With so many crazy things going on these days, who even remembers the Great Volkswagen Scandal of 2015? That’s the one where they caught VW faking pollution performance in its diesel engines– and not just messing with the paperwork, either. VW actually installed a whole extra system in eleven million of its cars, allowing them to detect when they were in the shop for state emissions tests. While hooked up to the inspection machines, the cars ran in low pollution mode and met government standards; once back on the road, they went back to standard performance– which meant sending out forty-times as much pollution as in fake-out mode.
It’s not exactly in the spirit of blogging to bring up a months-old scandal– but I keep thinking about the VW case, because it says so much about how crazy contemporary capitalism has become. Also, about the craziness of our responses to contemporary capitalism.
As a partial list of what’s so crazy about the case, consider the following:
1) The scale of the operation. It’s a big deal to invent a cheat system and install it in eleven million cars. VW has fallen back on the “it was a few bad apples/rogue executives” defense we hear so often these days, but that’s pretty implausible. An operation like this required research and development, changes to assembly lines, major expenditures, all going on over several years.
2) The Germany thing. Being known for quality manufacturing is a very, very big deal to Germany. Of course the “made in Germany” brand is an economic tool, which helps the country sell its goods worldwide and charge premium prices for them, but it’s also part of the larger German psychology, really a nation-wide brand name. The idea is, Germans do things right, they don’t take short-cuts, their products deserve your trust. It’s the mindset that allows German politicians to lecture Greeks, Italians, and others about being lazy, slovenly tax evaders who can’t generate trade surpluses.
So you might think an iconic German company would hesitate to put all that at risk; even if companies occasionally did so, you’d think, the German authorities themselves would be extra vigilant about misbehavior that threatened the national brand. Apparently not.
3) The objective. Since I’m not a car guy, my handle on the technicalities is weak. But as I understand it, the cars worked just fine in low-pollution mode, they just performed better when spewing (lots) more pollutants– more pep, more power, more responsiveness, better fuel economy. In other words, VW was ready for crime if that’s what it took to make its customers marginally happier.
4) The stakes. Of course, the costs included more than just violating various countries’ laws. There’s also the real-life impact of all that extra pollution– premature deaths (about sixty in the US, so the researchers guess, and many more in Europe, where diesels are more popular), and of course contributing to the destruction of the planet. Think of it as human sacrifice on the altars of high performance and customer satisfaction.
5) Professors to the rescue. The story only came to light because complete outsiders looked into the case. A group of professor/researchers at West Virginia University bought a handful of the cars and did their own tests, out on the open road– only after they published their findings did the relevant regulatory agencies get involved, and only after that did VW itself take steps. (Steps which are still dragging along, by the way– VW still hasn’t replaced or refitted the engines.)
So among other things, the VW Scandal is a lesson about the benefits of tenure and the other protections the American research university provides its researchers. Thousands of people within VW and thousands more outside must have known what was going on, but there were zero whistle-blowers on this one– not surprisingly, when you think about what happens to most corporate whistle-blowers. Nowadays, the universities are the last refuge for this kind of free-range, trouble-making, profit-threatening research. Most everywhere else, raising this kind of question means losing your job.
Now, there’s a tendency to think about cases like this in terms of corporate psychology and ethics. You’ve probably seen stories like this one, which asks what all those people were thinking– how could they have signed off on the VW program, given its immoral elements? Or if you haven’t seen VW-relevant stories, you’ve seen them about other corporate ethical disasters, like our recent banking scandals. Which is fine, I’m all for moral improvement, but I think that misses the real message of the Great VW Scandal.
Instead, the real message is just how completely capitalist calculation now trumps other possible ways of thinking– like, say, worrying about right and wrong, or about humanity’s survival, or your country’s reputation, or even the long-term health of the corporation itself. It all pretty much follows the Karl Marx script. Capitalism works as total Darwinian war, meaning that all options are on the table, escalation is always possible, and in the long run there are no safety zones. And of course, Marx would have been pleased to hear the rumors that other car companies have been doing the same thing. He’d say, that’s just how capitalism works.
Maybe it’s time to take the old guy a little more seriously.