Mark Penn has a CONSCIENCE? Tell me another one!

He’s used Burson-Marsteller’s “conscience clause” to “recuse himself” from the firm’s union-busting practice. But there’s just one thing: Penn, when he’s not playing Svengali to Hillary Clinton’s Trilby, is the CEO of Burson-Marsteller. So he gets to decide whether Burson-Marsteller stays in the union-busting business or not. I guess his conscience doesn’t extend as far as reducing his income.

Hillary Clinton is catching flak from the unions because Mark Penn, her top strategist and pollster, is the CEO of the giant PR firm Burson-Marsteller, which has a lucrative union-busting practice.

Penn, with the sort of scupulous intellectual honesty you’d expect from a professional flack, says that he has used his firm’s “conscience clause” to “recuse himself” from Burson-Marsteller’s union-busting business. What the hell is that supposed to mean?

As the CEO, Penn gets to decide whether the firm stays in the union-busting business or not. If he has a conscientious objection to that activity &#8212 which would be reasonable, since union-busting means scheming with employers to deprive workers of an internationally-recognized human right (see Art. 23) &#8212 then he ought to close down the union-busting practice, and tell the Burson-Marsteller board they can fire him if they don’t like it. Or, if he thinks that union-busting is wrong but that getting out of that business would do irreparable damage to Burson-Marsteller, Penn could quit and find another outfit to be CEO of.

Or &#8212 unthinkably, I suppose &#8212 he could even accept a cut in his (no doubt more than ample) income in order to do the right thing. But apparently Penn has his conscience, such as it is, well under control, and doesn’t allow it to interfere with business. And obviously Clinton hasn’t insisted that Penn clean up either his own act or his company’s act.

Either Penn and Clinton don’t really think that union-busting is wrong, or they don’t care enough about the difference between right and wrong to do anything about it. I can’t come up with a third alternative. Can you?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: