We were bouncing ideas around before Christmas about trust, the honesty of politicians, European leaders, bankers, the regulators (and the regulatory framework) etc.
Then Ray Fletcher sent me a report from the US that called for political reform.
It included a paragraph:
How about we resolve to elect honest people whose first mandate is to revolutionize Congress by enacting laws that strip them of their un-American privileges, inordinate power to pander to bankers and their ability to hide behind their offices as if they are above every other American?
I thought that was both brilliant and sad.
Brilliant, because if we could do that with politicians, regulators, bankers etc. we’d have a better world – sad because I think it misunderstands the psychology of power and is unrealistic.
Think of politicians. The Greek Philosopher Diogenes searched for an honest man. In the society that was the fount of Democracy, he couldn’t find one.
Imagine we do better, we find an honest person. What interest do they have in getting elected? They don’t want power for themselves, so do they want to engage in the in-fighting involved in getting the funding and material support to get elected? Without it, how will they get elected?
Imagine they get a party’s support. At the first vote where their personal integrity conflicts with party policy they will, being honest, vote with their conscience. That’s the end of party support, they’re a dangerous loose cannon. Or do they compromise their ethics for the sake of keeping their place. So their own career is more important than what they know to be the truth. And they haven’t even got elected yet!
In the show Soho Cinders (which I recommend you see), Stiles and Drew describe a fictional Mayoral candidate for London, who runs on a platform of integrity, anti-sleaze, honesty. Here are some elements of his initial feelings:
How can you go wrong with honest,
How can you go wrong with simple truth, plain talking?
That’s what people want.
Since when did decency become old fashioned, hidden by a smokescreen of cliché?
How can you go wrong with honest,
How can you give way to lies and sleaze, I ask you,
What is there to gain?
And who made arrogance a job requirement for the public servants we elect?
It’s all great stuff, he’s a wonderful character, you’re rooting for him to win before the end of the song.
And then the agent appears. He’s the bad guy (or realist, depending on your point of view).
He says that:
At the end of the day, it’s all about a cross in a box.
And that’s the point.
Spoiler alert, the hero doesn’t get elected!
In our democratic system, it is about a cross in a box. It doesn’t matter whether it’s proportional representation, first past the post, Westminster, Holyrood, the White House or anywhere else, that cross is what matters.
It might help to remember that the song I’ve referred to is called, Spin. And it also has the line:
Spin, spin out of control, sign the paperwork and sell your soul.
We might think we want honesty, but we’ve got a system that is set up to squeeze it out.
The people who are going to get elected and get political power are the ones determined enough to jump through the hoops to get elected. That means they’ve got to want it a lot, they must be really motivated to get that power.
How motivated to do what it takes is the person who doesn’t want the power anyway?
The motivations, the rewards, the structures, the whole system, is set up to reward spin, deceit, arrogance, selfishness etc. and to weed out the weak/altruistic, naive/honest, flawed/humble individual.
In the same way, corporate power is available, but think about the system that operates to decide who gets it and controls it.
If you are a banker and obey the spirit, not the letter of the law on investments, what is likely to happen? You’ll pull out of securitised, bundled property in the US, because it is very profitable, but extremely risky. That is not likely to get you voted European Banker of the Year or get you a Knighthood (even if they want to take it back later anyway). Nor is it likely to endear you to the corporate shareholders who wanted big returns on investment, and who are likely to vote you out.
But if you do what everybody else does, bend the rules (and maybe break them, as long as you can hide what you’re doing), you get rewarded handsomely.
Meanwhile, the regulator “obviously” has to be an expert, a top financier, incorruptible and wise. They have to know how complex finance is, have to have worked in the industry, to be in the “tribe” with the people being regulated so will they be objective about their friends? Or will they extend the sort of consideration we extend to our friends when they face tough decisions and maybe make the odd mistake?
I’d love it if we put honest people into positions of power..
But if we want to do that, we need to realise that in the abstract, honest quite possibly means “disinterested” (not uninterested) and the systems we have in politics, in business and in regulation don’t put disinterested people at the top, they put very biased people at the top.
If we want to get “honesty” in there, we have to have a system that promotes honesty, rather than squeezes it out, that weeds out selfishness, spin, superficiality rather than rewarding them.
It isn’t easy. But as somebody who has absolutely no desire to be PM, a banker or a regulator, I can give a disinterested opinion that can, I think, be regarded as expert.
Finding honest people is a waste of time until we have a system that promotes them to the top. So the first priority is to change the system.
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