The VA’s in trouble and likewise GM
Their feeble excuses we’re bound to condemn.
They don’t seem to know, it’s the same every time:
The cover-up gets you, far more than the crime.

            Will they never learn? Two concurrent scandals tell us that, public or private, they still don’t get the lesson of Watergate: trying to conceal your blunders is worse than the blunders themselves.

            Take the Veterans’ Administration. An Inspector General’s report found that in the VA office in Phoenix the staff falsified reports to hide the fact that veterans had to wait an average an average of 115 days to get an appointment. Similar problems were found at several other VA centers. The problem stemmed from a sudden flood of applications from veterans  with physical and psychological disabilities from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined with the consequences of a recent ruling granting disability assistance to Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange. Rather than admitting they were not equipped to handle the huge patient increase VA officials preferred to rely on a culture of falsification and denial.

            All this made an irresistible target for cartoonists. A populat theme was the “Uncle Same Wants You…” poster followed by  “To Take a Number” (Lachian Makay), or “… to understand that if you can’t afford to take care of your veterans, you can’t afford to go to war.” (Milt Prigee). Then there was Al Queda on the phone to the VA: “We’re all huge fans of the great work you’re doing.” (Andy Marlett).

            The Onion offered a mythical solution from the Secretary of Veterans Affairs -- “A new $500 million state-of-the art waiting room” equipped with the most modern amenities, ranging from a high-tech ceiling-mounted sound system that pipes in a continuous stream of soft music, to flat-screen televisions playing at low volume on every wall ... Service members who visit the new facility will receive immediate attention from the waiting room’s receptionist who will ask them to sign in and have a seat, and as requested, give them vague answers about how long they can expect to continue to be sitting their waiting to be seen.”

            The Daily Current had Obama pledging the VA a $700 billion bailout: “As we learned from past crises such as the Wall Street financial meltdown, asking insiders to fix the problems they created by giving them a bunch of money is a fail-proof strategy. It worked for Wall Street, now let’s make it work for our veterans.”

            Jon Stewart, however, thought the VA did, indeed, have money problems – largely because Republicans in Congress had opposed increasing funds for veterans. He took a trip through “Terrible Memory Lane” to show how vets had been shafted no matter who was in power: “America has had for over 200 years a great bipartisan tradition of honoring those who have fought for our freedom by fucking them over once they gave their guns back,”

            Still, deliberately cooking the books was no way to address the problem, and the revelations of a pattern of deceit that threatened the health of veterans, perhaps fatally in some cases, were cited by conservative critics to support their belief that the federal government by its nature was inherently incompetent and corrupt.

            However, alternating with the news about the VA was another scandal – this time involving a giant representative of the private corporate sector. General Motors had seemed o be doing very well indeed, roaring back from bankruptcy and selling lots of cars. Then the story broke: a faulty ignition switch on 2.6 million vehicles from 2003 to 2007 could cause the engine to shut off while driving, causing at least 13 deaths. GM knew of the problem in 2001 but said nothing about it until it recalled the models in 2014.

            There is nothing remarkable about the recurrence of automobile defects. The industry is far more efficient, makes fewer serious errors, than in the pre-Ralph Nader days. Nonetheless, with many millions of cars in an extraordinary range of models mistakes will be made. When the mistakes are admitted and the models recalled without cost to the consumer the news is treated routinely, even as testimony to the company’s sense of responsibility. But for reasons driven by corporate profits and individual salaries and bonuses (far beyond those available to VA staff) GM executives opted to say nothing until stories broke about the fatal consequences of the defective switch.

            Inevitably, cartoonists jumped on the issue: a GM executive’s head with the “moral switch” turned off (John Darkow); a GM car at $149 a month – “Corporate responsibility not included.” (Margulies); a GM organization chart with “OOPS!” under “Quality Control”(Steve Sack).

            Saturday Night Live jumped on the congressional questioning of new Chief Executive, Mary Barra. When she insisted that, having just been appointed to the top job in the “new GM”, she could not yet answer questions about the “old GM”, the show’s Kate McKinnon paraphrased her as saying: “I am looking into knowing when I first knew the results of that knowing until I know for sure.” And: “The first rule of the new GM is you never talk about the old GM.”

            Jon Stewart, noting that if the switch had been fixed initially it would have cost 57 cents, argued that they” studied the program for four years…did an internal cost benefit analysis…using your standard, analytic algorithm, barometric PE ratio equations and came up with…Fuck It.” As for the 57c per car: “Even of you’re strapped for cash, GM, you could have found at least that much in the seats of the cars you’re fixing.”

            The online SatireWire picked up on a report that GM had banned employees documenting potential safety issues from using words like “safety”, “dangerous” “problem”, and “defect”. So the magazine told the sad tale of a Chevy Cobalt insisting that it had a “disability”, not a “defect”; .and since “today we do not mock disabilities as they did in Nazi Germany” GM was just being compassionate. “They knew that calling me defective would mean that I would be ostracized… Life is hit and miss, full of mistakes and shortcomings and bad decisions. That doesn’t make me defective. It just makes me a GM product.”

            Michael Moore, a long-time GM heckler, weighed in with: “I hope someone in the Obama administration will get out the handcuffs, the SWAT teams, or the U.S. army if need be, march into GM headquarters and haul away anyone who is there who had anything to do with this.” And he was prepared to make an exception in this case to his usual opposition to the death penalty.      

            Whether any individuals at GM or the VA will face criminal charges is yet to be determined. But at least these two giant institutions will have been forcibly reminded of the lesson that prompt confession is not only good for the soul but a more rational choice than obfuscation. 


Posted on Monday, June 16, 2014 (Archive on Sunday, March 12, 2017)



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