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Volkswagen’s Moral Failure

The radio is on as I drive back into the city after a weekend upstate. I still prefer listening to radio in the car, rather than simply plugging in my iphone and playing what I like. I like being surprised by a song I haven’t heard in years — a notion that my 10-year old cannot comprehend. Neither can he comprehend the weight that “German Engineering!” used to carry. We heard it at the end of a commercial, like a proud stamp of approval for a snow blower or lawn mower or some other such machine, and I thought Yeah, right. Whoever wrote that commercial isn’t following the news. Or maybe (unless you think about these things for a living, as I do) the implications of the Volkswagen emission scandal have yet to be fully appreciated. German engineering is now synonymous with cheating. Extensive media coverage has made us aware of the rather unbelievable scheme German engineers at VW conjured up and implemented for years, cheating millions of people all over the world, as well as governmental agencies and ultimately themselves and their children’s futures, too, by rigging emissions tests.

It seemed bad enough when the story first broke back in September. After enormous pressure from the United States EPA was met with repeated denial, German engineers finally admitted to installing a cheating device in millions of cars sold in the US over the past several years, which allowed the car computer to “know” when it was being tested for polluting emissions and thus covertly reduce them, only to go back to polluting when the car is actually being driven on the road. Over the past two months, not without the usual cycle of denial, partial admission, and then full admission, we have learned that VW’s cheating streak was much more widespread than they had originally confessed. How sad.

Volkswagen was once a respected company in a dominant EU nation and its being caught lying is a huge blow to social trust and the economy. Social trust is valuable; but its value is hard to measure. Contrary to social trust, emissions can be easily tested if regulators are not manipulated by lobbying or cheating. Now we learn about VW’s attempts at lobbying EU regulators to ease the very testing procedures that, it turns out, they also cheated (all that ingenuity, dear German engineers, could have put to the superior task of designing better engines). In a December 1st article in the NYT, Hakim and Barthelemy published excerpts from a VW executive’s email to the European Commission (the European Union’s executive branch). In the email, referring to two key parts of Europe’s forthcoming auto emissions tests, the VW’s executive wrote “Such topics must be deleted.” Much of what’s reported in this latest article is disturbing. But I find that sentence particularly so. It is the MUST that bothers me. How can a VW executive use this word, such a tone, when writing to the European Commission? Words are important, and this word in particular seems to offer a window into the lobbying world. And the view from that window isn’t pretty. We have always known that lobbying is bad. Even Donald Trump reminds us of that at every occasion. But that “must” exposes it in all its ugliness. VW is apparently dictating to the EU what the emissions test should be.

Outrage, anyone?

As the world’s governments meet in Paris in search of an accord that might save our planet from over-heating and pollution, reading this email exchange is especially infuriating. Lobbying against air pollution laws is antisocial precisely because when it is successful – as in this case – it leads to premature air pollution death and accelerated climate change. While benefiting certain shareholders, these actions have widespread costs, are pathological on psychological terms, harmful on economic terms, and existentially threatening to us all.

From the article:

“Fred Baerbock, a spokesman for Volkswagen, said in a statement that the email sent by the VW executive to the commission last year was “part of the normal exchange of expertise that is part of every lawmaking in the E.U.” He said it was sent by the Volkswagen executive on behalf of the automakers’ trade group during technical discussions and “should not qualify” as lobbying by Volkswagen.”

I do not find this normal. And I do find it to be the essence of lobbying. I checked, and it is still the case that saying something does not make it true.

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Emanuele Castano

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