In a film called “The Flaw” the economic collapse of 2008 is examined. I cannot determine the date of the film, though it seems to be around 2010. And I cannot know how skewed it might be, since I am pretty limited in economics and fiscal complexities. (I’m still trying to figure out what money is. Maybe I just haven’t seen enough of it.)
There are a number of ideas in the film, however, which intrigue me. One is a brief defense of high executive salaries and bonuses offered by Jim O’Neil, who is called the Chief Economist for Goldman Sachs, a firm at the heart of much of our financial mess. Here’s what he says:
I think the compensation strategy that we’ve had for many years is in line with the best practices to encourage long term incentives. We want to hire and retain the smartest people in the world and so we have to offer them incentives which can compete with those who are trying to attract the best and smartest people, too.
One wonders, of course, how to explain the stupidity of these, the “best and smartest.” One factor, I suspect, is an extreme specialization. These financial leaders know how to make a profit but are so narrow that they cannot see — or care about — larger issues like wisdom and virtue and justice.
A recent PBS interview with Sheilah Baer, former head of the FDIC, puts the matter more pointedly. Asked how we got into such a mess, her first response was, “Greed.” How refreshing to hear a financial expert recognize that the heart of human problems is the struggle between good and evil.
Many years ago Connie Chung, on leaving her position as a CBS news anchor, was asked a somewhat generalized question about the state of affairs in American public life. Her answer was that she worried about unchecked greed. She, like Sheilah Baer, was seeing fiscal and political activities as manifestations of intangible human values.
It is no longer fashionable to talk about the Seven Deadly Sins, of which greed is one. Criminals, I suppose, don’t have much interest in talking about sin and virtue. Methinks we’d better reinvigorate the conversation!
We might ask, for example, whether greed disqualifies one from being counted among the “best and smartest”? Do we want to entrust great responsibility to one who would choose one job over another because it pays $100 million rather than $80 million? Is there any meaningful difference between the two numbers? I don’t think so.
Never in history has it been good for a people to have a huge gulf between the wealthy and the middle class. Our day is no exception.
Long ago, the Lord spoke against ancient Israel:
“Thus says the LORD: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals — they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” (Amos 2:6-7).
[“The Flaw,” by the way, is available on Netflix.]