Crime and Punishment and Crime

Opinions - May 21st, 2004
Robert J. Collins

by Bob Collins

Those of us around here four years ago were enter­tained by the comic opera involving workers at a nuclear power plant. Their method of disposing radioactive coolant involved a novel short­cut. The stuff was leaking and, instead of routing the fluid in the prescribed fashion through coils and sealed tanks, the workers picked up buckets and began bailing out the stuff by hand.

Laugh? Oh boy. Couldn’t get enough of it. Here these guys were in their little plastic booties ignoring safety procedures that had never been practiced anyway. Drop a bucket in the wrong place, and a nuclear reaction might bore through the center of our planet and pop out by sur­prise in downtown Rio. It could have killed everybody everywhere. What cut-ups those guys were.

Managers of the company running the power plant, which was a subsidiary of a subsidiary, etc., were forced to face the music. They apologized. In pub­lic. Heads on the table. Flashbulbs flaring.

They were, they said, sorry for causing inconvenience. (Whew, it was a relief to hear that.) It won’t happen again, we were told. However, if it does happen again, those same people will be involved. Forget jail time, I don’t think anybody at that facil­ity even lost his job. It is enough punishment, I guess, knowing they caused us inconvenience.

At about the same time offi­cials at a large dairy were caught using out-of-date milk products, usually in powdered form, as fillers for butter and reconstitut­ed milk for school lunches. Nobody died, but we were inconvenienced. The officials apologized profusely, in public, heads on the table, flashbulbs.

The punishment involved closing the company, then re­opening with a slightly different name — all the officials are now involved in the new company.

Currently we can eat our yakitori and reflect upon chicken flu. I am particularly taken by the farmer who went around for three weeks picking up dead chickens from the floor of his coop and selling them to a wholesaler. When caught, he allowed as how it was odd about his birds, but he thought they were “just tired.”

Apologies. Inconvenience. The farmer is still in the chicken business.

Now of course we are going through the mad cow problem, attempting to avoid a major dis­aster. Japan has banned U.S. beef, which is fair enough, although there are indications the one mad cow in the States was an anomaly.

The scandal here, however, involves the good people in the meat packers trade who turned in tons of cheap beef disguised as U.S. meat so as to collect the gov­ernment’s reimbursement for lost sales because of the ban.

Real bastards, but they apol­ogized profusely and all is well.

All this (finally) brings us to the point of the column. Why are people in business apparently held to a different standard than those in politics? Nothing in life is absolute, just as none of my examples above are absolute, but I’m thinking in terms of trends.

Granted, several executives of Mitsubishi Truck have been arrested for continuing to make and sell vehicles with wheels that fall off — being arrested is worse than being forced to apologize with your head on the table — and several politicians have spent jail time because of flagrant kick­backs. It does seem, however, that often the crime does not fit the punishment.

Generally speaking, the “pun­ishment” politicians undergo for their lapses is much worse than what businessmen undergo for their flat-out criminal behavior.

There have been more than a dozen Prime Minister changes during the last 25 years, and some of the reasons for that are trivial.

(I know, I know, to trust govern­ment means the politicians must be above we mortal sinners.) I don’t need to list all the things the politicos do wrong, but the current fuss is typical.

People are now bowing to pressure to resign over failure to make contributions to the pension fund. OK, we’re all required to make contributions (and the politicians tell us so). But c’mon. Great parts of the world at war, economic recovery possible but still delicate, and the same sub­sidiary of a subsidiary is running that nuclear power plant.

Slacken up, everybody, and remember who commits the real crimes.