There's a movie trailer out for "Sunshine Cleaning" in which a father gives his daughter a sign for her new company. The sign says she has been in business "since 1963."
"It's a lie," the daughter says.
"Yeah," he answers, "but it's a business lie. It's not the same as a life lie."
I think we've become a country that believes that. We accept business lies. We almost expect them. In the past week alone, I've heard about:
- A frequent-flier program that has started charging up to $150 to use your free miles. They call it a service or activation fee. But, of course, that's a lie, designed to squeeze money out of something once promised as free.
- A credit card company that changed the rules on a lifetime low interest rate. Suddenly, the minimum payment has been doubled. If you can't afford it, that's OK, you can go back to the old minimum payment -- provided you accept a new, higher interest rate. The old promise became a new lie.
There is news every day of how banks that received money from the Troubled Assets Relief Program are failing to lend it, or never should have gotten it in the first place. We were told that without it, the banks would fail and credit would never loosen. But with it, credit has not loosened, and some banks have used the money to simply enrich themselves and purchase more assets.
A business lie.
A motormouth in action
Now, I'm not saying we never get upset at such things. But we get much angrier over a football coach not getting fired or a New York governor hiring a prostitute. We will argue that stuff on the airwaves, over watercoolers. We'll scream until we're blue.
But celebrity lies or sports lies don't affect our lives. Business lies do. They affect many aspects of it. And yet we seem to shrug and sigh, "Ah, what are you gonna do?"
As such, big business has created a world in which lies are a tactic. It knows people aren't going to react. It assumes most people will just turn the cheek and take the slap. It knows exactly what it's doing when it plays a recording saying a "heavy call volume" is delaying your phone call or tells you the special sale item you came in for just -- coincidentally -- sold out.
Does anybody really believe a business ad anymore? Or is it assumed that at least part of it is a lie (which is why those TV announcers mumble lightning-fast disclaimers at the end)?
Isn't it just assumed that a bank's mortgage will have a bunch of hidden fees? Or that a phone bill advertised will include so many assorted niggling charges, you couldn't see the promised low rate with a telescope?
The little lies of business lead to the larger lies of business, which lead to the whoppers. The Bernard Madoff scandal, which cost investors billions of dollars. The Enron scandal, which shook the entire financial world.
Now, it seems, the TARP will be judged by history as a boondoggle for many financial firms, which took the money with no strings attached and balked when anyone suggested they reveal what they did with it.
Because that would require telling the truth.
A crime is a crime is crime
But, folks, as long as we accept lies as part of doing business, we are going to get lying businesses. We need to get indignant. We need to change laws. We will jail a common thief for robbing a liquor store far longer than we'll jail a CEO for robbing thousands of investors.
Why? Why shouldn't white-collar crime be as serious as drug trafficking or manslaughter? Don't both crimes ruin lives, destroy families, even lead to deaths? How often have we read in recent weeks about suicides by people who were overwhelmed by business trauma? Don't kid yourself that a white collar can't run blood red.
And yet we shrug and bite the bullet. We accept no truth in advertising. We accept all those weird assorted charges on a cable or phone bill. We accept multinational banks -- who view us as stupid little people -- taking our tax money and delivering nothing in return.
At a time when people are scraping for their last nickels, this kind of behavior is not only inexcusable, it's abhorrent, immoral and should be much more illegal.
When that movie father tells his daughter, "It's a business lie. It's not the same as a life lie" -- the truth is, he's right.