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Pyle: Knowing who they work for

Published June 14, 2013 5:20 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

... You might own guns and you might even own tanks

You might be somebody's landlord, you might even own banks

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed

You're gonna have to serve somebody ...

— Bob Dylan

The issue was put, in good Jeopardy! style, in the form of a question on the front page of Wednesday's Salt Lake Tribune: "Did Zions aid defrauding elderly?"

The New York Times article, revised and extended by Tribune staff, makes clear that some really sleazy people have been bilking some elderly Americans out of their life savings. And some of that money flowed through a subsidiary of Salt Lake City's Zions Bank.

According to the article — which Zions has denounced as "misrepresenting and mischaracterizing the facts" — the bank is facing government investigations and civil actions for, allegedly, failing to act when so many of the transactions processed by its Modern Payments subsidiary for a company called National Health Net Online were challenged and reversed.

National Health, according to lawsuits, hoodwinked folks into divulging their bank information in return for a promise of improved Medicare. The allegation against Zions is that bank officers should have suspected what was up and that, if they didn't, it was because they didn't want to lose all that business.

Zions Bank's slogan is "We haven't forgotten who keeps us in business." Which is unfortunate if some of those who keep the bank in business are crooks.

But that's not the same thing as who this bank — like all banks — is doing business for: owners, managers and stockholders. Businesses exist to maximize profit for those people. The resulting benefits to customers, even when considerable, are a useful byproduct, like the pearl of an oyster or ambergris, whale poop that people used to clean up and make into perfume.

In the print edition of Wednesday's Tribune, the Zions story ran next to another Times article, about how National Intelligence Director James Clapper tried to cover a fib he told a Senate committee by saying that the NSA did not "wittingly" store data about millions of Americans.

So the question for private businesses, like Zions Bank, and for government institutions, like the NSA, is what they are "witting" about. And it says nothing bad about anyone for the rest of us to see that institutions are witting about whatever is in their best interest.

For a corporation, that means maximizing profits. For a government agency, it means accomplishing a very specific goal which, in the case of the NSA, means finding bad guys and foiling their fiendish plans. Anything that detracts from that goal is to be ignored, evaded, swept under the rug or squelched.

Unless there is good reason for the institution to think that the ignoring, the evading, the sweeping or the squelching will itself be bad for business.

In the private sector, that means real penalties for doing bad things that would otherwise be profitable. And many bad things — like helping telefraudsters process their take — will be profitable unless the loss of customers and/or the fines and jail sentences that result take the profit out of it.

In the public sector, it means constant oversight, by Congress, the press, the public and, occasionally, a loose-cannon whistleblower who is righteously offended by what he sees.

Some of us are more comfortable with government than with private business because government is supposed to work for us, while business, by definition, works for itself. But neither are trustworthy without constant oversight.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, sometimes wishes he didn't know so much about how things work. Comfort him at gpyle@sltrib.com, or via Twitter at @debatestate.




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