The Madoff scandal echoes a deeper absence inside our financial system, which has been undermined not merely by bad behavior but by the lack of checks and balances to discourage it. “Greed” doesn’t cut it as a satisfying explanation for the current financial crisis. Greed was necessary but insufficient; in any case, we are as likely to eliminate greed from our national character as we are lust and envy. The fixable problem isn’t the greed of the few but the misaligned interests of the many.
A lot has been said and written, for instance, about the corrupting effects on Wall Street of gigantic bonuses. What happened inside the major Wall Street firms, though, was more deeply unsettling than greedy people lusting for big checks: leaders of public corporations, especially financial corporations, are as good as required to lead for the short term.
Richard Fuld, the former chief executive of Lehman Brothers, E. Stanley O’Neal, the former chief executive of Merrill Lynch, and Charles O. Prince III, Citigroup’s chief executive, may have paid themselves humongous sums of money at the end of each year, as a result of the bond market bonanza. But if any one of them had set himself up as a whistleblower — had stood up and said “this business is irresponsible and we are not going to participate in it” — he would probably have been fired. Not immediately, perhaps. But a few quarters of earnings that lagged behind those of every other Wall Street firm would invite outrage from subordinates, who would flee for other, less responsible firms, and from shareholders, who would call for his resignation. Eventually he’d be replaced by someone willing to make money from the credit bubble.
OUR financial catastrophe, like Bernard Madoff’s pyramid scheme, required all sorts of important, plugged-in people to sacrifice our collective long-term interests for short-term gain. The pressure to do this in today’s financial markets is immense.