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Thursday, November 27, 2008

"The Moral Stage of Wall Street"

George Packer wants Wall Street executives to grow up and apologize for their behavior:

The Moral Stage of Wall Street, by George Packer: Swiss bankers are not known as paragons of transparency and moral accountability, so it’s a nice surprise to read that the top officials of UBS, the foundering financial institution recently bailed out by the Swiss government, will forgo twenty-seven million dollars in compensation and bonuses. It appears that these Swiss bankers have a faint pulse of shame.

It has not gone remarked upon enough that their American counterparts apparently have none. Having brought the American and global economy to its knees through their reckless, short-sighted, downright stupid investments, and then looked to the government for a very expensive lifeline, the leaders of Citigroup, A.I.G., Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Lehman, and other financial giants are maintaining a carefully nonchalant public posture. Andrew Cuomo, New York’s Attorney General, had to hold a threatening press conference on Wall Street in order to frighten A.I.G. into announcing that raises, bonuses, and lavish retreats will be suspended. But fear is not the same thing as shame. Morally speaking, it’s inferior.

The moral code of these Wall Street executives corresponds to stage one of Lawrence Kohlberg’s famous stages of morality: “The concern is with what authorities permit and punish.” Morally, they are very young children. The Swiss bankers are closer to stage four, most common among late teens, where a concern for maintaining the good functioning of society takes hold. Stage six, an elaboration of universal moral principles based on an idea of the good society, is a distant dream for the titans of global finance.

In private life, extreme indebtedness, bankruptcy, the ruin of those close to you, and dependence on the government dole are generally thought to be causes for anguish, self-denial, and a degree of shame. But if you’re a financial executive with an exalted title, a big enough salary, a deep enough debt, and a vast enough handout, these same disasters entitle you to go on living and feeling about yourself much as you did before. You even have a right to think that the taxpayers owe it to you—that it’s for their own good, not yours. You don’t have to explain yourself; you certainly don’t have to apologize.

I would like to see these malefactors of great wealth apologize to the country. I would like to see them organize their own press conference in a lineup on Wall Street and, in the manner of disgraced Japanese officials, bow low to the pavement, express contrition, and beg their countrymen’s forgiveness. Such a scene would go some way toward cleansing the smell of the financial crisis.

Of course, nothing like this is going to happen. So instead, like the parents of two-year-olds, the next Congress should summon them to Washington and publicly punish these executives who, in Kohlberg’s terms, “see morality as something external to themselves, as that which the big people say they must do.”

Update: Arnold Kling comments:

I tend to agree with Tyler Cowen that individual moral propensities are less important than overall social context. To borrow from a different branch of social psychology, I would say that Packer is committing the Fundamental Attribution Error.

In my view, the problem comes from trying to use what I call letter-of-the-law regulation in finance. Call it L regulation. With L regulation, the regulator lays down specific, quantitative boundaries (think of risk-based capital requirements, with fixed numerical weights for various types of assets). The managers of financial institutions are told to stay within those boundaries.

In contrast, think of something I might call S regulation, for spirit of the law. With S regulation, the manager of a financial institution that enjoys some government protection would take an oath to maintain the safety and soundness of the institution. With S regulation, it is wrong to just tiptoe along the edge of the quantitative boundaries, without considering the potential risk to the firm.

Suppose we take it as given that government is going to protect some of the liabilities of some institutions, because of deposit insurance, implicit guarantees, "too big to fail," or other reasons. I would like to see such institutions be covered by S regulation even more than by L regulation.

I would like to see managers of government-protected institutions take an oath to safeguard the soundness of their companies. I would like to see them subjected to prison terms for violating that oath. The oath is a general promise, not satisfied simply by staying within the boundaries of L regulation.

I believe that S regulation would change the motives of bank managers. They would be looking for ways to avoid failure, rather than for ways to stay within the letter of the law.

There can be plenty of risk-taking institutions in our society. But they should not at the same time be institutions that enjoy government protection when they fail.

    Posted by on Thursday, November 27, 2008 at 01:17 AM in Economics, Financial System | Permalink  TrackBack (2)  Comments (31)


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