Breaking down the breakdown
Americans witnessed extraordinary happenings onWall Street in recent days. Huge lending, brokerage and insurance firms, which once stood as symbols of America’s financial strength and represented the nation’s resolve to do things right, came tumbling down. American taxpayers now own 79.9 percent of insurance giant AIG, but that doesn’t exactly constitute a soothing balm.
New York Daily News columnist Michael Daly, in his column — Another Major Crisis, And As Usual, There Are No Suspects — wrote last Thursday of entering the AIG Tower lobby to visit the observation deck, which offers clear views of Ground Zero in New York City. Despite his acclaimed status as one of the majority shareholders, the guards turned Daly away, to his consternation.
How’d that old nursery rhyme go?
“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the King’s horses, and all the King’s men, couldn’t put Humpty together again.”
The thing bothering me most about theWall Street breakdown is that top executives of those institutions simply refuse to shoulder blame for damaging the savings and investment plans of millions of Americans and show no remorse for destroying so many of their employees’ careers.
To me, they resemble the Delta Air Lines’ executives who took off from the mountaintop of prosperi- ty and crashed into bankruptcy, yet walked away with their own huge buyout payments and bulletproof pension plans intact.
Nearly 100,000 ordinary folks lost their jobs in theWall Street breakdown, but the fat cats with the penthouse offices where the buck is supposed to stop, will do no jail time.
The fact that those responsible will walk away makes the breakdown even worse than the Enron scandal, for at least a few of the Enron executives actually served hard time.
Where, one might ask, did it all go wrong? And, more importantly, is the “Humpty Dumpty” analogy accurate, or can the genie be coaxed back into the bottle after the smoke clears onWall Street? This is not rocket science. Nor is it the National Transportation Safety Board piecing together a downed airliner to find what caused the crash.
Unbridled greed caused the executives of those institutions to look the other way when unsafe lending practices were introduced in the name of greater profits.
Without exception, everyone thought they could gather all the golden eggs before the house of cards being built with unsound, unethical bookkeeping principles collapsed. They took all they could, lavished praise and million-dollar birthday parties upon themselves and hoped their retirement date would precede their institution’s demise.
Because it came at others’ expense (i.e.; actual monies lost in investments, careers lost, retirees loss of financial security in retirement after a lifetime of labor) that, in my mind, makes it criminal.
Folks a lot smarter than me say we’ve recovered from each of America’s financial meltdowns dating all the way back to Oct. 24, 1929. History teaches we’ll come through this thing. Humpty Dumpty will, in essence, be put together again.
But here’s the important question: should Humpty be put together again? The global economy as now structured assuredly demands it, but should Humpty be put back together as before?
Would it not constitute blasphemy for those who would boldly restructureWall Street in the name of recovering our citizenry’s lost fortunes and our nation’s lost prestige to simply change the names and faces in the penthouse suites, whilst making no substantive changes to the way America does business?
There’s a voice crying out in the wilderness, one I believe demands hearing on the matter. Although Wilmington, N.C. more closely resembles an earthly paradise, author Tom V. Morris cries out from that neck of the woods for a fundamental change to America’s corporate wilderness. And people need to listen to him.
Morris won renown as a philosophy professor at Notre Dame, where he was teacher of the year nearly annually back when Lou Holtz coached the Fighting Irish. Realizing a void existed in America’s business world, which was seeking ethical, moral, competent and compassionate leadership, Morris left Notre Dame and founded the Morris Institute for Human Values (www.morrisinstitute.com ).
He now tours America, speaking before a wide range of audiences interested in hearing how ethical change from the top can transform American business.
It’s my belief that now, more than ever, Wall Street and Main Street need to heed that voice calling from the Outer Banks. A good starting place is either of his two best-selling books on the subject, “If Aristotle Ran General Motors,” and the more recent “If Harry Potter Ran General Electric.”
One of my favorite 1990’s rock ballads, written by Dennis DeYoung and recorded by Styx, is entitled “ShowMe theWay.” A brief excerpt, paraphrased, comes eerily close to describing theWall Street Breakdown of 2008:
“Every night I say a prayer in the hope that there’s a Heaven, and every day I’m more confused as the saints turn into sinners. All the heroes and legends I knew as a child have fallen to idols of clay…”
Well, Tom Morris is showing American business just how to restructure the way we do things in the aftermath of theWall Street breakdown. Crying out from Wilmington, N.C., he needs hearing not only byWall Street, but by Main Street.
If America will listen to this reasoned voice, tempered with philosophical wisdom of the ages and steeped in the down-home virtues of human values, Tom Morris will indeed show us the way.