Everyone knows the three BIG LIES. “The checks in the mail.” “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” And, well, we all know what the third one is. Anger over that second lie is probably the major explanation for the election of our current president. That salesmanship required the creation of an alternate narrative. A narrative that promoted the wisdom and benevolence of a nurturing corporate ethos from whom all blessings flow. A narrative that fed the recent passage of a “tax reform” package that MAY be somethings, but certainly IS a huge immediate bouquet for American businesses and the wealthy.
The attached graph tells a different story, and, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. The graph is a simple tally from 2008 to 2016 of Google searches including the words “iPhone slow.” That tally is overlaid with the release dates of new iPhone models. I’m sure there are corporate talking heads who could explain how seeing is not believing. However, it’s pretty obvious that the techs are deliberately reducing the functionalty and usefulness of their product to increase the rate of replacement of the iPhone that you were happy with until today.
There are criminal lawsuits pending in France against Apple executives regarding the global strategy of “planned obsolescence” of their older iPhones which is prohibited by French law. The maximum penalty allowed is a prison sentence of two years, a fine of 300,000 Euros and forfeiture of 5% of the companies annual income. Let’s try to get that law passed in the United States without the financial support of the Koch brothers. Maybe with another 1000 years of cultural evolution we’ll catch up with the “dreaded” French.
Sure, the smartest guys in the room at ENRON cut power to California during the peak of a summer heat wave to lubricate a rate increase, but not Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon and other Silicon Valley tech giants. They are our Gen-X, Next Gen and Millennial peers. They’re spreading knowledge to impoverished children in Asia and Africa. They’re bringing freedom and democracy to oppressed countries. They help us find willing partners when trolling the bar scene. They connect us all together and give us the hand held tools to make our lives easier and more manageable as the world spins faster. They are the innovators that keep us steps ahead of the reaper. These heroes of the new world order could never do such a thing. Could they?
Of course they could. The CEO may wear a black turtleneck or a college T-shirt, but they are still CEOs of a publicly traded company. Publicly traded companies do lots of different things with a variety of motivations, but the single motivation they all share, which trumps all others, is the profit-motive. It is inherent. Companies don’t exist if they don’t make money, and their CEOs don’t keep their jobs unless they make more money this year than they made last year. If you have to turn down response times and choke customer service down to a nightmare to boost sales of the new greatest thing, then you do it.
As long as your remember the warmth that a dollar bill brings to the corporate heart, you shouldn’t be surprised when social media ads are sold to Russian political hackers, when codes aren’t provided to the F.B.I. that may help investigate terrorist activity, or when you receive an unsolicited sales pitch for an item that you were just browsing at a few days ago. No one should be surprised that your most personal conversations, private activities and nude selfies are being sold as a commodity to other businesses. Have you ever noticed how often security alerts are followed by opportunities to upgrade your security. After being slow to the party, I now understand why Diane puts a piece of masking tape over the camera eye on our computer.
I don’t mean to be dumping solely on the tech companies and social media. I like social media, although I am a bit concerned by how slow my I-phone-4 has become. The point is, if social media will play us to “move units”, then no corporate entity can be trusted to make decisions in the public’s interest if it conflicts with the profit motive. They never have been; never will be.
We used to understand that. In 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle about the exploited lives of immigrants, the corruption of the powerful and wage slavery in the Chicago meat-packing industry. Like today, immigrants are a useful foil to blame our troubles on and their issues didn’t rouse the public. However, people were horrified by the unsanitary conditions, health violations and stories of workers falling into rendering vats and being ground up with the rest of the less than premium cuts. Sinclair famously wrote, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” That book lead to the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act which established the Bureau of Chemistry – renamed the Food and Drug Administration in 1930.
In 1911, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City killed 145 immigrant women and children. Trapped by locked doors to prevent stealing and non-functional elevators, the women were burned alive in blind-ending stairwell, threw themselves down empty elevator shafts or leaped from the eighth floor sweatshop to the Manhattan streets below. Child labor and fire prevention laws followed, but too late for the 145 women and girls.
While I was in San Francisco in the mid 1980s, a contractor took a multi million contract to install sprinkler systems in public schools and other public facilities. He installed the sprinkler heads, but couldn’t be bother to take the next, and more expensive (some may say vital) step of actually attaching the sprinkler heads to a water pipe. Fortunately, no children died and his cost-cutting was not discovered for several years. Amazingly, the greedy bastard didn’t have enough sense to move to Bali with his year-end bonus. He was arrested in his big house overlooking the San Francisco Bay.
Volkswagen figured a sensible and economical way to protect the environment from excessive engine admissions might be to jimmy the software of the programmed turbocharged direct injection system in diesel engines to activate emission controls only during regulatory testing. That would allow cars to meet the US standards for Nitrous Oxide emissions during testing, but to exceed those standards by as much as 40-fold during real world driving. This deceit involved about 11 million cars between 2009 and 2015. Possibly your car and certainly your air. Cut-rate airbags installed by Takata in about 29 million cars might be another bonus worthy profit booster. From the turn of the 20th century “robber barons” to the turn of the 21st century Wall Street financial manipulators we have a long and colorful history of letting the buyer beware. When your pension is gone, well, you should’ve known better.
Over the years, regulatory agencies like the FDA, EPA, Occupational Health and Safety Administration, Securities and Exchange Commission, National Transportation Board, Consumer Protection Agency and the Federal Communications Commission among many others, were created, and supportive laws passed, to help strike the balance between a healthy business environment and a profit-motive driven, lassiz-faire, eat your children, year-long corporate purge night. I’m sure that these regulatory agencies are the government people being referred to that might not be considered helpful. The question is, helpful to whom?
The most significant of all of Donald Trump’s regrettable legacies will undoubtedly be his systematic and subversive dismantling of all these regulatory agencies. Virtually any day, you can read through the back pages of the A section of the newspaper and find stories of rescinded or gutted regulations, governmental reductions in force, the elimination of scientific advisory committees, inadequate number of inspectors, resignation of demoralized long-term public servants, internationally known scientists leaving the NIH and CDC, inadequate surveillance technology and inadequate enforcement. Just today, I read about a decision to roll back requirements for off-shore drilling companies to get third party inspection of their containment systems in case of an oil blow out. That was exactly one night after watch Deepwater Horizon on HBO. Cancelling a scheduled third party inspection of the Deepwater Horizon well, so as to not delay bringing it online, was exactly the BP corporate decision that caused that disaster.
It is likely that for a generation or longer, punishing failures to maintain surveillance and protect the public welfare will occur in our air, water, automotive and transportation systems, the energy sector, construction, city planning, flood control, national parks, along our coastlines and in many other areas. If you don’t believe me, wait and see if developers get their hands on Captain Sam’s spit. Many, if not most of these failures, will be to “pro-business” decisions made by the Trump administration to supposedly make America Great Again. Again, the question is great for whom?
Legislation written to allow public utilities to bill users for the cost of constructing nuclear power plants is currently costing South Carolina SCE&G customers (you and me) millions of dollars every month to recoup the $9 billion dollars spent on a nuclear boondoggle north of Columbia that was cancelled in July. Westinghouse and other contractors used unlicensed workers to design parts parts of the two NUCLEAR REACTORS and never had the plans vetted and approved by professional engineers. All large construction projects require engineers to oversee and sign off on planning documents. Failure to do so contributed to thousands of design revisions, construction setbacks, schedule changes, delays and the ultimate failure of the reactors. Most of these engineering laws were put in place after a school natural gas explosion in Texas in 1937 that killed 295 children and teachers caused by a faulty connection. Hey, why sweat the details when there is money on the table?
So, I know what you’re saying. I thought this was a medical blog. It is, and you can go ahead and add medical care to the list above. I know the commercials say that it is all about the children and brightening lives, but medicine is a cold, profit motive driven business that is getting colder all the time. Whatever happened to Baron Nason and the Nason Medical Centers? Our hospital is like almost all others. Research, teaching and scholarly activities are nice, but they aren’t necessarily what determines your paycheck. Hospitals now use “work RVUs” (Relative Value Units) to determine your salary, incentives, disincentives and employment. “Work RVUs” are basically patients seen and procedures done. Concerns exist that quality of care and medical necessity, while expected and valued, are no longer essential elements of the formula. Even in medicine, we have our own version of “moving units” and medicine needs regulation as well to protect the public interest.
Maybe the three Big Lies need reconsideration. Admittedly, the government man isn’t always there to help you. I suspect the government is more likely to inconvenience and irritate rather than help. However, I think it’s unlikely that the government man is there to purposely deceive you, rip you off, cheat you, steal from you, bankrupt you, poison you, maim you, crash you, burn you or kill you. If you’re unsure, maybe consider a 2018 New Year’s resolution. Tape a piece of paper to the refrigerator with two columns; one for a listing of all the times a business goes out of its way to help you because, as you know, “the customer is always right”. The other column is for all the times that a business puts one over on you or your family. You might want to consider adding a dollar figure to each entry. A $5 CVS coupon might not balance out the loss of your pension or finding new employment.
At the end of the year you can decide which is the bigger lie. Is it government or business that is most likely to protect your health, safety, security or pocketbook.
Just found out that I won Springsteen on Broadway tickets from Ticket Master. We’re thrilled, of course, but I am torn over where to put this event on my refrigerator list. On one hand, the prices are ridiculous and are clearly taking advantage of our slavish devotion to the Boss. On the other hand, the lottery system insisted on by Springsteen is designed to get tickets directly to fans and minimize the flow of tickets to the even more stupefying ridiculousness of the secondary ticket markets. I think I’ll call this one a draw and try to remember the pre-Born in the USA Springsteen that refused to play in big arenas, and allowed me to see him in our college pub, the Seton Hall basketball gym, Guillard Auditorium and Township Auditorium in Columbia. There are a lot of appropriate Springsteen songs for this topic, but the one that jumps to mind is Seeds. Seeds is a new riff on the Grapes of Wrath and is the story of a hopeful family that follows the promise of the oil boom to Texas and comes up empty. It’s bitter, precise and brutal with the music to match. Nils Lofgren and the Big Man Clarence are amazing on the guitar and sax.
Dr. Roger Newman is a tenured Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Medical University of South Carolina. However, his opinions in no way reflect the opinions of his employer.