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Conservatives are so wrong about corporations

By Sally Kohn
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • General Motors may have known about problems with Chevrolet Cobalt back in 2005
  • Sally Kohn: GM recall and recent Toyota settlement shows companies cannot be trusted
  • She says conservatives say private sector is efficient, but it's also about fraud and deaths
  • Kohn: Despite occasional shortcomings, government exists to advance public good

Editor's note: Sally Kohn is a progressive activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter @sallykohn.

(CNN) -- According to court documents that surfaced this week, General Motors' engineers knew about ignition-switch problems in the Chevrolet Cobalt as early as 2009. The company may have been aware of the dangers as early as 2005 soon after the first Cobalts rolled off the assembly line in 2004. Since 2009, at least a dozen deaths have resulted from the flaw in which, upon impact, the ignition switch slips out of the "on" position and thus prevented airbags from deploying. Last month, GM announced the recall of 1.6 million Cobalts.

In a June 2013 deposition, Gary Altman, program engineering manager for the 2005 Cobalt, was asked whether GM made a business decision not to address the problem. "That is what happened, yes," said Altman.

This news comes just a week after Toyota Motor Corporation announced it would pay $1.2 billion to settle pending criminal charges from the Department of Justice alleging Toyota covered up evidence of safety defects in its vehicles.

Sally Kohn
Sally Kohn

"The private sector is more efficient," says Sen. Rand Paul and his fellow conservatives. Really? Efficient at what, exactly — fraud, deception and disaster?

Many of the public policy disagreements between conservatives and progressives are at essence a debate over whether government or the private sector is best equipped to provide vital services. Conservatives argue that government can be bloated and inefficient, which is certainly true sometimes, but attributing those characteristics to all government is like accusing every small businessperson of being Bernie Madoff.

At its heart, whatever the occasional shortcomings, government exists solely for the purpose of advancing the public good. That's the mission. That's the entire design of the enterprise. Corruption, waste and falling short on delivery are inherently anathema to the core principles and existence of government.

On the other hand, the point of the private sector is to make money. That's a good thing. Private enterprise is a vital engine of economic growth and opportunity in America and worldwide. That said -- if your primary goal is to make money, then hiding inconvenient facts, deceiving customers, cutting corners or sweeping risks under the rug are endemic to your enterprise.

In an era of capitalism where businesses are increasingly massive and removed from the direct consequences of their business practices on employees, customers and communities, these profit-at-all-cost impulses are increasingly unbound.

That's how you end up with companies knowing that its products are killing or hurting people and yet still refusing to do something about it lest it hurt their bottom line. Today we're talking about the Chevy Cobalt, but before that it was securitized sub-prime mortgages and before that it was tobacco companies selling cigarettes to kids. The list goes on and on and on.

And this week, we have the Supreme Court hearing arguments in the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood cases that private businesses should be able to claim religion in order to evade tenets of the law. The litigants want to evade compliance with the Obamacare mandate that they provide health insurance that covers contraception.

But, as Justice Elena Kagan asked during oral arguments, what's to stop a company from using religion to object to vaccinations? Or blood transfusions? Or minimum wage laws or family medical leave or child labor laws? We've already ushered in unprecedented corporate rights through Citizens United and various doctrines of corporate personhood. Do we really need to go a step further and let corporations use religion as a loophole to rationalize their whims?

More importantly, in spite of example after example to the contrary, why do we trust corporations to tell us the truth and do the right thing when they are not only designed but incentivized to do the opposite? Why on earth would we trust oil companies to tell us that fracking poses no harm to our drinking water? Or that our old health insurance policies are good ones? Or that our education system would be better off in their hands?

It seems that almost every day there's yet another corporation covering up how it endangered people's safety and well-being for the sake of profit. This is why we need to strengthen checks and balances of government regulation and be wary of privatizing vital public services.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sally Kohn.

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