Plata o Plomo (Silver or Lead): How to make a killing in the world of business

Plata o Plomo. It’s Spanish for “Silver or Lead,” a phrase meaning “take the bribe or take the bullet,” essentially: cooperate or be destroyed. I never knew of this saying until recently, when it appeared on a word of the day app on my phone. I said it in my head a few times, and seemed so simple, yet so powerful. It’s been stuck in my mind ever since. It evoked something in my imagination akin to a robbery in the old west, or a threat from the mafia, right before someone gets “whacked.”

Notorious drug kingpin, Pablo Escobar [Photo Credit: Reuters]
“All empires are created of blood and fire.” — Pablo Escobar

It’s cold, brutal, and heartless — criminals saying: “you will work for us if you want to live.” I’ve seen it a thousand times in movies — I’m a white American male, mind you, so I've only witnessed real tragedies on the big screen and in print — and its horrific. It’s bad enough to force a way of life on someone, let alone when it is a life of greed, bloodshed, and servitude.

But you know what else is horrific?

That we could react to such violence and injustice by saying:

“I’m glad I don’t live there.”

“That could never happen to me.”

“It must really suck for them.”

You see, these things can happen anywhere, to anyone. And they are. It’s happening to you and me right now. But here’s the catch: the criminal doesn’t always hold a gun. They can just hold your livelihood instead. Work for us (and ignore the harm we do), or go hungry. Greed is universal, and all-consuming. The repercussion of greed is conquest — of land, people, animals, you name it. All of them lose autonomy when they become a resource. In the eyes of big business, anything that isn’t a resource is a nuisance.

Elephant Logging in Myanmar [Photo Credit: Tiffany Ang/Al Jazeera]

The more lucrative the business, the more potential for corruption. Well, corruption, or disregard for human well-being, they walk hand in hand. It’s a matter of cutting costs, maximizing profits, and expanding access. Producers can be ruthless in any industry, regardless of where you live. For instance: textile manufacturers in Bangladesh and El Salvador, oil production in Iran and Nigeria, diamond mining in South Africa and the Sakha Republic, the production of coca in Peru, or the production of coffee or cocoa beans in Brazil and Indonesia. And most lucrative of all, the global financial services industry. To meet greater demands (and widen profit margins), more resources are needed (particularly, land and labor) and the competition for resources becomes an opportunity for conquest.

How can industries set lower wages, acquire more preferable contracts, and cut as many corners as possible? Dismantling and preventing regulations. That’s been the name of the game ever since regulations were conceived to protect laborers (and later, the environment) from harm and mistreatment.

The collapse of the Sevar Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh resulted in over 1,100 deaths [Photo Credit: Reuters]

Regulations are not a burden. Anarchy is a burden. Plutocracy is a burden.

The way to make a killing in the world of business is to have a monopoly. Give consumers no other option but to buy, and laborers no other option but to sell, at the prices set by the industry. Competition is snuffed out, or bought out. Competition for profits has driven corporations to extremes, namely, the loss of ethics and responsibility. Industry has the money and power to buy out legislators, and have their bidding done in congress. This should not be news to anyone familiar with American politics. They do this so they can legally get away with paying employees starvation wages for endless hours in poor conditions, dispose of harmful pollutants in our air, water, and earth, and avoiding taxation.

Satellite imagery of the 2010 BP oil spill off the coast of Louisiana [photo credits: NASA]

Do not underestimate their power; the economic activities of some companies rival that of entire nations. In fact, of the 100 largest economic entities in the world, almost half of them are corporations. If Walmart were a nation, its GDP would be about the 26th largest in the world, approximately on par with Austria. ExonnMobil? On par with Thailand. General Electric? Their revenue is equal to the GDP of Bangladesh. We’re talking hundreds of billions of dollars. You better believe they use it to their advantage.

The ongoing natural gas leak at the Aliso Canyon oil & gas facility, north of Los Angeles [Photo credits: Environmental Defense Fund]

Industry has no time to worry about your health, your leisure, or your kids, (unless it can make money off them as consumers, which it tends to) The sad reality is that most labor is easily replaceable. Well, it isn’t sad for employers, of course, it suits them quite well. The primary concern of almost any business is just profits. I wish I could say they are innovators, leading the quest for new solutions to the world’s problems, but it simply isn’t true. There are some exceptions, but all in all, the motto seems to be the same:

“Plato o plomo.”

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