Pure Evil, VW Edition

I don’t suppose we’ll never know how many people died – asthmatics, for example – because Volkswagen designed its “clean diesel” vehicles – all 482,000 of them sold in the U.S. since 2009 – to burn dirty except when they were being tested. The story reads like the most paranoid anti-corporate fantasy, until you get to the line where the firm admits what it did, and then discover that Honda and Ford got caught years ago doing the same thing in a less sophisticated way. There’s even a  term of art for such tricks: they’re called “defeat devices” because they’re designed to defeat emissions testing.

In the VW case, code was written into the engine-control software to detect the pattern of pedal and steering operations characteristic of an emissions test. Then, and only then, the car’s emissions-control machinery would kick in. Once the test was over, the software noticed that, too, and returned to normal – that is to say, illegally and dangerously dirty – operations. That meant emitting about 40x the permitted -and advertised – level of nitrous oxide, which makes smog.

Now just think about the depth of corporate depravity involved. This wasn’t one rogue engineer or engineering group at work. People up and down the chain had to be party to the crime.  And note that the conspiracy held together for six years, and was finally broken not by an internal leak but by the work of outside scientists at West Virginia University. Wasn’t there a single decent human being around when this was being planned and carried out?

Some quick comments:

1. The news stories discuss fines that might be levied against VW.  When people conspire to commit a crime that harms the health of untold numbers of people,  criminal charges are appropriate. And not only against the company, but against every official in it who can be shown to have known about the conspiracy.

2. At minimum, the civil penalties and civil-lawsuit damages should be sufficient to put VW out of business. That might make managers, and boards of directors, in other firms a little bit less casual about lawbreaking.

3. Keep this case in mind when evaluating the claim oft heard from Koch-funded “criminal justice reform” advocates that it’s wrong to “criminalize” regulatory violations. Of course no one should go to jail for paperwork errors. But deceiving the regulators is a fraud on the government, even when it isn’t – as it is in this case – a physical assault on the public.

4. Can we hear some more from the Republican Presidential candidates how business is Good and government is Evil? And is there any hope that a reporter will ask them whether they think the perpetrators of this appalling crime should face prison time for it? (Again, note that VW isn’t denying what was done, and can’t possibly deny that it was done deliberately.)

Footnote  I’ve quoted C.S. Lewis on this before, but his words bear repeating:

The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.

The most horrible thing about this case is that very few if any of the people involved will have lost any sleep over their guilt in making sick people sicker (and killing some of them) and none will lose face among their friends and neighbors. Even if some are found guilty of felonies, life won’t be nearly as bad for them as it is for someone who gets caught committing burglary. And yet no burglar’s contribution to human suffering can hold a candle to what the VW conspirators managed to inflict.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.