Morals? Since when do companies have morals?


BOSTON -- So, anyway, I have this hot idea for a new daytime TV talk show. Sally, Jenny, Ricki, Montel! Let's take a meeting! It's yours for the asking, kids!

Here's the deal. Instead of another dreary program about another husband who cheats on his wife by having an affair with her transvestite teen-age brother -- ho hum -- how about one that chronicles the truly creative ways that people are getting scr -- oops -- bleeped by the economy.

All you need to do is book the CEO of a corporation that's posting megaprofits while replacing permanent workers with temps and trading perks for pink slips. There he is in the guest chair, when out from the green room -- TA DA! -- pops a 30-year former employee who was outplaced into a creative new lifestyle as a cabdriver. You want conflict? Babe, you got it.

How about humor? OK, get the 25 top paid executives whose 1994 wages added up to $1.5 billion. Ask one to explain exactly why he's worth $10,000 a day or $400 an hour. Let another justify earning 200 times what his lowest-paid workers are getting. Get ready for the hoots and howls.

Want to get down and dirty? Line up a couple of honchos who promised jobs in return for state tax breaks and then took off with a new gal . . . uh, state. Now that's the kind of infidelity that can get the blood boiling again.

The beauty of my idea isn't just its obvious entertainment value. It's that it might actually enlarge the vision of the moral monitors.

Think about it. Virtue marketer Bill Bennett has just turned his attention from the sordid sounds of rap music to the sleazy sights of daytime TV. He and Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut are going after the talk shows and the companies that produce what they generously call "rot." Their weapon is shame.

All I can say is: Go get 'em, tiger. But after surfing through Mr. Bennett's "oeuvre," his collected books of virtue, it seems to me that something is missing in the morality business. It's a take on the ethical relationships between employer and employee, between the economy and the society. What's missing in the morality business is business.

Mr. Bennett's books run through the virtues of self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty and faith. But I could hardly find a tale of right, wrong and workplace in the whole lot.

All the virtue lessons these days seem to be about individual behavior. The only time we put a moral grid over corporate behavior is when some company, TV network or media mogul is mucking about in popular culture.

'Must you debase our nation?'

Remember what Bob Dole asked the folks at Time Warner last August? "Must you debase our nation and threaten our children for the sake of corporate profits?" Now there's a question worthy of my talk-show host. Maybe if Mr. Dole's president thing doesn't work out, we'll audition him for the job.

But why limit the question to Time Warner? Why limit the talk about values to sex, violence, rap 'n' roll?

In a conversation last week, Labor Secretary Robert Reich -- the only man in the administration who still talks this way -- said that, "If companies have a moral responsibility not to fill the movie theater and airwaves with violence and moral degradation, do they not also have a responsibility to keep workers employed when profits are rising? A moral responsibility to upgrade worker skills, an obligation to fully fund pension plans, to provide health care?"

Applying his own economic book of virtues, he's been trying to raise the minimum wage, get rid of sweatshops, and save the Earned Income Tax Credit. He's convinced that there's a "great pool of untapped indignation" about companies that are reaping and not sharing the benefits of an improved economy.

Executives in the 1950s talked almost routinely about their responsibilities to consumers, workers and communities. But today, Mr. Reich says, "The CEOs are remarkably quiet. We are acting as if the economy had nothing to do with values. We need a serious national discussion about corporate responsibility."

What we have instead is a rich, argumentative vocabulary of right and wrong to use when we talk about our personal behavior and culture. When we get to the question of how we relate to each other in our economic life, we are reduced to the flat, parsimonious language of numbers and money.

Sally Jessy Raphael defends talk TV against Bennett & Company's charges of trash TV, by swearing that "The purpose of the show is very much a morality play."

Well, that's a bit hard to swallow. But, hon, if you want a morality play, have I got a new gig for you. The name of my ethics hour? You remember: "It's The Economy, Stupid."

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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