Who should be culpable?
As we read about the latest bank settlement with the federal government, it may seem that $7 billion is a hefty fine to be paid by Citigroup. Apparently it’s not. Citigroup’s shares were up 3% on hearing of the settlement, so someone must be thinking it’s a good deal for the bank.
Some may argue that any settlement is better than ongoing investigations and the uncertainty that accompanies them, and therefore even $7 billion is a good deal, especially when no officer or director ended up in jail. These “decision-makers” or better yet “job-creators” are never touched by the long arm of the law. Are they above the law? Are they too rich to prosecute?
It’s a given that moral considerations aren’t part of the algorithm used by Wall Street mavens to make profits. It’s also a given that we shouldn’t judge banks’ performance by their moral aptitude or social contributions alone (even though some of them are proud of them). So, if we simply judge banks by the results of their financial performances, then Citigroup and its sister banks and hedge-funds are very clever indeed.
Knowingly commit a crime—fraudulently sell collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) tied to sub-par mortgages—make a huge profit for years, and then, years later, if and only if you are caught and convicted (which is possible but highly improbable), pay a fine. The billions you made along the way (whose value increases over time as you lend it again and again) remain yours minus the fines to eventually be paid.
Let’s translate this Wall-Street speech to a language the rest of us can understand. You and I steal money from unsuspecting people, make a profit off it, and pay a fine somewhere down the line if we get caught. If moral principles were invoked ahead of time, at the very beginning of the process, or better yet, before the crime is even conceived or committed, none of the awful things that follow would have ever happened.
The fact that the entire American economy (and large parts of the global economy) came to a halt because of such cavalier and criminal behavior may be worth recalling. It’s one thing to lie to secondary markets about the integrity of CODs, and quite another to create a financial bubble that is bound to burst. The “economy” isn’t hurt, it’s people who are hurt, flesh and blood.
The most successful program that the Bush/Obama Administrations undertook under the TARP initiative (close to $1 trillion in bailout funding) was in my mind “Cash for Clunkers” (Car Allowance Rebate System). The program lasted only a few short months in the summer of 2009, but the eventually allocated $3 billion provided for over 690,000 dealer transactions.
Whether the original intent was energy-savings, greater fuel-efficiency of trucks, or the stimulation of the car industry in the midst of the Great Recession remains unclear. But to actually put in the hands of individuals a credit towards buying a new car helped get reluctant consumers into car dealerships, 690,000 of them!, and helped car sales.
Just think what would have been the impact if the same voucher system of $2,500-$4,500 credit was given to homeowners. What would have happened if not $3 billion but $300 billion (much less than was given to large banks) was allocated to homeowners with vouchers worth $5,000-$9,000 each? Simple arithmetic would suggest that 34,500,000 transactions could have taken place, enough to avert the housing collapse, and the suffering of those facing foreclosures.
Instead of celebrating the triumph of the Attorney General, instead of feeling relief that justice is being exacted on corporate giants, we should pause and think again: is this the kind of country we want to live in? Is this the kind of capitalism we are willing to endure? Fines may assuage our outrage a bit, but justice requires more than a slap on the hand.
To put this $7 billion fine in perspective, Citigroup has a larger annual profit (on average) than the fine it just agreed to pay. Just like other costs associated with its operations, paying fines here and there is just the “cost of doing business.” Can you imagine that someone would routinely drive recklessly and threaten the lives of pedestrians and other drivers and agree to pay a fine here and there when caught without ever being threatened with a driver’s license revocation?
Would we feel sanguine to live in a community where known criminals like Citigroup’s officers and directors, executives and middle managers, get a pass no matter what they do? Citigroup’s crime was not victimless; its profits were at the expense of others; people’s lives were so affected that houses were lost, savings evaporated, and marriages dissolved. This was a crime, indeed, just as egregious and heartless as outright theft or burglary.
The idea that we can separate money from morals is false. The belief that my profits are never at your expense is also not true in all cases. So, before you decide what to make of Citigroup’s fine, just remember those you know who suffered in the Great Recession. Their sufferings were real; Citigroup’s weren’t (no matter what the Supreme Court says about corporations being citizens). And the culture of calculated fraud shouldn’t be ours.
Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com