How Unregulated Corporate Greed has Ruined American Lives

[As a politically-liberal Christian who believes in using our democracy to fight greed, I receive considerable push-back from conservatives who seem to think that it’s not any of my business whether or not the rich are greedy, that I shouldn’t be using my political forum to judge others. What these critics fail to realize is that my battle against greed has nothing to do with judging the greedy; it has everything to do with protecting we-the-people from the life-crushing effects of corporate greed. Greed has consequences, and they ruin people’s lives. It’s that reality that inspired me to write the following portion of my book, Rescuing Religion from Republican Reason:]

In 1996, I moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. For my daily exercise, I walked the downtown streets or rode my bicycle on the towpath canal trail located just across the Lehigh River from the dormant remains of Bethlehem Steel. I was initially puzzled by the massive, hideous sycamore trees lining the downtown streets. Why would someone plant the ugliest tree on earth all over town? Eventually, I learned the answer. At the time of planting, around 1900, no other trees were hardy enough to grow amidst the pollution from local factories. Meanwhile, in nearby Palmerton, the Appalachian Trail traversed a bare Blue Mountain, devoid of all vegetation due to contamination from decades of local zinc plant operations. I couldn’t help but wonder, “If industrial pollution killed all the plants, what effect did it have on the Lehigh Valley’s human inhabitants?” And I couldn’t help but be grateful for living in an age in which our health and the environment were protected, at least to some extent, by our democratic government.

The devastating effects of pollution were not all there was to learn about in Bethlehem. At Sand Island, where I picked up the bicycle trail, an educational display told the story of local mule drivers, who, during the late 1800s and early 1900s, led mules, pulling boats, up and down the towpath canal trail. On the display was a quote from former mule-driver, Joseph A. Lum. It read, “You were never bothered with insomnia. You rose about 3:30am and you wouldn’t retire until 11pm.” The mule driver workday began at 4am and didn’t end until 10pm. They worked 18 hours a day, 6 days a week, on their feet the whole time. As I studied more about the Gilded Age in years since, I learned that the mule drivers were not alone. The 100 hour work week was the norm for a large percentage of workers nationwide, from mule drivers on the Lehigh River, to bakers in New York, to street car drivers in New Orleans, to train porters in Chicago, to law enforcement employees in Boston. Even if laissez-faire corporate capitalism made products cheaper for the working class to purchase, what good are products to a person too busy and too exhausted to enjoy them?

Steel mill workers and coal miners, whose jobs were more physically-demanding, got away with 12 hour days, but the dangers of these jobs more than made up for the lesser hours. In the 1890s, approximately 3,000 steel mill workers died on the job in Pittsburgh area steel mills alone, plus 20,000 injured. Railroad workers also died on the job by the thousands each year. In 1889 alone, there were about 8500 deaths. Again, products may have been cheaper, but was it worth wives and children having to worry about their husbands and fathers coming home alive? In those days, neither businesses nor the government assumed any responsibility for the deaths, injuries, exhaustion, and overall poor health of workers. The government looked the other way, while industry produced the wealthiest men in all of human history at the expense of humanity.

The government did, however, come to the aid of business leaders when fed-up workers went on strike. In laissez-faire capitalism, the government’s only role is to protect property, and that it did. For example, during the 1890s depression, railroad car magnate, George Pullman, cut his employees’ wages but not the rents they paid him in his company town. This type of situation was common in the depressions of the 1870s and 1890s, thanks to the U.S. being on a gold standard at the time. The government could not expand the money supply, so deflation slashed the workers’ wages. Debts and rents, however, remained unchanged, choking off workers’ ability to pay their bills. The eventual result of the Pullman Strike was a quarter million railroad workers on strike nationwide. Thirteen people were killed and 53 seriously wounded in battles between strikers and government troops, as the government protected the property of the wealthy, but not the well-being of those unable to afford property.

Unlike today, Gilded Age factory owners regularly called in the state militia to force an end to strikes. In fact, Tom Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad once said that strikers should try “a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread.” Anytime the workers stood up for their families’ well-being by striking, the government sent in the militia to do the will of the wealthy. They protected the interests of the property owners, but did nothing to protect or promote the well-being of the working class majority. The workers saw this as the government favoring the wealthy over the workers, and they hated the government for it. It’s ironic that anti-government types in those days hated the government for failing to protect the working class from the wealthy. Yet, today’s anti-government types hate the government for helping or protecting the working class, and they claim that limiting government’s role to the protection of property (and the wealthy folks who own it) is liberty.

Out of the working class’ disdain for the government’s support of the rich arose the anarchist movement. To anarchists, laissez-faire corporate capitalism had not only failed to protect Americans from the industrial age’s disproportionate concentrations of wealth and power, but it had driven humanity to the depths of oppression. The agrarian, small town society Thomas Jefferson had envisioned was dead. The working class majority had been denied their liberty to live, leaving them little to live for. Anarchists wanted revolution. The great American democratic experiment was in danger of termination.

President Theodore Roosevelt once said that recognizing unions and negotiating with them was “really in the interest of property, for it will save it from the danger of revolution.” Roosevelt was keenly aware of this danger. His predecessor, William McKinley, had been assassinated by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. While this act of terror may be the best known of the anarchist movement, the 1910s proved to be the most active period. A group of anarchists known as Galleanists sent about thirty dynamite bombs through the mail in 1919 alone. The movement’s deadliest act was the Wall Street bombing on September 6th, 1920 in which 38 people were killed. In Europe, anarchy’s fury against laissez-faire corporate capitalism was even more widespread. And of course, in Russia, the anti-capitalist movement was so strong that it overthrew the whole government in the communist revolution of 1917.

The insatiable greed of laissez-faire corporate capitalism’s wealthy business owners killed, injured, and exhausted workers, stole childhood from children, and poisoned God’s creation. That’s why nearly every capitalist society either abandoned pure laissez-faire capitalism or modified it as the United States did. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, along with additional legislation since then, reversed the course of these evils, enabling us to grow up in a country fit for humanity.

Personally, I’ve had Republican Christians argue that today’s business owners are more enlightened and would not resume the oppressions of the past if our democracy did the right thing and disposed of protective regulations. This claim is unfounded. A much higher percentage of Americans were devout Christians 100 years ago than are today. If there were to be any difference, it might be that future workers in a Republican paradise would work 16 hour days seven days a week instead of six days a week, since the Sabbath has been legally abolished in the name of greater profits. Also, despite existing regulations, many of today’s corporate executives have demonstrated a lust for ever increasing wealth at the expense of others. I know this from experience. I’ve worked in corporate sales for 19 years.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked for a couple of good companies over the years that have generally done right by their customers. Naturally, it was with these companies that I had the most sales success, being an honest person. But what I’ve experienced with most of my employers and their competitors, however, has been lies, deception, more lies, and more deception. In most corporate sales departments, liars win. When I sold yellow page advertising, sales management assured us that all 3000 directory headings generated significant business for advertisers, which wasn’t even close to being true. And they pressured us to oversell customers rather than work with them to create the most cost-effective programs for their businesses. My biggest argument with a manger was over my refusal to lie to customers about the directory print deadline, which was months away, so we could hit a monthly number.

When I sold lawn treatments, I was told by a manager to tell people that their lawns would look like the one on the brochure within three months. If their lawn was 80% weeds, however, it would look like a bunch of dead weeds within three months, since fertilizer and weed killer are incapable of turning weeds into grass. I was trained to make similar claims regarding fall aeration-seedings which, on lawns with little or no grass, resemble bad hair plugs more than they do lush lawns. (In defense of my employer, the company did full seedings for no extra charge for customers who had been duped by sales reps.) When potential customers pleaded poverty, it was our job to convince them that they could afford what we were selling. This is required of sales reps in every industry. Such an approach proved most damaging, however, in the mortgage industry during the housing bubble, when sales reps persuaded low income borrowers to borrow more than they could afford, and their defaults crashed the market.

When I sold insurance in Tennessee after college, I witnessed veteran agents pitching seniors investments for their grand-kids that were nothing more than small burial policies with high premiums. They used high-pressure tactics on little old ladies, even covering most of the signature page with another piece of paper, so the elderly victims couldn’t see what they were signing. One of these reps told me that if I wasn’t willing to lie, I wouldn’t succeed in the business. As a Christian, I stuck with honesty, and I failed. And this was at a time in which I was already in poverty.

I once had a new employer berate me on my third day of training for not telling the lies they told me to tell. These included giving a fake name and fake company name and making up stories to get past the gatekeeper to get to the targeted executive. In this office, sales reps boasted of their most creative “stories” and celebrated each other’s lies (this happens to some extent in most sales departments). The next day, I told management I’d sell their product, but I wouldn’t lie. I was told by a top executive at day’s end that I couldn’t work there if I wasn’t going to say what they told me to say.

When working in an inbound call center for a massive telecom provider, selling phone, cable, and internet services to businesses, we sales reps were required to tell customers that the promotional price was only good for today. The truth was that my employer guaranteed promotional offers to customers for at least 30 days after the initial offer was made. Nonetheless, one of the supervisors even required his reps to tell potential customers the lie that their shift was ending, or that they had to go home due to an emergency, so the customer had to sign “right now” to get the promotion. The point of these lies was to keep customers from shopping around for better deals. Sales management at this company also smiled upon reps who told customers asking for our slowest internet speed (which they saw listed on the company’s website) that the speed would be “sunsetted” the next month, so they had no choice but to select a faster, more expensive speed than they wanted. The truth was that the company had no plans whatsoever to eliminate their slowest speed. I refused to tell these lies, so management assigned me an inbound call schedule in which I had more evening calling hours than any of the 140 reps in the call center, even those who were at the very bottom of the sales stats. Most businesses called in during daytime business hours, so taking the fewest daytime calls and the most nighttime calls assured that I would fail to hit my sales numbers and be forced out of my job, which is what happened.

The position in which I encountered the most deception was selling small businesses their credit card processing equipment and negotiating the rates they pay to accept cards. Thanks to numerous charges for different types of credit cards, processors and reps find it easy to create deceptive rate proposals. Making this even easier is that different processors have different names for various charges, so merchants have trouble knowing which charge applies to which situation. To learn the definition of a particular charge, they must rely on what the sales rep tells them, which is often a lie. Once the merchant sees he’s been charged more than promised (which often takes a while, since most have to go online and enter passwords to access their statements), they can take no corrective action, because they’re locked into 3 year contracts and 4 year terminal lease agreements (many sales reps fail to inform them that they’re locked in at all). Conservatives argue that it’s the responsibility of merchants to read the terms and conditions before signing, but processors often have agreements over 100,000 words in length (that’s longer than this book) to prevent busy merchants from doing so. Most of the contents are benign, but hidden deep inside is the occasional statement that’s the equivalent of the merchant writing a blank check. I once expressed my frustration over competitors’ deceptions to my manager. To this he replied, “You’re just going to have to come up with some deceptions of your own.”

Of course, the motive behind all of these lies is that the corporations have revenue goals to achieve. Doing so must be done at any cost. If you can’t get it done, the company will find someone who will. Therefore, sales reps and managers must do whatever it takes to hit the numbers, or they can hit the road. And, of course, once a revenue goal is achieved, the next year’s goal is always higher. Too much is never enough.

The Bible promotes a different view, as we see in Proverbs 21:6: “The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor, the pursuit of death,” or Amos 8:4-6: “Hear this, you who trample the needy, to do away with the humble of the land, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over, so that we may buy grain, and the Sabbath, that we may open the wheat market, to make the bushel smaller and the shekel bigger, and to cheat with dishonest scales, so as to buy the helpless for money and the needy for a pair of sandals, and that we may sell the refuse of the wheat?’” The Bible contains over 30 passages denouncing lying and deception. In none of them does God condemn the deceived; He always condemns the deceivers.

Greed is an insidious, life-crushing, demonic force. We must be forever vigilant against it, never letting our guard down. Laissez-faire corporate capitalism guards against none of greed’s evils. In fact, it encourages them. Therefore, laissez-faire corporate capitalism without safeguards and modifications is simply demonic. It can never be a morality.

Both laissez-faire capitalism and socialism suffer from the same fatal flaw: neither system provides oversight of the money makers. In pure laissez-faire capitalism, the government looks the other way and lets the money-makers have their way at the expense of the innocent. In socialism, the government is the money-maker and chooses profitability over the well-being of workers and consumers. Both systems are equally oppressive. Only a capitalist system in which the people protect themselves from greed through their democratic government minimizes oppression.