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Commentary: Corporate Criminal Should Wear a Big

By Gary Earl Ross

Buffalo, NY – Naked and unashamed. Forbidden fruit. Fig leaves. Cultural notions of original sin have always been so overtly sexual that sex is the cornerstone of our morality. You can covet your neighbor's Maserati, steal it, and kill him on your way down the driveway without being called immoral envious and evil, maybe, never immoral. But just try having sex with somebody you're not married to or someone of the same gender, and you'll find society's moral center is in your underpants.

Maybe it's time we redefined original sin. How about trading our sexual insecurities for a fundamental human failing we can all agree is harmful, greed. In the Reagan years we missed an opportunity to shift the burden of morality from S&M to S&Ls. But we have so many examples of greed today that I expect a resurgence of the 80s motto, "Greed is good." Enron, Adelphia, WorldCom, Martha Stewart, major league baseball players, developers who sell the environment for a dollar, sweatshop sneaker profiteers, companies using mandatory overtime to avoid paying benefits for new workers, lawyers who encourage the obese to sue the fast food industry or delay settling a simple divorce until the billable hours are astronomical. Greed is everywhere.

Of course, original sin wouldn't be original sin without retribution that at least feels divine, like the discover of a chancre sore after a night of carousing. But how should greed be punished? Prison? If you steal $600 from one person, using a Smith & Wesson .38, you will go to a maximumsecurity facility with less daylight than Castle Dracula. If you steal $600 million from the pensions of thousands, using an Arthur Anderson CPA, you can go to a facility with tennis courts and conjugal visits if you go to prison at all. Should the corrupt CEO have all his property stripped away and sold at auction, like a common drug thug? Yes, but what of the greedy who have committed only a sin and not a crime? Should the $20 million athlete whose salary tantrum raised ticket prices be forced to clean the stadium bathroom while the janitor gets an at-bat? Should the billionaire sneaker tycoon be forced to work in his own Asian sweatshop, bare arms elbow deep in toxic glue? Perhaps, but for the greediest of the greedy, we need an enduring penalty that fits the offense.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's stiff-backed fundamentalists were on to something in The Scarlet Letter. Instead of a scarlet A, maybe the greedy should wear a large capital G around their necks, an emerald G on a fake gold chain to symbolize the money they worship and the common good they trampled to get it. Ken Lay and the Rigases and other crooks, corporate or common, whose faces haven't made the news should wear the G one day for each dollar they stole, borrowed, or misappropriated. I imagine it would be hard to get a date or a donation or a dollar for your autograph while announcing to the world, "I am one greedy SOB." But even if they are greedy and unashamed, when they walk among those of us who've lost college funds, livelihoods, or retirements, at least we will know who they are.

Gary Earl Ross is an associate professor at the UB Educational Opportunity Center and author of the short story collection The Wheel of Desire and the children's book Dots.