SYNDICATED COLUMN: Let VW Face the Same Penalties as Us — or Let Us Go Unpunished Too

            If you did it once, you’d be fired.

If you did it hundreds of times, you’d go to prison.

Why should a corporation worth billions of dollars be treated more leniently than we individuals?

“Volkswagen has admitted installing software in 11 million vehicles that was used to provide false results about emissions, though it was not clear if it was used in all countries where the cars were sold,” The New York Times reports. The United States, however, accounts for 20% to 25% of the automaker’s sales.

“Those U.S. [diesel] vehicles would have spewed between 10,392 and 41,571 ton of toxic gas into the air each year, if they had covered the average annual US mileage. If they had complied with EPA standards, they would have emitted just 1,039 tons of NOx each year in total,” according to The Guardian. That’s “roughly the same as the UK’s combined emissions for all power stations, vehicles, industry and agriculture.”

VW executives broke federal pollution control laws. They knew they were breaking those laws. And they did so on a massive scale.

Now I want you to imagine, if you can, what would happen to you, if you did the same thing — assuming you were in a position to do the same thing.

If the feds found out that you’d rigged your car with a device that fools state vehicle inspectors into thinking that your pollution-belching piece of crap was as green as a Leaf, they’d take your car off the road, maybe confiscate it. They might slap you with a stiff fine ($25,000 in Texas, $295,000 under federal law). Maybe even a jail term.

Volkswagon will wind up paying hundreds of millions of dollars, or more, to the U.S. government for this crime. But that’s far, far less than they — or their top executives — deserve. We live in a time in which corporations enjoy the same benefits as people, and in which some politicians even claim that they are people. Shouldn’t corporations face proportionately equivalent penalties when they commit crimes?

Let’s start with civil penalties.

The average American citizen has a net worth of $45,000. A $295,000 federal civil fine would wipe him out six times over. Since VW has assets of $14.4 billion, the equivalent civil fine should be $94.4 billion.

VW should cease to exist. Alternatively, it could be nationalized by the U.S. government, with its future profits used to pay down the deficit.

Anything less tells American citizens that they are worth less than a corporation. Not even an American corporation — a German one. A German corporation founded by Adolf Hitler!

Then there’s the issue of criminal penalties.

The maximum term for fraud under federal sentencing guidelines is 30 years in prison. Seems fair in this case. Let the company’s top executives face those terms, as well as the company itself — it should be placed in a virtual financial “prison” by being banned from operating for its own financial advantage for 30 years as well.

Of course, the chances of VW being put out of business, or its execs facing prison for their crimes, are zero.

Corporations are responsible for lawbreaking and murder on a scale that Jeffrey Dahmer couldn’t have imagined. So why is it just little old us, private individuals, who get the book thrown at us?

Look at, if you can stand the stink, British Petroleum.

Federal and state fines and settlements related to the catastrophic 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico will total $18.7 billion. Sounds like a lot of money, but thanks to quiet leniency by the Obama Administration EPA, that expense will mostly be tax-deductible.

Not to mention, it’s a drop in the bucket.

BP has $87.3 billion in assets. Which means its total cost for the Gulf spill is just 21%, barely over a fifth.

BP will be able to pay off its entire Gulf spill tab with just over a year of profits. No layoffs. No salary cuts. No replacing the gold faucets in the bathroom of CEO Bob Dudley, who “earns” $5 million a year.

If we’re going to treat corporations like people, let’s treat people like corporations. Either slash the penalties we face when we screw up — or ramp up those faced by big companies so they’re in line with ours.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and the cartoonist for, is the author of the new book “Snowden,” the biography of the NSA whistleblower. Want to support independent journalism? You can subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)



  • If you steal $100 from a corporation, the cops will come get you and throw you in jail. The court will find you guilty and sentence you. The cops, cop car, handcuffs, jail, courthouse and judge are all paid for by your tax dollars.

    If a corporation steals $100 from you, there won’t be any cops or cop cars. You can write a letter to your state attorney general’s office, where a college intern will compose a letter to the corp. The letter will say something to the effect of, “Did you guys do anything wrong?” and the corp will reply “Nope” – at which time your state AG will throw up its metaphorical hands and proclaim “Nuttin’ we can do”

    I recently went through that exercise. Citibank ripped me off. I wrote a letter to the AG & Citifuck didn’t even bother to respond. What do you think would happen if you didn’t respond to a court summons? Wouldn’t it be nice if a plea of ‘not guilty’ resulted in all charges being dropped?

    Or, you can hire an attorney for thousands of dollars to get your $100 back. The corp will happily outspend you (not only do they have deeper pockets, they can write it off) They will spend far more than your piddling $100. You might win. You might even get your expenses reimbursed. Or nah.

    Instead of “We the people” the constitution ought to say, “The Wee People”

    • “Constitution say we da’ people, it don’t say you da people.
      You ain’t nothin’.” — Your gumint at work.

      Now get outa here, schmuck.

    • A Legal Shield policy would have been a big help. You have a lawyer from a big firm send a letter to Citibank at no charge then they might sit up and pay attention. Incidentally, a Legal Shield policy would have been a big help to Ted right about now. All legal services 25 percent off…

  • *A German corporation founded by Adolf Hitler!*

    You’d prefer Lada, founded by Stalin, amirite?

  • Corporations and police have license to kill.

    A driver found to have 1% negligence in a crash caused by GM’s faulty ignition switch went to prison, while the corporate stooges responsible for 99%of the negligence gets no jail penalty.

    Over a hundred dead by GM corporate hands is overlooked just as are hundreds of people killed by police.

    Is it fascism yet?

    • Well, it may be … but it could also be Communist; or Socialist ~

      In any event, it is tyranny, corporately administered, institutional tyranny.

      This is similar to asking whether it’s “capitalism” yet, or perhaps democratic. Regardless of the ideological fine print, tyranny is always institutionally defined, and corporately administered.


  • Of course nobody should be above the law, and it is difficult to see nationalization as within the law.

  • And, again, we come to the hub of it all. Corporations get away with murder. Literally. Why? (Clears throat. … . Because we elected a president, not a king.) If the president (and all the other politicians) really wanted to hold corporations accountable, it would be the work of five minutes.

    The VW corporation didn’t ignore the law. The executives who run those corporations did. A very clear paper trail MUST exist. Period. This is a corporation. Just like HR knows you took Thursday the 12th off, VW has the paperwork that shows who, exactly, knew about this emissions software fiddling.

    So arrest the CEO and everyone else who knew about this. Put them in orange jumpsuits and feed them what prisoners eat. Have them shower in genpop. If they’re lucky, they won’t get too badly messed up in the three years the company will string this whole thing out, hoping it’ll go away.

    We could do the same thing with a whole lot of other corpo-criminal behavior. Those frackers who have polluted the water supply? Yup, right into the klink. When they’re found guilty, sentence them to life in prison. Not out of some vengeance mindset but because people who’ll poison a watertable just to make profit? These are the truly dangerous ones.

    Of course, the big question I have is “Why didn’t the states have the correct sensoring systems to detect the true amount of emissions?”.

    • I can’t speak for the states, but Ontario and Quebec had them 10 years ago. They got rid of them (Ontario, I don’t know about Quebec) in favour of just reading codes from the engine computer. I was thinking when I first learned about that, that it would be so simple to create a fake pass (or fake fail for that matter). Unless there is a very stringent audit of the actual code (which I don’t think happens anywhere outside of DO-178 military spec equipment, which cars aren’t), how are they to know that someone isn’t fudging the results? They won’t.

      Stupid decisions, likely made by the recommendation of the same manufacturers.

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