My boy and I watched Jon Stewart last night (possibly the night before), and Jon did a bit about the current fiasco at AIG. He showed a nice montage of video clips, showing various pundits’ sound bites on the subject. The last (and best) was some yahoo who stated that the culprits at AIG should ‘receive the Nobel Prize for Evil’.
First off, I agree with Jon – we really should stop giving out that prize. Second, I don’t think this is a case of evil at work. As much as we all might like to think otherwise, I don’t honestly believe that a group of evil, calculating men (think Cheney) sat around a boardroom and made an evil group decision to do the wrong thing with the taxpayers’ money.
I think something more insidious and frightening occurred: Business As Usual. I think the bonuses were given to those folks at AIG simply because it never occurred to anyone involved to do anything different. Because their values are so skewed that they didn’t actually perceive of it as being ‘wrong’. It’s just the way these things are done. Incompetence is rewarded. Gross incompetence is rewarded richly. And I find it hard to assign any blame to the individuals involved. I don’t think their professional lives equipped them to make ethical decisions. They live in a world where poor judgement and mismanagement are admired and rewarded. How could we expect them to do anything but aspire to these lofty ideals?
The problem lies not in a few individuals (be they evil or not), but rather in the system itself. The American way of doing business is morally and ethically bankrupt, and we behave as though this is right and proper. We talk about business as though it should be kept separate from all other aspects of life, because in the arena of business (politics, too), it’s okay (even expected) to be a scumbag.
Unfortunately, we (as a people) hide this from ourselves. When situations like the one at AIG crop up, we lie to ourselves and make believe that the problem rests at the feet of a few ‘bad’ individuals. This is how we keep our own moral integrity intact. So long as the culprits are easily identifiable, we can comfortably write the whole thing off as an aberration and forget about it. Which is, of course, why we still have these problems, despite the fact that they just keep on happening over and over.
This time, though, I’m holding onto a faint hope. So far, they don’t seem to have presented us with a villain (a la Ken Lay). Without a focal point for our displeasure, there’s a chance (however slight) that we, as a people, may finally start to examine ‘business as usual’ in this country. And if enough of us do just that, therein lie the seeds of revolution.