For a couple of weeks now, after considering why people are working longer and later hours notwithstanding the deleterious effect on their health, I’ve been wanting to consider the wider question of Why do companies do bad things?
[Kick back with more whimsy and a blog soundtrack at the Apoplexy Tiny Letter.]
Recently, things have fallen into place to make this happen. First, I’ve been revisiting some old stuff I wrote about the tragic death of Moritz Erhardt. Moritz has kind of haunted me ever since I read about his death after pulling a series of all-nighters as an intern with Bank of America Merrill Lynch (1, 2, 3, 4).
That is, he pulled a series of all-nighters and died.
I read about it in the aftermath of a catastrophic hemorrhagic stroke.
How was that allowed to happen? Why would Moritz think it was OK that he could be expected to do this? Also, I finally got around to listening to a recent episode of Radio 4’s The Bottom Line, entitled Why Do Companies Do Bad Things?
I suffered a catastrophic stroke two days after losing my job as a financial lawyer in New York City. Now, I don’t remember doing anything specific that one could point to as A Bad Thing – at least in that relation. In a prior job I had recused myself from transactions that directly funded arms manufacturers, for example.
In my final years as a lawyer, though, I was a securitisation attorney – which means blah blah blah blah. And these years straddled the Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 [Shurely 2007-2018? – Ed.]
Now, that crisis was precipitated by the bursting of what came to be called the Subprime Mortage Bubble, to which the securitisation of mortgages contributed. As it happens, my specialisation was in the securitisation of trade receivables, but that’s not important right now. I’m just making the point that I was standing on the sidelines in the aftermath as financial lawyers were trying to figure out how to be least affected by the resulting tightening of regulations. Also, when bankers went back to trying to loosen underwriting standards so they could generate more deals and fees.
In other words, while people were trying to return to the way they had been doing things that had contributed and would continue to contribute to the impoverishment of people around the world. Why would they do this? They mostly seemed like nice people would liked nice wines and nice karaoke parties.
Perhaps even more egregiously, why would the people who work at car companies seek to have their products dodge emissions tests? These were the questions that The Bottom Line was trying to answer. Also, Why do broadcasters deceive? Which was quite clever, because asking the question sort of raised Aunty Beeb above the fray.
Or did it? If Aunty could hover in immaculate judgement, why was one of the first directives uttered by the panel of a consultant and business school professor, a lawyer defending corporations and executives, and a convicted cheat and fraudster that
– We must distinguish accidents and cockups from conspiracies and intentional behaviour
Y’see, the listener learnt as the programme went on that every foamy bark canker from a little acorn must grow.
It was the convicted criminal Nick Leeson who was most Old Testament in his insistence that individuals must be punished for their misdeeds within corporations. At first blush, this seems to go against the feeling that arises from believing that corporate crime arises from good people doing bad things, bad decisions being made in groups and becoming normative, and subordinates knowing not to bring problems publicly to the attention of their bosses – all factors that the programme raised.
On the other hand, might it be that it is excusing and normalising the bad behaviour of the functionaries that allows us, by extension, to excuse the bad behaviour of executives and corporations? And politicians? I dunno. I’m beginning to think that this might be better examined in a 600-page satirical novel than a 600-word blog post. So while I’m working on that, why not check out the shredding at the end of this awesome track from my top tunes of 2017?
RAWK’N’ROLL, STROKE BLOKE!!!
6 thoughts on “Bad Behaviour”
Don’t limit it to corporations. Groups of human beings in almost any configuration do horribly bad things (and wonderfully good things too (but most of the time just boring uninteresting ones)).
I might even go as far to say that a major regulated publicly traded corporation is one of the worst platforms in which to do bad things. Compared to, say, a church or privately run Hollywood production company or political campaign…
You make good points. Now I’m feeling bad about breezily dismissing Whitman’s belief that society and its institutions have corrupted the purity of the individual, and the transcendentalists’ faith that people are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. And I’m reminded that a future blog project is to read and think upon Candide.
Maybe the Highlands and Islands will remain sparsely populated and I can take up a similar project one day!
Random thoughts at 2am:
1. As put forth in Men in Black: “A person is smart. People are dumb.” You could rephrase this to substitute good and bad for smart and dumb. In comparison, Paul’s statement above is more reasonable, but not quite as quotable for a silly action movie.
2. I’d like to know what you gents thought of The Big Short (the book preferred over the movie). To me, the whole subprime mortgage mess seems like an unholy stew of toxic self-interest and willful ignorance, and a very good argument against capitalism unconstrained by a strong and ethical public sector. (Next question: is a strong AND ethical public sector ever possible on a nationwide scale?)
3. Why oh why did Primal Scream put a Confederate flag on the cover of one of its albums? Are they racist, or ignorant, or stupid, or a combination of all three? Having said all that, I am bummed that I missed their U.S. tour with Mani and Kevin Shields in tow, back in the late ’90s. Does that make me a hypocrite? Ugh.
Now off to a fitful sleep. When can we discuss irregular working & sleeping schedules, and their effects on the quality of blog comments? 🙂
Didn’t read the book. The movie was well done. I thought the South Park on the financial crisis was better though.
1. Paul’s statement may not be quote for a movie poster, but he can unpack it into a full-length treatise that would rival Voltaire, then shrink it back down into a 12-minute, 12″ concept single with a catchy chorus. So who’s laughing now, Barry Sonnenfeld? Eh? Oh.
2. Also haven’t read the book. The movie was well-enough executed to occasionally bring me out in hives of recognition. (Supplemental answer: maybe in a nation the size of the Faroes?)
3. Now, this is very interesting. I’ve always assumed that the cover of GOBDGU was the result of a combination of ignorance and stupidity. I’d very much doubt racism. As a child watching the telly in Scotland between Final Score and prime time on an early Saturday evening, I always thought the car in The Dukes Of Hazzard was cool. Can hardly look at it now, obviously.
But here’s where it gets interesting: I consulted Ian Wiki, and the “image is a cropped Troubled Waters by seminal American photographer William Eggleston.” Rabbit hole: William Eggleston’s Troubling, 15-Part Portrayal of American Life Turns out Wee Boab might be smarter than all of us?!
I saw the NYC gig on that tour. Astonishing. Sorry.
Epilogue: It turns out shitty sleep may improve the quality of blog comments. Stay tuned!
Nah, I wouldn’t give Bobby G. any credit for artistic cleverness. He probably thought it looked good as a cover for a southern rock boogie album, while remaining ignorant of the flag’s true nastiness.
Oddly enough, Neil Young had Klansmen on the cover of Journey Through the Past. But by that point, he had released “Southern Man”, so everyone knew how he really felt about the south.