NEW YORK – The annual Left Forum here is holding a panel that touches on ethics and I was asked to be on it. I have always been conscious of the ethical minefields we live in when we, myself included, sometimes make bad choices or try to take short cuts that end up being embarrassing, hurtful or worse.
I certainly don’t feel self-righteous enough to put all the blame for my problems on others, even as I try to be aware of and critical of my own flaws and failings. That old blues song with the refrain, “before you accuse me, take a look at yourself” is one musical corrective to the problem.
It is easy to heap all the blame on political enemies who seem to always be blatantly lying, cheating and causing so much violence and mayhem the world over. We routinely blast the “banksters” and Republican right for their frauds, crimes and abuses of democracy. But there is no shortage of blatant opportunism and ethical lapses in high places, and not just among Republicans but also their many collaborators among the Democrats. The spying scandal that the White House is at the center of is ample evidence of an ethical crisis on a massive scale.
We are also aware that ethical violations are selectively enforced, and that partisan debates are anything but consistent.
These clashes have always been highly visible on the left, too, with frequent internecine debates, charges of selling out and then drumming out people who don’t uphold the “correct” political line of the day.
Right now, by critiquing the film We Steal Secrets about Wikileaks, I am being critiqued for not being hard enough on Julian Assange, or not treating Bradley Manning as the sole hero and Assange the knave.
A similar debate occurred decades ago when some criticized leaker Daniel Ellsberg for downplaying the role of his colleague Tony Russo, who, as I understand it, really pried the Pentagon Papers out of the clutches of the Rand Corporation. Yet, Ellsberg brought those secrets to world attention then, just as Assange did today. And then, Russo, like Manning, went to jail.
What we may not know is that there are lauded theorists who argue that ethics should be rejected as a matter of principle.
Bill Black who has written widely on financial frauds at the heart of the financial crisis and sent fraudsters to jail during the S&L crisis years ago is now questioning Nobel Prize winners for economics who are themselves complicit with frauds.
He takes on Roger Myerson, who was made a Laureate in 2007 for his work on “mechanism design.”
“It is a bit subtle, ”Black writes, “ but Myerson’s position on ethics is that we can never rely on ethics and must instead consistently create financial incentives that reward ethical behavior with increased wealth if we wish to have people act ethically. If a CEO can increase his wealth through unethical conduct then his ‘rational’ behavior is to act unethically. If CEOs have a financial incentive to cheat, and fail to do so, they are acting irrationally. Myerson predicts that CEOs will act ‘rationally’ by cheating whenever doing so would increase their wealth.”
In our market-led society saturated with capitalist values, ethics have become an afterthought except, in those rare instances, when financial titans become criminals.
Marketwatch, the website that is usually a booster of markets featured a report admitting that fraud is now at the heart their activity:
“…insider trading and market fraud persist, perhaps at epidemic levels. Even though the Securities and Exchange Commission has brought more insider-trading actions in the past three years than in any three-year period in the agency’s history, and even though the U.S. attorney in New York City has convicted 73 people in insider-trading cases since 2009, the crime remains all too common.
“That’s what MarketWatch found in a series of interviews with people convicted of insider trading and fraud. These felons painted a picture of an unfair market driven by widespread cheating that favors those with privileged information and expensive technology. The cheating also hurts individual investors and retirement savers trying to follow the rules of the road and produces a deeply unfair market environment.
“MarketWatch reporters conducted a series of in-depth interviews with ex–investment brokers and others who lost their trading licenses and are either in prison serving multiyear sentences or have done their time in the slammer and now advise others on what not to do.
“The results were discouraging.”
They may have been “discouraged,” but what did they expect? Clearly, their survey was a bit after the fact, published fully six years after the first 2007 financial collapse in a country where no CEOS of big financial firms and banks have been criminally prosecuted. The government is more engaged with spying on phone calls and websites than cleansing markets of scammers or assuring a fair playing field. And financial criminals know it.
And, so do young people who flood business schools to try to shoehorn their way into white collar jobs where they think the money is, in an economy that is becoming more unequal every day.
Note also that the real critical journalism is often to be found outside the mainstream. Kudos to lawyer-turned blogger Glenn Greenwald who broke this latest spying scandal – not in the New York Times but, overseas, in Britain’s Guardian. (The Washington Post did pick it up, and advance the story).
The Times carried a profile of Greenwald, but the blog Naked Capitalism the that consistently crusades for truth-telling in business called it, “mean-spirited, underplaying Greenwald’s credentials and coming too close for comfort to character sniping.”
So, it’s not just that major media outlets are often asleep at the switch, but they love to denigrate journalists who make them look bad by beating them to the punch and exposing big stories they ignore or downplay.
It happened to me in a much smaller way after my 2006 film In Debt We Trust warned of the dangers of a financial collapse. I was denounced as an “alarmist and doom and gloomer.”
When the system began to unravel a year later, a few friends then called me a “prophetic genius.” That wasn’t any truer than the put downs a year earlier.
The point is that one ethic too often in short supply is courage and a willingness to stand up for what you believe. The people that do often pay a price by being marginalized or ignored.
Greenwald may pay a higher price; he may yet be investigated and prosecuted for exposing what the government wanted to keep secret.
News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs at newsdissector.net and edits Medichannel.org. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.