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Volkswagen teaches a supercharged lesson

So when the feds finally blow the whistle on the emissions software trickery, Volkswagen says 500,000 diesel vehicles are involved.

Trust us.

Now it’s 11 million cars worldwide and the video message from the chief executive officer says it’s the work of a small group of rogue lab techs.

Trust us.

He says he wants to restore the world’s trust in the company, in the brand.

Really?

Capitalism can bring out the best in mankind – incredible feats of innovation, of technological invention, of capital accumulation and of charitable donation. But every few years we seem to get a fresh reminder that greed can push seemingly rational people to baffling lengths.

The names have become infamous:

• Enron and its energy manipulations;

• Bernie Madoff and his investment schemes;

• WorldCom and the phantom bills;

• And the list goes on… and on… and….

The common denominator is a level of arrogance. Did they all really think the regulators, the customers, the world was so stupid that the deception could go on forever?

Or did they just think the plates would keep spinning until they could get out with just a little more cash?

Whatever the answer, Volkswagen’s reputation isn’t the only thing taking a beating. Stock value is crashing. Its decision to set aside $7.3 billion — roughly half a year’s corporate profit – to retrofit the effected autos in the U.S. is just the start.

The number of companies that survive this kind of incident is small. In this case, it’ll take some humbling honesty, a lot of money and some PR legerdemain for VW to survive, at least in this country.

In a world where all news is local, you’ve got to feel for the Las Vegas area families whose paychecks are tied to the brand and its corporate cousins at Audi, where some models were running the deceptive software, and Porsche. Certainly they had no role in the creation of this monster and it’s unlikely even the most skilled mechanic had any idea what software was running in the background. Yet they – like the employees at Enron before them – will likely carry a disproportionate burden.

In the best of times, life isn’t fair. But when some people decide to tilt the scale in their favor, well, the best outcome may be that the rest of us take notice and then take a look in the mirror.

Which face of capitalism are we going to be as we go to work this week?

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