancer and heart attacks and aging in general to whittle down the amount of money they might have to pay in legal awards to damaged former customers, or even to those who have been merely collateral damage, people who live near sites that have caused death, disease, and destruction.

And if worst comes to the worst, international companies under the gun simply “down-size,” thereby saving their shareholders from nightmare scenarios and worry.

Now we discover that even our own Armed Forces believe in paying/settling rather than going into a courtroom, to whit General Sinclair’s trial for sexual aggression against one of his officers. He pays twenty thousand bucks and walks away. That’s the old American spirit!

Naively we wonder why no one is behind bars, at least not the”biggies”, for the economic debacle of the century, that which brought down home owners and prices alike, interest rates, sent mortgage rates through the skies, killed manufacturing by sending it offshore, dabbled in derivatives that no one understood or tried to understand. What mattered was that all this provided more money still to banks and brokerages. When a miscreant corporation is caught in the act, it doesn’t savage its employees. Many are quietly retired with golden parachutes and JPMorgan gives its chief a bonus of 20 million dollars for all his good work in leading English and American brokerages into the woods. And did we ever hear a word of apology, or a sentence stating that responsibility was its own?

In Japan, in days of old, someone who had deliberately pulled a fast one and was caught retired to his home to commit suicide in shame and desolation. A terrible practice. But nothing even remotely like that is happening now in Tokyo. They’ve learned they can live with shame and dishonor just like the rest of us. Only the rest of us never use those words.

So hurray for American influence, American business practices, American morals. They’re contagious, and the rest of the world can’t wait to get to a hospital to lie down for a few weeks to recover, to take a little down time before returning to the very fertile fields of American-led ingenuity and exceptionalism. Ain’t life grand?

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