One of the best things we can do as Americans is get outside our own country and see the differences in how other people live. I learned a lot about our culture 25 years ago when I spent a semester abroad in Japan. I traveled across the country and several cities and never once ran into a problem. On one occasion, I went into a bank to exchange dollars for yen and accidentally left some of the money behind. I was three blocks away when an employee ran me down and presented me with the rest. Twice I left an umbrella hanging on a rail at a busy train station, only to return in the evening to find the umbrella exactly where I left it. I remain awed at the level of public trust I experienced there.
A quick check of the daily booking reports in any American city will find that stealing such as shoplifting, writing bad checks, and breaking into cars remains a chronic problem. I don’t think these small theft crimes disrupt us. They are a pain, but we handle it. I’ve had clothes, a backpack and credit cards stolen on three separate occasions. It is the bigger crimes of theft that concern me; the ones where large entities steal the public trust for short term profit, greed, or worse.
The recent decision of GM to close American plants and cut thousands of jobs is a form of theft. The company just completed taking a massive tax break, supposedly aimed at retooling and investing in the American worker, before making their announcement. Walt Disney Corporation, a company known for its quality management Disney Institute and touting a corporate social responsibility platform, was made to back down when it came to light that hundreds of its data system operators were given notice that they were being replaced by foreign workers. To add insult, these long timer workers were being told to train their replacements. Disney reversed course only when reporters got a hold of this hypocritical decision and challenged them for an explanation.
Facebook has claimed it was protecting user data and not selling it to the private market, while evidence obtained in England appears to show the exact opposite. To make matters worse, a series of confidential emails show that Facebook purposely made it difficult for all of us users to know what was considered private and what wasn’t. We have not heard the last of this one, but if companies say one thing in public, and do the exact opposite in private, that is another theft of the public trust that has much worse ramifications than an incident of shoplifting.
Just as we have to have security in sending our kids out into the world not to be shot or robbed, we must operate under the belief that large establishments will honor their commitments to the greater good. A culture that expects to be treated unfairly, robbed, or betrayed simply will not survive.
We can reverse this by supporting real journalism and using the power of where and how we spend our money. Each time we see a singular crime in the paper, remember there are other crimes more hidden and dangerous. We can be pretty hard on our local officials when they don’t uphold a certain integrity, partly because we see them and know them. We need to do the same when it comes to large organizations that have the power to act outside of the public eye and do much broader damage than the stealing of a car. We can do better.
Daniel Parker is an author, educator, and public servant. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org