Connect the Dots on Business Ethics

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the Boulder Daily Camera (Colorado)

Connect the Dots on Business Ethics

AUSTIN, Texas — It's time to connect the dots. If you think the government is having a connection problem on the national security side, you should take a look at the starburst of dots on the economic side for a really stunning scandal. When you start to connect the dots on the business side, you will notice that we're being stolen blind.

One of the best interviews I've read in a long time is in the current issue of The Texas Observer with Bill Black, a name that will bring back fond memories for those who followed the S&L scandals closely.

Black is now an assistant professor of public affairs at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. He is a lawyer, an economist and former litigation director of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board — which is to say, the man who went after the S&L crooks. After he left government, he got a Ph.D. in criminology. His greatest claim to fame is that Charles Keating, that noted thief, once wrote a memo to his top lobbyist that said: "Highest priority — Get Black. GOOD GRIEF — If you can't get (Jim) Wright and Congress to get Black — kill him dead — you ought to retire."

So Black's pretty much the perfect guy to analyze the Much-Bigger-Than-Enron mess into which the financial industry has now got itself.

In case you hadn't noticed, a mentality of crookedness has pretty much taken over many of the advanced reaches of capitalism. Or as The Wall Street Journal noted almost parenthetically on its front page last Thursday, "The failures of Wall Street's compliance efforts are coming under intense scrutiny — part of a growing awareness of how deeply flawed the U.S. financial markets really are. (Emphasis added.) The watchdogs charged with keeping the financial world honest have all lost credibility themselves: outside auditors who bend the rules to please corporate clients, analysts who shape stock recommendations to woo investment-banking customers and government regulators too timid or overwhelmed to keep track of the frenzy."

The Journal is entitled to note this really rather major story parenthetically, since the paper has faithfully covered and uncovered much of the story itself. But where are the rest of the media? Of course, the latest developments in the Chandra Levy case are more gripping, but I have yet to see a headline "connecting the dots" between Enron, Global Crossing, Merrill Lynch, Arthur Andersen, etc. The Texas Observer gets it: Where's the rest of the media?

What Bill Black calls "control fraud" is when the people who control the organization — Ken Lay or whoever — either set out to commit rank fraud or just drift into doing it. How they do it is fascinating in itself, but I was even more struck by Black's analysis of their motivation

Says Black of the spectacular crooks of capitalism: "Do they know what is going on? Some part of them knows. People are very good at denial. In the criminal business, our jargon is 'neutralization techniques.' Rationalization is just one of those. For example, the Keatings of the world don't simply do the, 'Well, it's OK, everybody does it' type of rationalization. They have a much better variant. It's: 'We are geniuses. We are transcendent individuals, and we are dealing with stupid bureaucrats.'

"You tell each of your people — and you've hired very callow folks with very little experience — they are geniuses. You fire anybody who asks questions. That was the central rule. Pretty soon, you have a group of yes-men who think they are really bright. And the next step is to say, 'Not only are the government regulators stupid, but they are out to get us.' It's Us against Them. ... What we seem unwilling in our business culture to admit is that it became a fraud a long time ago in a broad range of businesses."

Black goes on to cite several common tax dodges and accounting tricks. The erosion of morality in the business world is so massive and so obvious, I trust Bill Bennett, the ethics czar, will take up the subject momentarily.

While it is a certainly a pleasant exercise to point out other people's moral failings, the larger problem is, as Black says, "you can screw up your economy big time. I have some hope that the collapse of our tech bubble, which was one of the largest bubbles in the history of the world, has also scared some folks into thinking that maybe this isn't such a clever way of doing it. Unfortunately, the attitude was, 'The rules are silly,' and, 'Aren't we so cleaver?' And that combination produces a lot of the worst disasters."

For me, some of the dots have come from friends who also happen to be corporate wives. It is quite striking how their level of concern about business morality has been rising off the charts. Connect the dots.

Molly Ivins

Molly Ivins

Molly Ivins (August 30, 1944 – January 31, 2007) was an American newspaper columnist, liberal political commentator, humorist and author. From Americans Who Tell the Truth: "To honor a journalist as a truth teller is implicitly to comment on the scarcity of courage and candor in a profession ostensibly dedicated to writing and speaking the truth. Molly Ivins is singular in her profession not only for her willingness to speak truth to power but for her use of humor to lampoon the self-seeking, the corrupt and the incompetent in positions of public trust. Her wit and insight place her squarely in the tradition of America’s great political humorists like Mark Twain."

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