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What’s right isn’t always what’s good

There’s something that bothers me about the current conversation (diatribe?) about the sins of the bankers.

The tone of a lot of the talk is as if they belong to some other species, as if they commit crimes nobody else does, but also as if they keep their heads when nobody else can.

Holding them to sub- or superhuman standards means it’s hard to understand why they do what they do. And that means it’s hard to make them do the right thing.

Let me explain what I mean.

After the crash, US banks were bailed out. People were outraged, and rightfully so. It’s just wrong for a thief to rob your house and then grab your savings when the jerk can’t make his rent.


The time to worry about the thieving was before the crash. While it was going on. Then it would have been possible to stop it without crashing the economy.

It would have also stopped the wild ride, and — at the time — not many people wanted that. Plenty of people are just like bankers without a bank. There’s a big difference in impact, but the difference is one of degree. They’re no more subhuman than everyone else.

When the crash happens the sad fact is the thief lives in the same house you do. When he (the high-flying financial mavens were almost all “he”) can’t make his share of the rent, you both get evicted.

The thieves are literally in the same house. They’re in the same economy. The 99% and the bankers all depend on it. If the economy is destroyed, everybody is just as homeless. Your pension loses money. Your job is destroyed. The value of your house goes down. That’s been made rather clear by now.

There is no way — during the actual crash — to limit the damage to the people who caused it. There is no choice but to bail out the jerks who caused the problem. It’s not right. It’s maddening. But doing anything else means more damage for you. It’s not about punishing the guilty at that point. It’s about saving the innocent.

That’s why the bailout was the right thing to do. It wasn’t done well, or enough, or with any of the necessary rules attached to it, but it did avert a much bigger disaster. That’s all clear by now, and leads even compassionate economists to point out that economics is not a morality play.

The time for retribution is afterward. That is, now. But now the 1% are going scot-free and raking in more money than ever. That’s criminal laxity. Not the bailout.

However, bankers are just people with banks, so they’re now going through the same process of preferring moral outrage to emergency assistance.

Europe is having a similar problem with inability to repay debts. In their case it’s a country, not mixed salads of mortgages, but the problem is the same.

Unless Greece is convincingly bailed out, everybody with money in the market will be worried about how much they could lose if they don’t get out now. If everybody pulls their money out, economies freeze up, and we all go broke.

So what have the bankers been arguing about? How to create the funds for an adequate bailout? No, it’s about not wanting to bail out those profligate Greeks. It’s the same routine, but with more numbers and graphs: I was frugal. It’s not fair to make me pay some gambler’s debts. They should just suck it up.

These are people whose jobs are dealing with money. They, of all people, should know that economics is not a morality play. They, of all people, should know that when the sheriff is at the door with the eviction notice, it’s not the time to beat up the crackhead brother for squandering the rent. At that point, you just scrape together the rent. Later, you send the brother to rehab.

What’s funny, though, is how far the inability to recognize the common roots of feelings extends. Krugman is smarter than I am in practically every way, but even he is continually mystified by the non-rational adherence to austerity when austerity will cost the earth. (Read his blog. There are dozens of posts asking What were they thinking?.)

There’s nothing mysterious about it. It’s the same reaction everybody has. Don’t make me pay for someone else’s mistakes. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with the bankers’ definitions of mistakes. Nobody wants to pay for what they see as somebody else’s mistakes. And when something turns out to be a mistake, it’s amazing how fast it becomes somebody else’s.

The other unspoken, non-rational motivation is the equally simple one that austerity for thee but not for me is a great way for the rich to get richer. That, too, may be unmentionable, but it is not mysterious.

The point is this. Once the emotional roots of a non-rational stand are recognized, there’s a chance one could deal with it. It’s only a chance, but without that understanding, there’s none at all. Understanding allows us to start fighting the right battles instead of the distractions.

For instance, bankers are professionals, so they hang an economic story around their outrage. They come up with theoretical underpinnings for why austerity is such a good idea. None of those pins stays in place when examined, but they don’t care. And that is the hallmark of acting on feelings, just like an ordinary human being. They’re no more superhuman than everyone else.

I’m not suggesting that every argument one doesn’t like can be written off as “emotional.” All arguments have to be evaluated against the evidence, and evaluated several times to make sure the results are right. But once that’s done, if people keep clutching an anti-rational position, it is not insulting to figure out why they’re doing that. It’s essential.

And then when one argues with them, one needs to argue with their real reasons, not their stories.

So, in the present case, if the roots of the cries for austerity were faced squarely, we could clear the way for useful solutions. We could discount the more-for-me motivation as the bog-standard grabbiness we all have and decide to ignore it. And to the extent that the cries are rooted in a sense of unfairness, maybe we could get past it.

We could acknowledge the unfairness. We could resolve to deal with it after the crisis, instead of letting the rich and powerful off scot-free. And we could acknowledge that fairness is better served by helping millions of small people through the crisis, even if it also carries along some perps. That’s the good thing to do. Punishing the perps may feel right, but it’s stupid to let it cost us everything we have.

[Update Oct 27th: It remains to be seen whether today’s agreement in Europe to help Greece did enough or just did the minimum to keep the markets from panicking this very minute. Still, any prevention of panic is better than none.]