TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE
President Obama suggests that the federal government pay for 50,000 new lapel-size cameras for police officers as part of the response to the killing of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.
University of Virginia president Sullivan closes fraternities till the spring semester and suggests a coordinated police action against underage drinking on campus as a response to the prevalence of rapes on campus.
The New York Times reported on 11/3/14 that “Hyundai and Kia would pay a combined $300 million penalty for overstating vehicle fuel economy standards on 1.2 million vehicles, a violation of the Clean Air Act.”
General Motors’ recalls in the past two years have been in response to several deaths because of faulty parts.
Bank of America, among other financial institutions, has been fined billions of dollars in 2014 for mortgage fraud which contributed to the Great Recession of 2008-2012 with millions of people losing their homes to foreclosure.
And the list goes on.
Seemingly unrelated on one level, because of the diverse issues they deal with—racism, misogyny, greed, and fraud, on another level all of these cases illustrate that what underlies questions of legal culpability are moral failures.
If all we do is act after the fact or simply fine this or that criminal activity, we’ll never be able to root out such behavior from our midst. To be clear: it won’t be easy to eliminate these moral hazards because we’ll have to dig deeper than we are used to.
The moral expectation of the marketplace was that crime doesn’t pay, that trust is built into the system, and that self-policing is the way to go. As the standard refrain from fifty years ago went: what’s good for GM is good for America.
That refrain wasn’t as arrogant as it sounds nowadays since it tied the good fortunes of corporate America with the country as a whole. It was in line with Henry Ford’s dictum about paying his employees high enough wages to be able to buy the cars they produced.
The “good old days” when business leaders felt responsible for the nation as a whole are gone. They show their contempt for the country and its laws by seeking tax havens in Ireland and Luxemburg (as the latest scandals remind us).
As self-policing becomes limited if not obsolete, we turn to local police forces and federal agencies, the ones our taxes pay for. Obama’s brilliant idea about cameras will be as fruitful as the one administered by our city leaders when they installed surveillance cameras downtown on Tejon street. Has behavior around the same night clubs radically changed?
Cameras record, they don’t prevent crimes. Camera footage can be used after the fact if and when courts agree to such use. But they offer a band aid for open wounds that require drastic treatment, perhaps even surgery.
What we saw in Ferguson and Staten Island reflect racial and socio-economic issues as well the militarization of police departments. When citizens are viewed as “enemies” rather than members of one’s community, cameras worn by officers will not change anything—cameras will be off (deliberately or accidently) in crucial moments.
I still recall like yesterday when I was stopped twenty years ago by a police officer who demanded to know where my accent was from. Relevance? When I was stopped three years ago by a very young deputy-sheriff, his contempt and condescension flowed so naturally as if I were a criminal. Do I look like one, given my age? I’m not trying to compare my experiences with those of young African-Americans, only to indicate the prevalence of officers’ cultural deftness.
Yes, people of color are more likely to be profiled, arrested, and found guilty than Caucasians; but much of that also depends on the attitude that police officers convey. Where is the humility that comes with the responsibility of maintaining the peace and serving one’s community?
Campus rape must be stopped by any possible means. Drinking may enhance a twisted mindset, but it doesn’t necessarily cause it. What causes misogynistic behavior has as much to do with telling young girls that they can’t be scientists as with wage disparity and domestic violence. The web is tangled, the remedies must be broad-based.
If drinking were lowered to 18, driving licenses raised to 18, adulthood could be defined simply. This would be consistent with military service, voting, and a variety of other legal restrictions and privileges. Would this help expecting students to be responsible adults.
As for the marketplace, fining banks and manufacturers after the fact becomes their “cost of doing business” rather than a lesson to eliminate greed. There is a fine line between competition and greed—it’s a moral line that shouldn’t be crossed!
Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com