Why does anyone commit a crime? To gain profit without working for that profit - looking to get away with something for nothing. This motivates pick-pockets, purse-snatchers, bank robbers, insurance scammers, slip-and-fall fraudsters, shop-lifters, and the greatest of all profit-without-working-for-it shysters: corporate criminals.
By way of definition, I think we can agree that people who steal paper clips, or take too many Post-Its or Sharpie markers from the supply cabinet are not perpetrators of corporate crime. Their managers and administrators may believe them to be deserving of firing squads - or, at least, firing - but "corporate crime" as our culture has come to know it is embodied by Ken Lay of Enron, the Global Crossing executives, Bernard Madoff; the myriad nameless Wall Street bankers and traders who have tipped over the world's economy like rioting college students after their team lost the championship by one point.
Corporate crime can be explained with one word: Greed. Qualifying that greed, however, is a complicated, amorphous undertaking.
Everyone's greedy to a certain extent. Go to any casino buffet and you'll find people with their petty, manageable greed piled sloppily upon plates. Look at the brides-to-be who storm those department stores that give away wedding dresses for free once a year. It's uncomfortable to witness; it's entirely unseemly, but it's also pretty harmless.
What separates those moments of greed from the true monsters among us is magnitude. Is there anyone who can truly fathom the psyche of men who are already millionaires encouraging employees of their companies to invest their 401(k)s in the company when they plainly know the company is on its way over the edge of a cliff?
I'm sure an encyclopedia of arcane, impossible-to-remember legal terms could be compiled to cover the countless sins of the corporate titans who turned out to be tyrants, but only one syllable suffices: Greed.
I once saw a debate on public television in which people like former California governor, Jerry Brown, jousted with William F. Buckley, among others. Former governor Brown, at one point, said something that I've remembered for almost twenty years. In speaking about contemporary American life, he said there was no sense of "enoughness." He spoke of leviathan corporations that all but sucked the marrow from the skulls of their employees and shareholders and customers. He spoke of the unending pursuit of higher net worth, perpetual increases in stock value.
Maybe that's all greed is. Maybe that's the banality of this one evil. Enron and Goldman Sachs and Bear Stearns - and their thousands of stockholders and now millions of taxpayers who bought them out or buoy them up - merely fell victim to the lack of "enoughness" in American life. Thing is, when it comes to the pain and suffering caused by corporate criminals, there is also no "enoughness." Corporate crime is the gift that keeps on taking.