The dark(er) side of Conrad Black

When one searches for the good news in the Conrad Black trial, it surfaces in knowing that the legal system works.

When one searches for the good news in the Conrad Black trial, it surfaces in knowing that the legal system works.

Those committing crimes are often found guilty by a jury of their peers and they often pay the price: jail time.

However there is a deeper and much darker side to Conrad Black that the legal system is not geared up to judge: corporate malfeasance and inordinate wealth.

Finding Black guilty of one count of obstruction of justice and three counts of mail fraud is a wakeup call for other corporate moguls to watch their step.

However, it will not do much to change an economic system that is criminal, unfair and unjust to its very core.

At the very least, the system of economics by which Black built his empire is callous to the needs of ordinary people.

Until a more commonwealth system of doing business takes root, Black’s foibles will continue to play out at the expense of the rest of us.

In 1973, E.F. Schumacher published a little-noticed treatise on the folly of our current system of economic democracy.

Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, caught my attention when it was first published simply because I was already of the mindset that people do in fact matter.

Schumacher, a Rhodes Scholar in economics and the top economist and head of planning at the British Coal Board for 20 years, touched simply on the inherent problems with ‘economics as usual’ and more simply, argued persuasively that economics will change to the degree in which people are willing to change their attitudes about what is of value and what is not.

If we are to move toward a more commonwealth — as one way to free us from more Conrad Blacks — Schumacher suggests that the goals of business organizations “are not simply to make profits and to maximize profits and to grow and to become powerful.”

They have four other tasks of equal importance: these are economic, technical, social and political.

Economic task: to secure orders which can be designed, made and serviced in such a manner as to make a profit.

Technical task: to enable marketing to secure profitable orders by keeping them supplied with up-to-date product design.

Social task: to provide members of the company with opportunities for satisfaction and development through their participation in the working community.

Political task: to encourage other men and women to change society by offering them an example by being economically healthy and socially responsible.

One has only to review the transcript of the Conrad Black trial to quickly conclude Black built his media empire with little or no regard to the social and political tasks outlined by Schumacher.

Black’s heavy-handed approach to workers, directors and managers grew from an air of greed and envy.

The objectives of all his dealings moved solely in one direction: building and maintaining an empire.

Schumacher reminds us that when it comes to economics we have few choices. But we do have choices.

We can choose between private ownership of the means of production or we can choose public or collective ownership.

We can choose to highlight a purely market economy or we can plan and organize an economy with other checks and balances.

And finally, we can choose an economy that is free without restraints, or we can fall into an economy that is totalitarian.

There is nothing new in this sort of economic discourse. What is new, however, according to Schumacher, is that these choices are not opposites.

A healthy economy will combine bits and pieces of all of these choices because they are in fact complementary and not merely opposites.

Over time, an economy will gravitate to one extreme or another. It will, of its own accord, move more heavily toward private ownership, or toward extreme public or collective ownership.

Ordinary citizens participating in the system as workers will tend to favour collective ownership. It gives them a well-deserved voice.

If, on the other hand, your real interest is in building and maintaining an empire without oversight or regulation, you do not hesitate to do what is necessary.

In Black’s case — and others including WorldCom, Enron and Halliburton — that includes fraud and obstruction of justice.

So while our legal system does not preclude empire building it can serve notice to ordinary citizens that unfettered corporate take over, multi-million dollar managerial salaries, corporate malfeasance and inordinate wealth are tip-offs to an economic system that has swung too far to one side.

Once warned, we can tip the scales toward an economy in which people matter.

Conrad Black allowed greed and envy to get the upper hand. Our legal system snared him.

The next step is ours. Let’s go to work on it.

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