In Conflict with Ourselves

March 1, 2014
May 1 deadline Tool-and-die materials in question Opportunism in action

There is a deadline looming for forgers and other manufacturers to demonstrate their compliance with certain details of the Dodd-Frank legislation that concern “conflict minerals”; if you are not in compliance, or don’t know whether the regulations apply to you, take steps to understand exactly what your liability and obligations are. I don’t offer advice here, but I think the issue is a window into what is an increasing concern for manufacturers, and a widening gap in our ability to live and act with decency in what we too casually call “the global economy.”

By May 1, U.S. manufacturing companies must reliably disclose any use by their organizations of minerals mined in or around the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That benighted territory has been the setting for all manner of inhumanity for at least 15 years, with armed guerillas and rebel groups preying on the population and financing themselves and their activities by the sale of minerals found in region – often, minerals gathered and processed under conditions of slavery and torture.

The minerals in question include Columbite-Tantalite (source for tantalum), Cassiterite (used to produce tin), and Wolframite — used to produce tungsten, which is so essential to tool steels, and therein the likeliest risk for forgers. These minerals, as well as gold, which is less industrial but of course very profitable, are passed through extensive supply chains that blur the details of the process but deliver a tidy income back in the Congo.

It would be unconscionable to raise any objection to the goal of the regulation: the brutality of life in central Africa is so hideous that most of news sources have given up trying to monitor it. The industrial-scale cruelty is comparable to Nazi and Soviet crimes, and its profit levels offset what it lacks in ideological justification. Still, “out of sight, out of mind” – which is at least one reason that human-rights activists have identified these resources as “conflict minerals.”

Elected officials, under influence from the activists, agreed to try to halt the trade in conflict minerals by using financial-disclosure regulations (thus, the Dodd-Frank legislation) to compel commercial enterprises to sever their links to the sources of the minerals. Thus, the May deadline.

To repeat, I find it impossible to impugn the motives of this regulation, but as in so many details of human activity the intentions are distorted by the implementation. Forgers and other manufacturers will comply: they will document their liabilities, if any, and address any infractions of the regulation. They will be ‘clean’ of any connection to the savagery that is at the source of the materials — or they will pay penalty. And that penalty will be collected by the regulatory body, and representatives of the violator and the enforcer will issue statements resolving the matter. A cynic would call this ‘opportunistic,’ but if so its a comparatively small violation here.

Of course, there will be no resolution for anyone killed or maimed in the mining of conflict minerals, and no punishment for the fiends who will continue their barbarous enterprises.

There are many virtues to the commercial system that matured about 500 years ago and continues to evolve: it locates resources and puts these to effective use; it rewards talent and innovation; and it accelerates the movement of capital, a process by which many lives can be improved.

But this system also disrupts the link between individual acts and moral consequences. And it encourages us to reorder our priorities to suit prevailing laws or customs. If we accept the opportunities of the global economy, we must realize that we accept the costs, too. Capitalism shaped this new morality, but it will not resolve the conflicts it fosters in our values.