Friday, January 30, 2009

How do we keep this from happening again?

It's becoming increasingly clear that the banking sector, in particular, has messed up a lot of stuff. Yesterday, Senator Claire McCaskill introduced legislation to keep Wall Street salaries from being no higher than what the President makes ($400,000). While that's a good start, there is a deeper issue at play here: the long term effects of the crisis on business decisions.

Over the course of this crisis, it's become clear that poor, greedy decisions on the part of few have had dire consequences for the rest of the economy. Agents and tellers loaned money to people that weren't likely to pay it back, brokers mislabeled the risk of the packages of these loans, and executives and accountants hid (and continue to hide) the true nature of the losses their companies suffered.

Quite simply, these people screwed up, and now it is much worse than it otherwise would have been, for all of us. And yet, these same people, who - more than anyone else - caused this mess, are not only getting off scot-free, but they're also getting bonuses or, even if they lose their jobs, fat severance packages.

Yes, this is bad, and we're all getting pissed off, but the bigger issue that's been bothering me lately is the precedent that our actions will set for future executives and decision-makers. If we are too lax, we run the risk of encouraging corporate irresponsibility; if we're too harsh, we violate civil rights.

The problem is indeed quite complex. My knee-jerk reaction, and what I consider to be the most "fair" solution, is to have the people who are at fault pay for this, literally. I mean, we know who they are, we have a documented history of what they've done. At best, we could go through and "assign" an amount for each person to pay back - lowly loans salesmen would foot a small amount, complicit money managers a little more, and executives would be forced to pay back a significant portion of their salaries and bonuses that let them pocket the false wealth that they created.

Of course, such an action is impossible - it violates a number of civil liberties and sets a potentially dangerous precedent for government interference in the market (though it's the former that is probably the overriding reason at this point).

How about something a little more realistic? If we focus on the executives, we could make an example out of the heads of the companies, deterring future executives from allowing these practices to exist within their organization. This would be a powerful deterrent, but again the approach runs the risk of infringing on civil liberties.

But if we don't do something (and something significant), we'll create a larger problem for ourselves. There needs to be some sort of justice, to punish these men and women and ensure future citizens know that corruption, greed, and incompetence at these levels (which have the ability to bring our economy to its knees) will not be tolerated.

Yes, our crisis has been of many causes, many of which are above my head. But there is a clear line that has been crossed, and we must ensure the line is not crossed again (or at least give people a reason not to cross it).

It'll be interesting to see how the government handles this. And, as a side note, it'd be great if Obama said tomorrow that he'd be forgoing his $400,000 salary and encourage others within the government to do so as well if they have the means...

(Too bad none of this will likely happen, and the criminals who played a part is causing this crisis will probably go unpunished...)


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