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The People’s Car Company?

The German auto manufacturer Volkswagen has been found guilty of a particularly noxious kind of duplicity. While marketing the line of diesel-powered cars as environmentally “clean,” they had rigged the cars’ computer systems to reduce the emissions output only while being inspected. So while these cars routinely passed state-mandated tests, they were spewing 30 to 40 times the allowed level of pollutants into the atmosphere while on the road. One statistical analysis estimated that this added pollution could be responsible for as many as 100 deaths in the United States over a seven-year period.

Perhaps consumers should have been more suspicious of a car marketed as fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly and peppy to drive. But the real guilt here lies with a company that devoted its technical expertise to cheating the system instead of developing a truly clean engine. While other auto manufacturers were investing in hybrid technology, Volkswagen doubled down on diesel, though they knew it posed risks. The company will pay dearly for its deception. It now faces billions of dollars in fines from the Environmental Protection Agency. But somehow the threat of penalties and a public relations nightmare did not deter them.

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It may not be possible to prevent similar scandals in the future, especially on cars with sophisticated computer systems that can hide all manner of sins. Still, Volkswagen must be held to account, and not just for the financial and environmental costs of its deception. If it survives this scandal, the German automaker has a moral duty to make good on its original promise and develop truly clean engine technology for the next generation of car owners.

Boehner’s Exit

John Boehner’s resignation as speaker and member of the House of Representatives, which came just one day after Pope Francis’ historic speech to Congress, seemed abrupt. But in reality, it was a long time coming, and the reasons for it have far more to do with Mr. Boehner’s own colleagues than with Pope Francis.

In an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sept. 27, Mr. Boehner said that some Republican legislators were “unrealistic” about what is possible in government and linked them to the biblical warning against “false prophets,” because they are “spreading noise about how much can get done.” In 2013, hardliners in his party forced a 16-day shutdown of the government in an unsuccessful attempt to eliminate funding for the Affordable Care Act. A similar game of brinksmanship loomed over defunding Planned Parenthood during the most recent budget negotiations. By announcing his resignation, Mr. Boehner freed himself to cooperate with Democrats and avoid another shutdown. Considered from that perspective, his stepping down seems as much a choice for freedom as one made out of frustration. He is walking away from a situation in which his own party prevented him from doing his job.

Speaking to Congress, Pope Francis addressed the vocation of legislators, saying that their activity “is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.” We need more legislators to honor that call. For helping to highlight it, even by his resignation, Mr. Boehner deserves our thanks.

Too Many Lofty Words

The United Nations approved a new blueprint for global development at the close of its 70th General Assembly in September—a follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals that expire this year. The U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, which have been under discussion in one way or another since 2012, include 17 goals and 169 targets.

The deeply ambitious plan seeks to amend a global economic order that too frequently promotes political and economic inequities while exploiting both people and the environment. Attempting to tackle both injustice and ecological sustainability suggests that the S.D.G. are a step toward the “integral development” Pope Francis called for in his encyclical letter “Laudato Si’.” The U.N. document itself, however, could have used tighter focus. The document’s great breadth threatens to dissipate the attention of the international community and diminish its intended real-world outcomes. Is this agenda the “declarationist nominalism” meant to “assuage our consciences” that Pope Francis tried to warn U.N. members against during his September address? In the same speech he urged that global leaders make real commitments and avoid a “bureaucratic exercise of drawing up long lists of good proposals.”

Blessings upon those advocates, public officials and specialists tasked with translating this agenda into practice and policy. Fewer goals and more practical action steps drawn from real-world experience and accompanied by realistic cost estimates would improve the chances that at least some of these lofty goals may be realized by 2030. If the document could bear yet another rewrite, downsizing the agenda to Pope Francis’ “three Ls” for the future—labor, lodging and land—would make a good edit.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Joseph J Dunn
2 years 7 months ago
Re: Volkswagen Volkswagen indeed has a lot to answer for, and as the Editors acknowledge there is some question about VW's ability to survive as a corporation, as the new CEO acknowledged within the last few days.The costs of fines, penalties and correcting the software in existing vehicles may exceed VW's $28 billion in cash reserves. The greater threat may be to the ability of VW and other makers of diesel autos to meet even the existing environmental standards. A Wall Street Journal article yesterday describes the lax enforcement that has been standard behavior in European countries since at least 2011. http://www.wsj.com/articles/eu-plan-to-toughen-auto-emissions-rules-faces-uphill-climb-1444332563. Some questions worth considering, even at this early date: Would/should the EU or individual countries' taxpayers bail out VW or other companies that are financially unable to survive under current EU environmental standards once these are actually enforced? These auto makers are major employers in several European countries. Should EU environmental standards, which the Europe-based manufacturers cannot meet, be softened to save jobs? Should the environmental standards be preserved and enforced, let the companies that cannot meet them die off, and let auto demand be met by other manufacturers who have engines that can meet the standards? And if VW or another diesel-reliant manufacturer tries to raise new capital--sell new shares of stock--to stay alive, should endowment funds, pension funds, and individuals invest in this, or would that constitute an investment in a fossil-fuel-dependent business and therefore 'unethical'? Just wondering.

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