Alleged mass murderer U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales once said that he and his fellow soldiers demonstrated "the real difference between being an American as opposed to being a bad guy." Of course, no American would dispute the claim that American service men and women are among the good guys, but when something tragic like this happens, the lines get blurred.
That's also true in other parts of American life. Sometimes we take for granted that, except for the occasional criminal among us, or one who snaps, Americans by definition are by and large good. But can we count on American business, big and small, to be among the good guys? And if we can't, how can America still be considered good, when business is part and parcel of the fabric of our nation?
I ask this question in the context of new details about IBM's role collaborating with the Nazis during the Holocaust and Goldman Sachs' vice president Greg Smith's damning op-ed about his company's compromised culture.
Connecting the mass murderer, the multi-national computer giant and the mega investment bank might seem absurd, but if we define "good guys" as those who do good, it's not such a stretch.
Let's start with IBM. Edwin Black, author of IBM and the Holocaust, The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation, has uncovered State and Justice Department documents and internal IBM memos that show that "from the first moments of the Hitler regime in 1933, IBM used its global monopoly on information technology to organize, systematize, and accelerate Hitler's anti-Jewish program, step-by-step. The punch cards, machinery, training, servicing, and special census work was managed directly by IBM headquarters in New York and later through its subsidiaries in Germany, Poland, Holland, France, Switzerland, and other European countries."
In a recently published article, Black continues:
Particularly powerful are the newly-released copies of the IBM concentration camp codes. IBM maintained a customer site, known as the Hollerith Department, in virtually every concentration camp to sort or process punch cards and track prisoners. The codes show IBM's numerical designation for various camps. Auschwitz was 001, Buchenwald was 002; Dachau was 003, and so on. Various prisoner types were reduced to IBM numbers, with 3 signifying homosexual, 9 for anti-social, and 12 for Gypsy. The IBM number 8 designated a Jew. Inmate death was also reduced to an IBM digit: 3 represented death by natural causes, 4 by execution, 5 by suicide, and code 6 designated "special treatment" in gas chambers. IBM engineers had to create Hollerith codes to differentiate between a Jew who had been worked to death and one who had been gassed, then print the cards, configure the machines, train the staff, and continuously maintain the fragile systems every two weeks on site in the concentration camps.
Led by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the U.S. government, aside from circulating memos on the subject, did nothing to stop IBM's complicit relationship with the Nazis. Why? We'll never really know. With IBM, the motive was more clear -- Hilter's regime was a customer, and IBM was driven not by Doing the Right Thing but by profit. Profit, even though it was mixed with moral depravity, still counted as profit.
Now to Goldman Sachs. Smith's March 14 article states that he is leaving the company after 10 years because, "...the interests of the client continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money."
The firm has veered so far from the place I joined right out of college that I can no longer say that I identify with what it stands for...How did we get here? The firm changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted to a position of influence.
He goes on to cite examples of how the firm put its own interests above its clients. It has been otherwise well-documented that Goldman Sachs bet against its own clients during the mortgage meltdown. Again, it was money over morals.
I'm sure that IBM and Goldman Sachs have done many good things. Both give back to community in big and important ways. But, whether during WWII or in today's world, is that enough? A wise mentor once told me that giving money is easy; doing the right thing is hard. Both Enron and Madoff gave boatloads of money to charities. Does that make them good guys? I would say to American business that is not enough.
Leadership, Doing the Right Thing, Kindness, and Fairness are values that mean something to most Americans. Both in the precise language and between the lines of our founding documents, it's obvious that our Founding Fathers knew that. Wealth and power, money and profit don't inherently contradict these values. The Founders were both wealthy and powerful. But they were defined by other things.
Those other things are the values that separate "good guy" Americans from "bad guy" Americans. They have to do with what we stand for and the actions that follow. Are we guided by a utilitarian, profit-first philosophy that taints an otherwise honest effort? Or do we live daily by values that lead us to stand for goodness in all our decisions and activities?
Many American companies operate ethically, uphold good values, honor their employees and customers, are great citizens, do the right thing and still make money. In fact, recent research has shown that companies that place purpose before profits have higher employee morale and greater profits as a result.
But do those that systematically pursue profit over Doing the Right Thing really differ that much in a moral sense from any other criminal? Although they may not have violated the letter of the law, they massacre the moral infrastructure of our nation and, through their reach and influence -- the mantle of leadership -- they foster this behavior in others by example. Will America continue to be a "good guy" nation in our own eyes and the eyes of the world? Or will some businesses lead us into a downward spiral and will average Americans allow ourselves to be swept up in it? The answer rests with each of us and the influence that we each exert on the kind of culture that we will tolerate and expect from American business.