A corporate culture and losing ‘a sense of shame’

A CORPORATE CULTURE AND LOSING ‘A SENSE OF SHAME’…. If you read one piece today, make it Dana Milbank’s Washington Post item on the push and pull between corporate demands and government safeguards. It’s an important column — and it doesn’t even include the usually-obligatory “both sides are bad” caveat.

What set Milbank off, for good reason, was Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship’s appearance at the National Press Club this week. Blankenship is well known as one of the nation’s most aggressive anti-union conservative voices, who rejects both the need for safety regulations and the science behind global warming. Blankenship’s national notoriety grew in April when an explosion at one of his mines killed 29 miners, a tragedy that helped expose Massey’s thousands of safety violations and reckless business practices.

This week, Blankenship told reporters that what the industry needs is not more oversight, but less. “We need to let businesses function as businesses,” he said, with the government “leaving it alone.” Legal safeguards, Blankenship added, are “impeding” businesses’ “ability to pursue their careers, or their happiness.” Milbank had seen enough.

Poor CEO Blankenship. That mean federal government is not allowing him to pursue his happiness, just because his employees are dead. It brings to mind the sad plight of the BP CEO, Tony Hayward, who visited the Gulf Coast that his company has wrecked and complained that “I’d like my life back.” Happily, Hayward got his wish and returned to yachting.

It’s easy to paint Blankenship as a villain, with his moustache, double chin and rough edges (he twice lamented the “abstract poverty” in the world). But his theme — and his complete absence of corporate responsibility — is very much the message corporate America has adopted in this mid-term campaign year: If you’ve got a problem, blame the government.

Consider the efforts this month by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, once a center of moderate Republicanism that worked with both parties but now a sort of radicalized corporate Tea Party, spending $75 million this fall mostly to defeat Democrats. The chairman of the group’s board — on which Blankenship served until recently — accused the Obama administration and congressional Democrats of a “general attack on our free enterprise system.” Specifically, the chamber accused the Democrats of “an ill-advised course of government expansion, major tax increases, massive deficits, and job-destroying regulations.”

Taxes? The nonpartisan Tax Foundation in May described Americans’ tax burden in 2009 as the lowest since 1959. Job-destroying regulations? The lack of regulation on Wall Street led to a financial collapse that killed millions of jobs. Massive deficits? One of the biggest causes of the gap is the $800 billion stimulus package supported by — wait for it — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And the chamber wants the government to spend even more: It demands that Congress “quickly pass a multiyear federal surface transportation bill.” That would costs hundreds of billions more. And let’s not forget the chamber’s desire to “get the money from the government” to help pay for the BP oil cleanup.

Milbank didn’t emphasize the partisan/electoral considerations here, but there’s no mystery — Republicans are proud to stand on the wrong side of the fight. Indeed, they brag about it. Blankenship wants the government not to bother unsafe coal mine operators, and the GOP agrees. BP was responsible for the worst oil spill in American history, and the GOP took its side. Wall Street’s irresponsibility nearly collapsed the global financial system, and when Democrats demanded new accountability, the GOP took their orders from industry lobbyists.

The column concludes that the “corporate culture” has “lost its sense of shame.” By any reasonable measure, this will get considerably worse if that shameless “corporate culture” is empowered by a new Republican majority next year that intends to give Blankenship and his ilk everything they could ask for.