Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Banking Crisis and Cruise Control

Okay, I sold out, I got a real job (if you can call working in finance “real” at the moment.) Yes, for the foreseeable future I will be spending my days at the very heart of everything that is front-page news in these fickle financial times. I really don’t have a clue what I’m doing, but that’s okay because it seems no one else does either.

We should have seen it coming.

It’s not like we didn’t have a strong hunch that there was something rotten in the state of the European Union, it’s just that we were desperate to believe it wasn’t true. The recent spate of corruption uncloaking that is taking place at the very core of what our society is built on is a bit like having it confirmed that we’re not alone in the Universe. How would we feel if the Martians arrived and we couldn’t call their existence science fiction any longer? Every day a new story breaks about corruption in banking, journalism, politics, all the institutions the common man once regarded with reverence. Those days are gone. The bubble has burst. The newspapers are packed with revelations. How will the movies keep up? Real life has become more nail-biting and sensational than a George Clooney political thriller.

Only scarier, because it’s all true. The Martians really have landed.

When I first heard the song “Anarchy in the UK” by The Sex Pistols (years after it was first released I might add), I misheard it and thought it was about Amnesty, which was topical at the time as Amnesty International was making waves in South Africa. Anarchy was a new word for me so I looked it up and was shocked by its meaning. I immediately had visions of riots and lawlessness and ineffectual policing. But I lived in London, a place I knew to be relatively safe and well policed, especially when compared, say, to South Africa at that time.

All that changed last August.

Sitting in a cottage in rural France with no TV  (I was on a writing retreat) I was glued to the Internet and watched, with horror, footage of places I grew up in being torn apart. When I saw the bus stop in Ealing where I used to wait with my Grandma to take the Number 65 to Richmond Park surrounded by burning cars and smashed-up store fronts, I couldn’t hold back the tears. Kids were running through the streets like barbarians and no one was stopping them. How could society have come to this? Sure, I was proud to see Londoners cleaning up and holding their heads high, mirroring the survivalist mentality of New Yorkers after 9/11, with a renewed sense of solidarity and belonging amongst people who cared, but was the real issue brushed aside in this effort to portray union? When terrorists attack there is an enemy to focus our anger at. What do we do when we are an integral part of the enemy? When the enemy is the system we have voted for and supported with our taxes? Perhaps a degree of secret self-loathing set in.

Lack of policing was so obviously at the heart of the matter, and not just the physical lack of policing in the moment. An entire generation seemed indifferent to law and order. What ultimately motivated these rioters was the belief that that they could get away with it. They were unafraid of authority. And make no mistake, throwing them in jail for a few weeks or making them clean streets for a month of Sundays will never erase the memory of the adrenalin rush they got from walking away with a handful of mobile phones in full view of a copper.

When I was 14, I got into trouble with the prefects. I was at a well-policed boarding school and I’d challenged someone three years older than me when I felt she was abusing her authority to be a bitch to one of the new girls. I was hauled up in front of the entire sixth form, handed a punishment of no TV for week, and reprimanded for having no respect.

“You have to earn respect,” I brazenly answered back.

That earned me another week with no TV. 

But I stand by my statement. “Do as I say, not as I do,” should refer to the things that adults do that are not suitable for children. It should be, “Do as I say not as I do, until you are old enough to make these decisions for yourself.” It should not be interpreted as, “I instruct you to be a decent human being while I cheat, lie, and generally treat people like shit.”

In the UK, and in the democracies based on England’s ancient feudal system, we have been raised to respect Money and Power regardless of how Money and Power treat us and behave. This must end. There has been a wholesale code of silence surrounding the misdemeanors of those in charge. We even came up with a term to make them seem less wrong; we called it “white-collar crime.” When an 18 year old (possibly the result of a loveless one-night stand and raised by a permanently stoned single mother) smashes his way into a shop in the middle of a riot and steals a computer, saying, “I’m just getting my taxes back” (not even aware that he’s never paid a penny to the taxman in his life), we want to lock him up for a while, arguing that this is the only way he’ll learn. When a privileged, Oxford-educated 26 year old (possibly the heir to a small fortune and a friend of a friend of Prince Harry’s) manipulates interest rates, ensuring his buddy gets his bonus, at the tax payer’s expense, we give him a slap on the wrists and tell him he has to report to the head boy for a week. It’s unlikely we’ll ever get the names of the bankers who committed these crimes, they will be shielded by the organizations they worked for, the organizations that will pay hundreds of millions in fines for the rogue behavior of its employees. No one shielded Alexis Bailey, the primary school teacher convicted of intent to steal. Notice that was intent to steal; we’ll never know exactly what drove him to be standing with a group of people in an electrical store in the middle of the riots, but when confronted he gave himself up to police, he pleaded guilty in court, he said, “Sorry,” immediately, and yet he will probably pay for his mistake the rest of his life.

White-collar crime occurs when people have access to huge sums of money. It is driven by greed. You don’t get a great deal of corruption in nursing, say, or teaching, because people who gravitate to those professions are usually motivated by compassion. Cap the salaries of bankers and pay them on the same scale as teachers and let’s watch what happens. The problem is clear, when big money and/or fame is on offer, people get obsessed with it and crave it like a drug. It is perhaps the last big taboo in terms of sociopathic behavior, the insatiable desire to accumulate money. As a society we – to date – have enabled it.  

I actually feel sorry for debt-collectors. “Excuse me, sir, you haven’t paid your last two credit card payments. You owe us five hundred pounds.” I wonder what they say next if the response is along the lines of, “Take it off what Barclays Bank owes me, personally, for what it knocked off the value of my shares by its fraudulent activity.”

So where are we going? We can’t go on like this. More British High Street banks are about to fall from grace, and regarding the euro zone, there are only so many times you can rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic. Either we descend further into an anarchic society, rapidly running out of ways to plug the holes as they appear. Or those who hold power and control the money must earn our respect.

When our authorities have the humility to say, “It’s our fault. We messed up. We got it wrong,” (and to say it immediately after the event, not after a year-long and costly government investigation brings it to its knees and backs it into a corner and it has no choice but to apologize) we might start to move forward. So far all we’ve seen (ironically so in the banking world) is the buck being passed, again and again and again!

Currently we have corrupt politicians, corrupt bankers, corrupt journalists... and let’s not forget all the Olympic officials pocketing profit from illegal ticket sales. Corruption is not a new concept; it is endemic in a society where Money and Power are sought after. But with modern technology, perpetrators are running out of places to hide. And without role models (even pseudo honest ones) what hope is there for the future generations? It is, as Sebastian Coe said of the Olympic ticket scandal, “deeply depressing.” If we’re going to move forward in a more positive direction, we must replace those cornerstones of capitalism, Money and Power, with new goals, and raise our children to strive for them above all others. It’s important to earn a living, it’s important to have some security, but it’s much more important to be honest and humble in all that we do.

There are two basic qualities I look for in a person I’m becoming friends with: Integrity and Humility. Integrity is another word I once looked up, in an effort to understand it better. To paraphrase, it is when you say what you mean and you do what you say. Humility is a lack of ego, the opposite of arrogance, the ability to admit you were wrong and apologize for it. The last person I discussed these credentials with agreed readily with me. Subsequently and sadly he turned out to have neither. An awareness of the existence of Integrity and Humility does not, by default, guarantee their presence.

(Having said this, I just reminded myself I now work in investment banking. I get paid to write about all the things—GMO crops, nuclear energy, the dairy industry—I am opposed to. Don’t talk to me about Integrity. I guess I shall not be a friend of mine for a little while! I hereby immediately and humbly apologize for my lack of integrity.)

And now you’re wondering how I’m going to link all this to the news that Katie Holmes is filing for divorce from Tom Cruise. Well...

We should have seen it coming.

Really... is anyone surprised? Since his couch-jumping appearance on Oprah we’ve been waiting for the bubble to burst. Some celebrity couples (Brad and Angie for example) make you think, it probably won’t last but it could. With others (let’s say Tom Cruise plus A.N.Other) it’s never a matter of “if,” just “when.” We’ve watched Katie get thinner and look more and more miserable, willing her to break free. My first thought, when I read the news, was, maybe we’ll see the girl smile again. And the shit must have really hit the fan because she’s taking the Cruise-machine to task and going for full custody. Watch them not fight it, under threat that she’ll do a reveal-all to the (utterly corrupt and unethical) press.

So it wasn’t a week of many surprises, even Merkel’s submission to Hollande at the EU Summit was expected in the circles I now socialize in, but there was one fact I read that, literally, shook me to my core. I had to re-read it several times before I could fully take it in.

Tom Cruise is turning 50 on Tuesday.

In case you suspect that is a typo and he’s really turning 40 and you’re still 25, I’ll say it again and write it out:

Tom Cruise is turning fifty on Tuesday.

Now I don’t give a toss about Integrity, Humility, Money, Power, or even when Katie Holmes might smile again, I just feel horribly old.