Where is the Honor Amongst Thieves?
Morality plays are, well, moralizing, and therefore a bit tedious. Words like truth, honor and respect feel heavy, as if they should be capitalized and written as German nouns. Nonetheless, this week’s AIG employee bonus scandal could use more than a pinch of moralizing tedium.
Ostensibly, the issue involves contracts. AIG promised $165 million in employee bonuses in 2008 and claims to be legally responsible for paying them, however distasteful. Many argue that breaching contracts is not part of our legal code and that one breach would compromise the government’s future credibility and negotiating power with other failing banks and companies. We are a nation of contracts and we honor our commitments. Others argue that there is more honor in the breach. Indeed President Obama said Monday that he told Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to “pursue every single legal avenue” to block the bonuses. He continued, “I think Mr. Liddy and certainly everybody involved needs to understand this is not just a matter of dollars and cents. It’s about our fundamental values.”
It’s time to start naming names and shaming the shameless.
With those words, The White House, Treasury Department and Congress have begun a full-frontal assault on AIG, complete with lawyers and tricky tax codes and populist politicians leading the charge. They all have the wrong end of the proverbial stick. Contracts, whether honored or breached, are not the fundamental point. Our fundamental values revolve around this tricky word honor and it’s antonym, shame. Pursuing legal avenues leads us away from our values and into our darker natures – lawyers declaring war on reasonableness, parsing words until the underlying concepts are left naked and penniless.
AIG and the US government should not be worrying about honoring anything or anyone. Who’s honor is at stake here? Every employee who accepted a bonus. At the moment, they are hiding behind a nameless veil, protected from public inquiry and obligation. New York’s Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has it right. It’s time to start naming names and shaming the shameless. Forget the Treasury or IRS. We need diplomacy à la the State Department, and CIA maneuvering to use as leverage. Give us Valerie Plame-style outings if these greedy cowards won’t give back the money themselves. If honor won’t work, then shame is the only tool left to humanize. Those who won’t privately do what is morally right must lose their wealth and reputation publicly.
Honor and shame are bedmates. If one can’t feel shame, how can one be honorable?
Imagine such a scene in Japan. Japanese employees would not be waiting for their bosses and the Treasury Department to sort out the legal mess. We would know their names already because they would have jumped out of their skyscraper offices by now from the shame. And there’s the rub – virtue only exists in a world of vice. Honor and shame are bedmates. If one can’t feel shame, how can one be honorable?
These are the fundamental values that President Obama on down should be screaming about and trying to help restore. Leave capitalism and contracts alone. To the AIG receivers of bonuses the president should say – Stop hiding like truant toddlers behind your employers’ skirts. Be men and women of honor. The boom and bust point of the entire capitalist system is that you are allowed unlimited personal wealth. You wanted personal fortune at the expense of your nation’s wealth and security. Fine. If your wealth is personal, than so is your responsibility. Unlimited wealth also means unlimited loss. Give back the money or show your faces.
Let us restore honor, even amongst thieves.