First there’s the death penalty imposed by the state for particularly heinous crimes. This one’s been churning for decades – we all know about it, and many of us have strong feelings about it. In 1978, for example, California voters passed an initiative authorizing capital punishment for an expanded list of crimes. A few days ago, a coalition of organizations announced they had collected enough signatures to put a measure on the November ballot that would ban the death penalty in California. Make no mistake: this is one of those social issues that inspire passions of biblical proportions. Whichever way voters go on this, it’ll be an intense, high visibility campaign... over the fate of 719 people on California's Death Row. In 2011, California executed two people; three in 2010.
Then there’s the death penalty almost nobody ever mentions, but claims many more victims – all of them innocent.
I’m talking about the one carried out on a daily basis by corporations that put profits over people’s lives. Consider the death toll that results when insurance companies refuse to sell a health insurance policy at a reasonable price. A study by Harvard researchers concludes that nearly 45,000 Americans die each year because they lack health insurance and go without the care they need. About 5,300 of those are in California – more than the number of homicides and suicides in the state combined.
Deaths due to malpractice by medical personnel in hospitals alone are estimated at 195,000 annually.
Water, air and soil pollution is reported to be responsible for forty percent of all deaths worldwide.
Most of the corporate policies reflected in these statistics on fatalities are based on a simple financial calculus of profit v. loss. The prototypical example is the decision by Ford executives in the 1970s to manufacture a car with a known fatal defect: a gas tank that could explode in the event of a moderate car accident. The company’s engineers were aware of the flaw, but the cost of the repair – $11 per vehicle – was deemed too expensive. Ford decided it’d be cheaper to pay the medical and court costs of the victims and their next of kin. You can read Ford’s cost/benefit analysis here.
Who knows how many Americans have died an early death after losing their jobs, their homes and their life savings in the financial collapse engineered by Wall Street speculators four years ago?
Why isn't there more discussion of this form of capital punishment? As I explained in a book on medical malpractice years ago, mayhem perpetrated behind closed doors in the suites isn’t as accessible, nor as easily translated into graphic videos and television news stories, as is crime in the streets.
“Corporations are people,” Mitt Romney candidly explained to an angry American last year. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United indisputably granted these inanimate creatures the freedom of speech that once belonged to humans only. Abetted by government incompetence or deliberate inaction, some corporations have gained even greater power: the power to make life or death decisions for many Americans.
I don’t mean to diminish the importance of the debate over the death penalty here in California; the point made by the supporters of the new initiative to ban capital punishment is that a relatively small number of prisoners are costing everyone else a ridiculous amount of money. But we citizens ought to pay at least the same amount of attention to the de facto death penalty that corporate greed can impose.