26 February 2013

Goldman, Banking, Washington, and Business Ethics: Cultural Observations from Two Smiths

"I'm a very firm believer that a liar is a cheat and a thief and a crook. I don't like liars. I never lie. I always told my own child, "If you murder somebody, tell me. I'll help you hide the body. But don't you lie to me."

"We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes."

Leona Helmsley

"There is not a more perilous or immoral habit of mind than the sanctifying of success.”

Lord Acton

I wish that C-Span would permit their videos to be 'embeddable.'

Greg's talk is excellent, and thanks to C-Span the video quality is good.

Greg Smith Speaking At Stanford on His Experience at Goldman and Reasons for the Corrosive Decline in Business Ethics

Speaking of excellent essays on corruption, Yves Smith has written a wonderful piece titled, Jack Lew’s Grotesque Citi Employment Deal and the Institutionalization of Corruption.

Corruption, facilitated by the credibility trap, is the biggest problem facing the West today. That is the real subsidy, the most debilitating entitlement.

It is the belief of the elite that the power of their office is an achievement that rewards them with the right to lie, cheat and steal, both for themselves and their friends.

Although it is most important to understand that they would be shocked and insulted if one uses those words, lie, cheat and steal, to describe what they are doing.  They view themselves as exceptionally hard working, as obligated by their natural gifts and superiority.

Through a long indoctrination that starts sometimes in their families, but is most often affirmed in their elite schools and with their circle of privileged friends, they learn to rationalize selective moral behaviour not as immoral but as 'the entitlement of success.'  And they are supported by a horde of morally ambivalent enablers who will tell them whatever they wish to hear.

There are one set of rules for themselves and their friends, and another set of rules for the rest.

Few who actually do evil consciously choose to be evil.  They rationalize what they do in any number of ways, but the deceit often hinges on their own natural superiority, and the objectification and denigration of the other.  We are makers, and they are takers. Although many may work hard, they see their own work as having special value and merit, while the actions of the others are inconsequential and unworthy.

Given enough time, their rationalizations become an ideology, desensitized to the meaning and significance of others outside their own select group.  This supremacy of ideology empties their souls, and opens the door to mass privation and even murder, although rarely done by their own hands.

This is what Glenn Greenwald calls 'justice for some.' Or even earlier what George Orwell captured in the slogan, 'Some animals are more equal than others.'

And just to be clear on this, with regard to the Anglo-American political situation, the tragedy is not that just some are corrupted, which is always the case. The tragedy is that the Democrats and the Labour Party learned that they could become as servilely corrupted by Big Money as the Republicans and the Conservative Party, while maintaining the illusion of serving their traditional political base.

And it has rewarded them very well in terms of extraordinarily well-funded political power, and almost unbelievable personal enrichment afterwards.  

In such a climate of corruption,  political discourse loses the vitality of ideas and compromise for the general good, and take on the character of competing gangs and crime families, engaged in aggressive schemes and protracted turf wars, tottering from one pitched battle and crisis to another.
"A credibility trap is a condition wherein the financial, political and informational functions of a society have been compromised by corruption and fraud, so that the leadership cannot effectively reform, or even honestly address, the problems of that system without impairing and implicating, at least incidentally, a broad swath of the power structure, including themselves.

The status quo tolerates the corruption and the fraud because they have profited at least indirectly from it, and would like to continue to do so. Even the impulse to reform within the power structure is susceptible to various forms of soft blackmail and coercion by the system that maintains and rewards.

And so a failed policy and its support system become self-sustaining, long after it is seen by objective observers to have failed. In its failure it is counterproductive, and an impediment to recovery in the real economy. Admitting failure is not an option for the thought leaders who receive their power from that system.

The continuity of the structural hierarchy must therefore be maintained at all costs, even to the point of becoming a painfully obvious hypocrisy.

And you know how I feel about this.
The Banks must be restrained, and the financial system reformed, with balance restored to the economy, before there can be any sustainable recovery.

The problem which the modern world has not yet grappled is how to react to the rise of a global elite, which considers itself the children of a power which is above national restraints, and a law unto themselves.

Their success has been propelled by the dominance of Anglo-American financialization, and the rise of oligarchies in Russia, China, Latin America, and India.  Countervailing power has been co-opted and subsumed.  Any opposition has become marginalized and isolated.

The new oligarchs are supported by their fiat currencies, which together the increase of insubstantial 'cashlessness' in wealth,  provides the ability to define and allocate value at will

They have a penchant towards globalization and deregulation to support selective justice, to the extreme detriment of local rule, and individual choice and freedom.   Above all, they are a law unto themselves, above what they consider subhuman restraint.  Übermenschen.

“Our light-speed, globally connected economy has led to the rise of a new super-elite that consists, to a notable degree, of first- and second-generation wealth. Its members are hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition—and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn't succeed so spectacularly. Perhaps most noteworthy, they are becoming a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home. Whether they maintain primary residences in New York or Hong Kong, Moscow or Mumbai, today's super-rich are increasingly a nation unto themselves...

A multibillion-dollar bailout and Wall Street’s swift, subsequent reinstatement of gargantuan bonuses have inspired a narrative of parasitic bankers and other elites rigging the game for their own benefit. And this, in turn, has led to wider—and not unreasonable—fears that we are living in not merely a plutonomy, but a plutocracy, in which the rich display outsize political influence, narrowly self-interested motives, and a casual indifference to anyone outside their own rarefied economic bubble."

Chrystia Freeland, The Rise of the New Global Elite

Of course this tendency is not new in history, as it is a facet of the human heart, and the empires of the past. But the scope of it is something rarely seen before this. And it is supported by technologies for mass action and control that seem terrifyingly powerful and new.

And as hard as it may be to believe, this too shall pass. But as always, we have some work to do in our own time.

“The mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness He grinds all.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow