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So much for Halliburton

Observer Viewpoint | Monday, April 25, 2005

And to think, I was this close to gainful employment. Those hooded robe-wearing executives at Halliburton started recruiting me roughly two years ago upon discovering that, wonder of wonders, a Notre Dame student favors unfettered oil exploration across the world. Their weekly emails became tiresome, true, but I found myself flattered by their insistence that I join their ranks upon graduation. The allure of a seven-digit starting salary certainly had its perks, particularly when informed that I only had to keep my GPA above 2.0 in my final semester. Alas, the enterprising efforts of the Class of 2005 halted me in my capitalistic tracks when a representative asked me to sign the Senior Class Pledge of Social Responsibility.

Really, I just wanted the trip to the gas pump to be slightly less painful, since not everyone can afford a new Toyota Prius with the added option of a creative anti-Bush bumper sticker pre-attached. The Senior Class Pledge, however, implored me to maintain a “disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice and oppression that burden the lives of so many,” so I pondered whether working for a capitalist organization hell-bent on developing the infrastructure of third-world actually passed the test.

My training in economics, the soul food of social scientists and bane of the idealists, told me yes, corporations who exclusively focus on the profit motive can in fact improve the lives of the impoverished across the world.

When I asked the pledge representative what he thought about Halliburton, conveniently glossing over my impending corporate coronation, he told me that my future employer is “the worst corporation out there.” Just as my pen touched the pledge, I pulled it back in horror. So much for oil-driven poverty relief. Realizing that if Notre Dame’s mission statement, adapted into the Class of 2005’s agenda for the future, has any teeth, then distinctions must be drawn as to which jobs are good, bad or downright socially irresponsible. The representative reassured me that no job is necessarily out of bounds, so long as we take the words of the pledge to heart, but my shock turned to resentment.

Now I knew the meaning of Catholic guilt. I took a rain check on signing the pledge until I could reevaluate my internal motives and their potential effects on civil society and the ideal of social justice. I called Halliburton to ask for more time before making a final decision, and the Dark Sith Lord cursed, spitting “Don’t tell me that pledge is going to take another one away from us.”

My conscience in jeopardy, I considered the careers my fellow arts and letters majors will soon commence – Teach for America, Alliance for Catholic Education, NGOs from Oxfam to Greenpeace. Their genuine commitment to making a direct positive impact on the world squashed my selfish plans to light Cuban cigars with $20 bills while laughing devilishly in the boardroom.

How can a lifelong capitalist reconcile notions of empathizing with the poor and “striving to make [Notre Dame’s] values present in any organization for which I work?” Once again, the wisdom of Smith, Ricardo, Friedman, Bhagwati and other bedside reads provided me ample support. Never lost should be the notion that capitalism, free markets, and limited government regulation provide the greatest good, certainly serving to advance the opportunities of the least advantaged. After four years of education at Notre Dame, these simple tenets should be as recognizable as the Ten Commandments.

Questions of taxation, redistribution and the extent of regulation will always enliven the masses and inspire the political careers of half the aforementioned arts and letters majors. However, wealth creation precedes wealth redistribution, ambition and competition allow trust-funded politicians to decry the evils of ambition and competition and human ingenuity created the endowment on which our University’s education relies.

So why on earth are business majors most likely to be intimidated by the language of the 2005 Senior Class Pledge of Social Responsibility? Their service to humanity is decidedly less direct than the efforts of those who devote their next several years to helping the needy, but neither side of the service/business divide deserves the right to morally grandstand.

Perhaps by carrying the pledge reminder card in my pocket, I’ll remember to bring up questions such as “Yes, but how does our corporation serve humanity and further the common good?” The irony abounds once one opens the mind to the possibility that self-interested actions directly contribute to these ends. Questioning or decrying the moral motives of corporate America is an easy way out, but confronting the idea that some business executives deserve their salaries should not be offensive on any level.

I got what I deserved. Two hours later, I called Halliburton back to learn that they had already given my dream job to another candidate. Such is the competitive world. I guess I’ll start my own oil company.

Bill Rinner is a senior economics major. He can be contacted at wrinner@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.