Why the new law won’t work

There are two kids in the back seat, and little Ashley whines, “Mom, he’s touching me.” So Mom says, “Sam, stop touching your sister.” And in less than thirty seconds, there is Sam, expertly holding his finger an inch from Ashley’s face, whispering “I’m not touching you!”

Anyone who could doubt this scenario has not had two kids in the back seat. We are talking about a child who can, in thirty seconds, find a way to comply with the new legislation while still carrying on with his unethical behavior. How then can we imagine that a corporation of grown men with a lot of money at stake could fail to find a way to “comply” with a law that seeks to curb unethical behavior?

This illustration is simplistic. Legislation often does have an effect, in part because there are lawyers trained to think like six-year-olds drawing it up, in part because there are snitches, but, I think, mostly because the majority of the people who heard of the law were decent enough to try to obey it. To begin with, anyway.

Progressive legislators justify their programs by pointing to the people who say, “We’d love to be more environmentally friendly, but it would economically ruin our business because our competitors would be cheaper by continuing their ruinous practices.” This can indeed be the case, and I think it is probably the underlying factor in most successful legislation. Most of the entities affected were willing to go along, as long as they weren’t the first.

But behind this willingness lies a public sentiment that effects either the public relations of the corporation or the ethos of its constituent members. Highly-publicized facts that the consumer understands enjoy decent success, because few people want to be seen as dirty or wasteful. MPG for a car is a consumer-recognized eco-factoid. What about the toxic chemical byproducts of manufacturing a cell phone? I don’t know… and neither do most people.

Where new legislation affects something that most people don’t usually encounter or don’t understand, its effectiveness is in terrible jeopardy. If it is relatively easy to enforce, such as inspecting a new factory when it is first built, it may succeed; but if it requires regular, detailed investigation, it amounts to shouting something after a kid who is in the process of running out the front door. Kids leaving buildings move faster than sound.

Another nice comparison is to the spoiled or heedless children we all know of. Their parents may have used harsh penalties and may have promulgated strict rules; but we know that if the rules and penalties were strong enough and consistent enough to begin with, circumstances would be different. As it is, the child has learned how to play the parents’ tolerances and weather the bouts of punishment so that the child controls the parents as much as the other way around.

It is much the same way with the spoiled corporate executives and greedy corporations in general. No amount of legislation will ever reduce the gap between the rich and the poor; how do you think the rich got rich in the first place? They found out how to play Mom off against Dad, which favors (or exemptions) each would grant, what sort of gift, service or speech was needed to conciliate each. I suspect there is a direct correlation between the number of kids who said “Gee, I have too much Halloween candy, I’ll give some away,” and the corporate executives who said, “Gee, I have too much money, I’ll reduce my salary.”

All reform legislation ultimately costs money. A lot of reform legislation deals directly with payroll and benefits and taxes. However it comes, it costs the company money. If you liken expense to a jug of water and the economy to an ice-cube tray, you see that it is divided up into sectors; but if you pour too much water into one, it’ll leak onto the others. If you pour way too much water in the whole tray it overflows and spills… there’s no need to tell you which way it trickles. Meanwhile, everyone is trying to make their section of the ice-cube tray as shallow as possible, to avoid bearing any more expense than necessary.

And there’s the rub. We can all agree the corporations are behaving horrendously and CEO’s are paid too much. Now, which one of you is being paid too much? Raise your hand.

It comes off like the joke about the man who got pulled over and said, “No, Officer, I wasn’t speeding, but I passed a couple of guys who were.” Whatever your situation, I guarantee that someone else with just as many expenses is making do with less money, and is no more miserable than is common to man. Yes, even with the cost-of-living adjustment. The odds get longer the lower you go on the income scale, I’ll admit, but you don’t need all the money you’re making; it is possible to live without it. So who goes first? Who is going to approach their boss and say, “I want a pay decrease. I don’t deserve all the money I’m making.”

There are some bitter opponents of the rich CEO’s out there who would love to pass laws to cut them down to size. Here’s my advice: start a grassroots campaign of personal salary reduction. Get all your offended and abused common people to refuse 1% of their salary, or return it to the company–not to some charity or good cause, but right back to the person who gave it to them in the first place, disclaiming all right to the money. Granted at first all the greedy barons will just rub their hands with glee, but when the movement really gets under way, the peer pressure will be insurmountable. Pretty soon the CEO’s will be refusing a percentage of their paychecks just for the public relations advantage.

If the movement ever gets underway. It won’t, will it?

It’s been said that you shouldn’t legislate morality, that people should have freedom of conscience. It’s also true that you can’t legislate morality, that people will find some miscreant way around any law. And it’s also true that all legislation is implicit morality; you can’t outlaw murder without saying that murder is bad, or at least that anarchy is bad. What shall we say then? Legislation is useless to a lawless people.

Laws can be so confusing. Let me paraphrase this new one for you, so you can understand it: “Samuel Robert Johnson! Listen to me! I’m WARNING you! I said stop that, and I mean it!”