As we grope our way through yet another economic crisis, it’s important to ponder the lessons of this catastrophe because it didn’t have to happen. The price of oil is beyond our control, but the housing and credit calamity was made in America by Americans, mainly on Wall Street, who got carried away with their own financial acumen. Then everything “turned to ashes in their hands,” to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald. Those lessons lie in the language of finance. Especially revealing are three little words.
The first is risk, which has been trivialized to the point that it has no meaning anymore. Forgotten is the adage that to risk your fortune — or somebody else’s — is to gamble, and it is critical first to assess the odds. But some have been so busy pricing risk, managing risk, diluting risk that they failed to notice, or even to care, what their vulnerabilities really were. They know now, and so, unhappily, do the rest of us.
The second word to watch out for is bet. What once was an honorable world of venerable souls known as financiers has been converted into a grand casino peopled, in some cases, by players who never thought to learn the rules of the game. And the game is governed above all by the law of gravity. Nothing ascends forever. Those who want the casino should have it, but as one observer put it, the products they sell should be labeled “dangerous to your health,” just like the Surgeon General’s warning on a pack of cigarettes.
Word number three is innovation. This once was a good word and should be a good word again. Innovation should stand for the new, the creative, the fresh-and-far sighted. Instead it has been stolen by small group of charlatans in the financial system to cover a whole range of skullduggery and silliness that has spread devastation over three continents, with more to come.
Lord David Owen, a British politician and neurologist, has written a book called In Sickness and in Power which explores the issue of illness in political leaders. In this work he identifies an ailment called hubristic syndrome, and he agrees that it can occur in business as well as government when those in charge grow so sure of their own certitude that they rush into mad adventures, unrestrained by the admonitions of anybody. In such people, Lord Own explained, ordinary mistakes take on the aura of colossal incompetence.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in their stars, but in themselves. So what is needed now is not just a floor beneath the price of houses. What must happen is a change in the philosophy and thus the language of business. Every endeavor, however commercial, requires a redeeming idea. For farmers, plumbers and architects it is obvious. For those in the world of finance it is equally clear though too often forgotten — to capitalize the economy and safeguard the life savings of people in a way that is wise. Earning fees, of course, is a necessary reward, but that effort turns destructive if allowed to dominate the enterprise. American business leaders must put real goods and real services at the center of their efforts if they are to regain a solid footing in the real world, where more is expected of this nation than has been delivered of late.