Capitalism must find a moral compass

THIS has not been a good week for tooth-and-claw capitalism. The excesses of the process and its utter indifference to the common good have been highlighted in startling ways that demand a meaningful international response.

The callousness of Martin Shkreli, the New York drug firm executive who increased the price of Daraprim from €12 to €670 a pill — more than 5,000% — showed a chilling indifference to the consequences of his actions. Though he is reviewing the decision Mr Shkreli seems to personify the moral vacuum so often exemplified by captains of industry.

He is not by any means alone. Just yesterday the Volkswagen board met to consider the repercussions of their appalling behaviour — rigging diesel engines to cheat tests for noxious emissions. The scandal has knocked something approaching €30bn off Germany’s showcase company’s value in its showcase industry. One-in-six Germans is employed in car manufacturing-related industries and economists have warned that the scandal represents a greater threat to Germany’s economy than the Greek crisis.

VW chief Martin Winterkorn — his €16m a year made him Germany’s best paid executive — has left the company and many of his colleagues are expected to follow him. The scale and criminal audacity of VW’s behaviour is spectacular as was their contempt for efforts to cut planet-changing pollution generated by cars. Simply put they thought generating profits were more important than our 11th-hour efforts to curb climate change.

Winterkorn realised his ambition to sell more cars than Toyota before he was forced to quit on Wednesday. VW directly employs nearly 600,000 people and sold just under 13% of the world’s passenger cars in 2014 but this scandal will dramatically affect that pre-eminence. What impact that will have on Germany’s economy is an open question but Europe cannot afford a weakened Germany.

Though the greed-is-best culture at VW has been exposed Ireland’s latest financial scandal — or allegations of a financial scandal if you prefer — have got the usual but unacceptable nothing-to-see-here response from Enda Kenny’s Government. Apart from raising suspicions that may be entirely unjustified, the Taoiseach and his colleagues’ refusal to act on calls for an investigation into the allegations of spectacular wrongdoing in the affairs of Nama in the North raises a fundamental question — if a Government won’t investigate scandal like this what good is it? What is it for?

Speaking to the US Congress this week, Pope Francis made a powerful plea to US legislators to tackle climate change. Though we are all to blame for climate change the process is driven by capitalism often controlled by nothing more intrusive than light-touch regulation. Each of these episodes played out against the backdrop of ongoing efforts, or discussions at least, to try to get transnational companies to pay something that might be regarded as a fair tax rate.

Capitalism has lifted tens of millions of people out of poverty and it is the lubricant of most modern societies but unless it finds a moral compass it threatens its own survival.


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