It has been shocking and bewildering to watch the behavior of some of the top banking CEOs in recent months, punctuated by the appearance of four of these executives before Congress last month. Some questions immediately pop into my mind. Do they follow the news? Have they no conscience? Do they not have public-relations people on retainer? The answer to all three is, apparently, no because it is clear that they are so far out of touch with reality that they are the equivalent of the Merry Pranksters of the 1960s tripping on acid.
These are obviously intelligent and well-educated men, yet they are missing from their vocabularies what I consider to be three essential words that would make their involvement in the Great Recession just a little bit more palatable.
The first word is contrition. Instead, the word we are getting from these Masters of the Universe is excuses (and equivocations, evasions, and denials, I might add). If we sensed contrition, we might believe that they assumed just a small degree of culpability and felt just a little bit of remorse for their parts in causing this financial mess (to his credit, Morgan Stanley's John Mack did apologize to Congress last year). As we know from the rare apologies from previous fallen public figures, we often respect people who hold themselves accountable and actually forgive their transgressions (at least to a degree) after such admissions.
The second word is gratitude. Instead, the word we are getting from these Titans of Industry is entitlement. We the American taxpayers bailed their greedy, morally hazardous asses out of trouble because we were told that their companies were "too big to fail." Yet, do we get a "Thanks" or a "We appreciate it?" Nope. No come-to-Jesus moment for these Gods of Finance. Just a rush to pay back the TARP loans to free themselves of the chains of government control and a return to business as usual, with indefensible bonuses and continued financial recklessness. Their companies may be too big to fail, but I think their egos are too big to fail as well.
The last word is humility. Instead, the word we are getting from these Towers of Power is arrogance. They seem so blinded by their own exceptionalism that to look critically at their roles in the financial meltdown would be a seismic threat to their poorly designed and shoddily constructed views of themselves. After an individual or organization has obvious responsibility for a disaster, I don't think it's too much to ask to have them feel humbled by the harm they caused and, even more important, learn some lessons that might prevent them from making the same mistakes again. But not these Dynamic Dealmakers. The status quo of living high and mighty is back.
I would like to see two things happen to these Top Guns.
The next time Big Finance wrecks the global economy, they should have the sweet fruits of moral hazard removed from their plates. Then, we can say what Matt Damon said in the film Good Willing Hunting, "How do you like them apples?!?!"
But before that, these Big Shots should be forced to stand in front of the American people (and the world) and write "I Will be Contrite. I Will be Grateful. I Will be Humble." on the blackboard once for every billion dollars they cost us.