March 31, 2010

Walmart the Corporate Person, But Where’s the Empathy?

Jim Hightower ran this brief story today (picked up by Common Dreams), which brings up everything that is wrong with the recent Supreme Court decision giving “personhood” to corporations (see here and here). Rather than explain, I’ll just quote (Joseph Casias is a 29-year-old former employee of a Walmart store in Battle Creek, Mich.):

Casias was an excellent employee throughout his five-year tenure within the corporate person, even earning “Associate of the Year” honors in 2008.

“I always tried my best,” he says. “I gave them everything. One hundred ten percent every day. Anything they asked me to do, I did. More than they asked me to do. Twelve to 14 hours a day. I thought I was part of the Walmart family.”

Five months ago, however, he was coldly cast out of the family. What happened? It started with cancer – a rare form invaded his sinuses and brain. He’s getting treatment to control it, but he still suffers a severe level of chronic pain. Yet, Casias was able to keep doing his usual good job every day by using a controlled dose of marijuana that his doctor prescribed to alleviate pain – a prescription that is perfectly legal under Michigan’s medical marijuana law.

By carefully scheduling his daily dosage, Casias never came to work under the influence, and he never took the medicine on the job, so Walmart saw nothing but an employee performing well.

Until last November. In a routine drug screening by the company, Casias tested positive for pot. He showed his state medical marijuana permit to the corporate cogs, but instead of using common sense or showing a smidgeon of human compassion, the managers mindlessly clicked into Program 420g, Section 21-mj (or some such) of corporate-code – and summarily cashiered Casias.

Oh, come on, he’s no druggie – he has a painful cancer and is using legal medicine! If he were taking Oxycontin or other harsh drugs, you wouldn’t think of terminating your associate of the year.

But there is no “you” there.

Walmart is a machine, a fabrication, not a sentient, reasoning person. So the machine responded to public outrage over Casias’ firing by issuing an insensate legal statement: “In states, such as Michigan, where prescriptions for marijuana can be obtained, an employer can still enforce a policy that requires termination of employment following a positive drug screen. We believe our policy complies with the law, and we support decisions based on the policy.”

Cancer is enough of a burden on a person without corporate callousness adding to the pain, but Walmart just kept piling on this employee. He’s got no job, is facing $10,000 in unpaid medical bills and can no longer afford his cancer treatment, so what does the corporation do? It challenged Casias’ eligibility for unemployment compensation.

Not that Mr. Walmart hates the guy. It’s just the corporate way. For Casias, however, it’s a disaster. “It’s not fair,” he says.

Fair? To a corporation, “fair” is a place to take your pig to try to win a blue ribbon. Corporations are literally inhuman, possessing no sense of moral responsibility or human decency.

Corporations are not people, they are machines, and they seldom have anything resembling empathy built into the machinery. To understand why they challenged his right to unemployment, you have to understand that they are liable for a portion of his unemployment – unless he quit, or was fired for company violations (which is what they claim in his failing the drug test).

Under pressure from the public, they have dropped their opposition to his receiving unemployment. If you have some thoughts on this, you can share them with “Citizen Walmart” by calling (800) 963-8442.

But this article just leads me to my bigger point – empathy.

Jeremy Rifkin is the author of The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, published by Tarcher Penguin in January 2010. Rifkin believes that not only has the American been corrupted (as Joseph Casias no doubt can attest – where is right to pursue his self-interest in the marketplace?), but also that it was misguided to begin with (from Huffington Post):

The American Dream was spawned in the afterglow of the Enlightenment more than two centuries ago, at the dawn of the modern market economy and nation-state era. Enlightenment philosophers painted a new picture of human nature more in line with the new market forces that were promising a qualitative uplift in the standard of living of human beings. For 1500 years, during the feudal and medieval periods, the Church’s dark view of human nature prevailed. Christian theologians exclaimed that babies are born depraved and in sin, and that personal salvation must await them in the next world with Christ. The Enlightenment philosophers views were a breath of fresh air, promising that market forces, if left unhindered by government, would guarantee every person the opportunity to improve his or her station in life. John Locke, Adam Smith, René Descartes, Marquis de Condorcet and other Enlightenment sages were of the belief that human beings were, by nature, materialistic, self-interested, and driven by the biological urge to be propertied, autonomous, independent and self-sufficient, and sovereign over their own domain.

Tea parties, bank bailouts, housing collapse, global economic panic – clearly the dream is not working for the majority of the people both in America and worldwide. So what went wrong?

People change – that’s what went wrong. But the system has not kept pace. [To understand this in the big picture sense, the Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God – there is a huge parallelism between religion and economic in this country, as Rifkin points out in his book.]

We were highly traditional when our economic system was designed – since then we have become more rational, more egalitarian, and more interconnected. In essence, we have moved from ethnocentric to worldcentric. With that growth we stop caring only about my family, my tribe, and my people – now we care about all people. Rather than the rational self-interest the American Dream was founded on (and our corporations, as citizens, still operate with), we have evolved a global empathy.

BUT our businesses and corporations have not.

More from Rifkin:

Surveys show that the millennial generation in the United States is much more likely than older generations to feel empathy for others. They are far more concerned with the planetary environment and climate change and more likely to favor sustainable economic growth. They are also more likely to believe that government has a responsibility to take care of people who can’t care for themselves, and are more supportive of a bigger role of government in providing basic services. They are more supportive of globalization and immigration than older generations. They are also more racially diverse and the most tolerant of any generation in history in support of gender equality and the willingness to champion the rights of the disabled, gays, other minorities, as well as our fellow creatures. In short, they favor a world of inclusivity over exclusivity, and are more comfortable in distributed networks than in old fashioned centralized hierarchies that establish boundaries and restrictions separating people from one another.

The new sensibilities of the younger generation are beginning to usher in a different idea about human nature and the dream that accompanies it. Today’s youth find little value in the Enlightenment caricature of human nature as rational, calculating, detached, and utilitarian. They prefer to think of human nature as empathic, mindful, engaged, and driven by the intrinsic value and interconnectedness of life. Homo sapien is being eclipsed by homo empathicus, as they shift their horizon from national markets and nation-state borders to a global economy and a planetary community. Even their preferred indicators of economic progress are shifting, from the crude calculation of gross domestic product and per-capita income to more sensitive social indicators — like health and longevity, social equality, safe communities, clean environment, etc. — that measure the well-being of the broader community.

If we listen very closely, we can hear the whisper of a new dream in the making, one based on what youth around the world are beginning to call “quality of life”. In this new world, the American Dream seems almost provincial, even quaint, and entirely unsuited for a generation that is beginning to extend its empathic sensibility beyond national identities, to include the whole of humanity and the entirety of the planet as their extended community. If the American Dream served as the gold standard for the era of national markets and nation-state governments, the dream of “quality of life” becomes the standard for the emerging biosphere era.

In this new, more expansive human setting, libertarian cries and tea party bravado suddenly seem far less significant. The assumptions about human nature and the meaning of the human journey that are bound up with the conventional American Dream, which motivate much of the current political brouhaha, are more like a faint echo of the past than a clarion call for the future. The empathic civilization looms on the horizon.

If we are going to have an empathic civilization (and I hope we are – it’s the only thing that will save us), we need to include our “corporate citizens” in the civilization. They need to rethink the way they do business, and if they do not, we need to take our voice (= $$$) somewhere else.

Boycotts work. If we do not like the way Walmart treats its employees, we need to shop elsewhere.

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