Just to keep things politically balanced, Jay Bookman’s print piece today, posted several days ago in electrons, is a worthy companion to David Brook’s piece posted here yesterday. I’ll leave you to make the intellectual leap to any analogies about schooling.

Jay’s piece can be found at http://blogs.ajc.com/jay-bookman-blog/2012/07/09/a-test-of-morality-on-a-florida-beach/ – 600+ responses and counting – some will no doubt make for some interesting reading.

Print title: Nature of corporations laid bare by a lifeguard.

9:25 am July 9, 2012, by Jay

Why can’t you run a government like a business? Why is a corporation NOT a person?

To both questions, I would offer the same two-word answer: Tomas Lopez.

While the name may not be familiar, his story probably is. Last week, Lopez was fired from his $8.25-an-hour job as a beach lifeguard in Hallandale, Fla., because he left his guard station to help save a drowning swimmer in a nearby “unprotected” swimming area. (The rescued swimmer was later hospitalized in intensive care but is expected to make a full recovery.)

“We have liability issues and can’t go out of the protected area,” company supervisor Susan Ellis said in explaining the decision to fire Lopez. In addition, the company fired two of his fellow lifeguards who had said that they too would have rescued the struggling swimmer.

“They sat me down and told me that my answer will determine if I get to keep my job or not,” 20-year-old Travis Madrid told the Florida Sun-Sentinel. “When I told him I would do the same thing, they told me I was dismissed.”

From the employer’s narrow point of view, its actions are perfectly understandable. As we are often reminded, a business has a single mission: produce profit for its shareholders. A corporation has no obligation to produce jobs, offer health insurance to its employees or provide other socially useful functions. In this specific case, the saving of a human life outside the boundaries of its protected area had no value to Jeff Ellis and Associates and could only bring negative consequences in the form of potential lawsuits. So the company was within its rights to fire the employee who had put it in that situation.

Viewed from the perspective of a human being, however, the situation looks much different. If Lopez had honored company policy, remained at his post and watched a drowning man die, it might have eaten at his conscience for the rest of his life. “It was the moral thing to do,” Lopez said later. “I would never pick a job over my morals.”

The situation also looks different when viewed from the perspective of government rather than business. Government’s essential purpose is to serve people, even the hapless swimmer who chose to venture beyond the protected swimming area. The mayor of Hallandale, Joy Cooper, said she was horrified by the actions of the company, which has had a contract to provide lifeguards to the town’s beaches since 2003.

“I know people across the country are as outraged as I am,” Cooper said. “This doesn’t reflect our culture. We are a small, caring community.” Cooper and others have promised a review of the decision to privatize its lifeguard services, noting that the city’s contract with Jeff Ellis and Associates ends this year. The incident has provided a reminder that while privatization has its uses, the highest goal of a private corporation is not the performance of public services but the provision of profits.

Toward that end, Jeff Ellis and Associates has belatedly recognized that its business interests might be threatened by its own bottom-line fixation. Last week, the company announced that it had offered to rehire Lopez and other lifeguards who had either been fired or left the company voluntarily in the wake of the incident.

Lopez has declined the offer.

Corporations or businesses are not by any means inherently evil; to the contrary, they provide absolutely essential functions in a capitalist economy, and many are run in ways that attempt to mimic good citizenship. They are, however, inherently limited in their perspective and purpose. They are single-purpose human inventions, that purpose being to produce profit, and as Tomas Lopez reminds us, profit is not the highest and best goal of the human spirit.

– Jay Bookman