Feb 1st 2009

The Death of Trust

by Sin-ming Shaw

Sin-ming Shaw is a private investor and former visiting scholar at Princeton University.

BANGKOK - A friend recently asked a seemingly naïve question: "What is money? How do I know I can trust that it is worth what it says it is worth?" We learn in introductory economics that money is a medium of exchange. But why do we accept that? Banknotes are just pieces of paper with a number attached to them.

We believe in banknotes because we collectively decide to trust the government when it says that 100 is 100, not 10 or 50. Money, therefore, is about trust, without which no society can function.

Just as we obey our leaders' orders to fight and die because we trust their judgment, we entrust our careers and our money to those who run Citigroup and Goldman Sachs and other such banks, because we believe their leaders will be fair to their employees and clients, and honorable in their business practices. We do not grow up wishing to work for crooks and liars.

Once that trust breaks, bad things happen. Money ceases to have credibility. Leaders become figures of contempt or worse.

As I write, inflation in Zimbabwe has reached an unimaginable (if not unpronounceable) level of more than 500 quintillion per cent. One quintillion is one million trillion. A year ago, inflation was "only" 100,000%. This is what happens when trust vanishes.

Fortunately, Zimbabwe is not a country of real consequence for world stability. But the Weimar Republic and China in the 1940's were. One opted for Hitler and the other for Mao Zedong to restore trust. So the risks are clear.

Are we now seeing an erosion of trust in America and in the United Kingdom?

The first warning sign surfaced in 2001, with the bankruptcy of Enron in the United States. Its fraudulent accounts were certified by Arthur Andersen. Now, India's Satyam, audited by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, is found to be missing billions in cash. If we cannot rely on the best auditors, can we continue to trust chartered accountants?

Bond rating agencies have issued misleading ratings on companies in questionable health. Will we ever again be able to trust a triple A rating issued by, say, Moody's?

Banks have been holding our money for safekeeping since the fourteenth century, when the Florentines invented the practice. The Royal Bank of Scotland, founded in 1727, when laissez-faire philosopher Adam Smith was only four years old, has just become a socialist state-owned-enterprise thanks to the bank's incompetent leaders, who acquired over-priced banks filled with toxic assets.

Citicorp, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and other symbols of "excellence" all would have collapsed but for public bailouts. And yet for decades we thought that the people who were managing those firms were much smarter than we were.

We grew up admiring leaders such as Robert Rubin, John Thain, and Henry Paulson. Rubin, a former US Treasury Secretary and ex-Chairman of Goldman Sachs, presided over the collapse of Citigroup while taking home $150 million in bonuses. Should he really have been rewarded at all for his "performance"? Just this week, the technically bankrupt Citigroup's senior executives were about to buy a new $50 million luxury French jet for themselves, until the White House stopped it.

Thain, also a former president of Goldman Sachs, helped himself and his Merrill Lynch staff to $4 billion in bonus payments even after he had to sell the firm to Bank of America to save it from bankruptcy. After he was caught spending $1.2 million, even as Merrill Lynch disintegrated, to decorate his new office, Bank of America had to fire him to placate growing revulsion over Wall Street's out-of-control culture of entitlement.

Paulson, the outgoing Treasury Secretary and another Goldman Sachs veteran, left a loophole in his rescue package big enough for a truck to drive through. That loophole allowed his former friends and colleagues on Wall Street to pay themselves billion-dollar bonuses while keeping those firms afloat with taxpayers' money.

The universities these men attended - Harvard and Yale for Rubin; MIT and Harvard for Thain; Dartmouth and Harvard for Paulson - have been magnets for the world's finest young minds. The rest of us thought that these institutions could instill the wisdom, insight, and character of which we all wished we had more.

Perhaps parents all over the world should re-examine their often obsessive craving for these "name-brand" universities, pushing their children as if an Ivy League degree was an end in itself. Now we know that Wall Street's titans were never all that smart, and certainly not very ethical, for they failed the only test that counts. All of the firms they led collapsed, and were saved only by money from those who could never get a senior job on Wall Street or a place at Harvard.

These Wall Street princes were smarter in one way, however: they managed to pocket a fortune while the rest of us are stuck with the mess they left behind. Bernard Madoff who hailed from down-market part of New York City and attended a middling university will spend time behind bars, but none of the titans of Wall Street with blue-chip pedigree will ever do so.

History has not been kind to societies that lose trust in the integrity of their leaders and institutions. We need to save our economic system from its abusers, or else.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

If you wish to comment on this article, you can do so on-line.

Should you wish to publish your own article on the Facts & Arts website, please contact us at info@factsandarts.com.

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

May 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "But even a resounding Russian defeat is an ominous scenario. Yes, under such circumstances – and only such circumstances – Putin might be toppled in some kind of coup led by elements of Russia’s security apparatus. But the chances that this would produce a liberal democratic Russia that abandons Putin’s grand strategic designs are slim. More likely, Russia would be a rogue nuclear superpower ruled by military coup-makers with revanchist impulses. Germany after World War I comes to mind."
May 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "For citizens of states that are members of NATO, taking all possible steps, short of all-out war, to ensure that Russia does not conquer Ukraine is not even an altruistic sacrifice. It is a long-term investment, for themselves and their children, in freedom, democracy, and the international rule of law."
May 4th 2022
EXTRACT: ".....a remarkable transformation is taking place in Ukraine’s army amounting to its de facto military integration into Nato. As western equipment filters through to the frontline, Nato-standard weaponry and ammunition will be brought into Ukrainian service. This is of far higher quality than the mainly former Soviet weapons with which the Ukrainians have fought so capably. The longer this process continues and deepens, the worse the situation will be for the already inefficient Russian army and air force."
May 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: " The conventional wisdom among students of the Russian arts and sciences is that Russian culture is “great.” The problem is that, while there are surely great individuals within Russian culture, the culture as a whole cannot avoid responsibility for Putin and his regime’s crimes." ---- "Russianists will not be able to avoid examining themselves and their Russian cultural icons for harbingers of the present catastrophe. What does it mean that Fyodor Dostoevsky was a Russian chauvinist? That Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov were Ukrainian? That Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was an unvarnished imperialist? That Aleksandr Pushkin was a troubadour of Russian imperial greatness? May these writers still be read without one eye on the ongoing atrocities in Ukraine?"
Apr 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "The following day Lavrov met his Eritrean counterpart, Osman Saleh, in Moscow. Eritrea was the only African country to vote against the UN resolution condemning the invasion. In this refusal to condemn Russia, Eritrea was joined by only Belarus, North Korea and Syria. Even longstanding allies such as Cuba and China abstained. It’s an indication of Russia’s increasingly limited diplomatic options as this war continues."
Apr 24th 2022
EXTRACT: "Although the milestone lasted only for a brief time, it points to a future in which California runs on 100% wind, solar, hydro and batteries, a future that will certainly arrive even faster than the state plans. As it is, California is ahead of its green energy goals." ...... "A world of 100% green energy and electric cars is not only a healthier and more comfortable world, it is a world where oil and gas dictators like Vladimir Putin are defunded."
Apr 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "Kazakhstan’s authorities have also showed uncharacteristic leniency in allowing public rallies in support of Ukraine. Thousands of protesters holding banners reading “Russians, leave Ukraine”, “Long Live Ukraine” and “Bring Putin to trial” marched across the capital, Almaty, wrapping monuments to Lenin and other Soviet-era figures with yellow and blue balloons symbolising the Ukrainian flag."
Apr 15th 2022
EXTRACT: "People’s identification with the Soviet Union appears to have a clear and growing basis in Russian public opinion. Surveys we have conducted throughout the Putin period show that Soviet identification among the general population – something that had been steadily declining after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – began to increase in 2014, when the Russian government annexed Crimea and supported rebellions in the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. By 2021, almost 50% of those surveyed identified with the Soviet Union rather than the Russian Federation."
Apr 13th 2022
EXTRACT: "Worse yet, the Hungarian government has effectively been helping Putin by prohibiting the shipment of weapons to Ukraine across its borders. Hungarian public TV spreads Russian disinformation day and night. The day before the election, an assembly of ordinary people expressing solidarity with Ukraine was framed on state television as a “pro-war rally.” "
Apr 13th 2022
EXTRACT: "It may well be that the Russian army’s fate has already been sealed in what is likely to be a long war. The single qualification to this may be that Russia could default to escalation using “weapons of mass destruction” of one form or another – whether tactical nuclear warheads or chemical weapons."
Apr 13th 2022
EXTRACTS" "Ukraine and Russia produce a substantial amount of grain and other food for export. Ukraine alone produces a whopping 6% of all food calories traded in the international market. At least it used to, before it was invaded by the world’s largest nuclear power." ...... "When it comes to cereals like wheat, corn, rice and barley, the big players talk about millions of metric tonnes, or MMTs. A single MMT of wheat contains about 3.4 trillion food calories,." ....."Ukraine produced about 80 MMT of grain (a category that includes wheat, corn and barley) in 2021, and is expected to harvest less than half of that this year. A shortfall of 40 MMT is enough missing calories that a country like the UK could only make it up by having everyone stop eating for three years. That’s the thing about tonnes of grain: a million here and a million there and pretty soon you’ve got a real issue on your plate."
Apr 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "I don’t even know the little girl’s name. All I do know is what a friend of a friend wrote on Viber: that her relative, a senior nurse in one of Kyiv’s hospitals, “saw in the morgue a child with 20 varieties of sperm on her small body.” Since this information was conveyed in a private conversation, there is no reason to doubt its veracity."
Apr 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "Russian society has so far failed to stop Putin, just as German society failed to stop Hitler. And so, like a poisoned chalice, that task has fallen to the West, as it did in 1939. The West must now treat Putin and his regime the same way that Winston Churchill treated Hitler: Don’t talk to him, just defeat him. Dead-enders such as Putin are too fanatical and desperate to be reliable negotiating partners."
Apr 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: "From 1807 to 1814 on the Iberian peninsula, Napoleon had to fight Spanish, Portuguese and British armies while beset by ubiquitous, ferocious insurgents. He described this war as his “bleeding ulcer”, draining him of men and equipment. It is the west’s aim to make Ukraine for Putin what Spain was for Napoleon. In the absence of a negotiated settlement, Ukraine and Nato will continue to grind away at Russia’s army, digging away at that bleeding ulcer and prolonging Russia’s agony on the military front, as the west continues its parallel assault on its economy. If Putin’s plan is to proceed with the Korea model, he will fail. There is a strong possibility that Putin has only a limited idea of how badly his army is faring. So be it – he’ll find out soon enough that there is now no path for him to military victory."
Apr 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Policymakers expected that the country would be able to secure its energy supply entirely from renewable sources, so they resolved to phase out coal and nuclear energy simultaneously. The last three of Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants are set to be shut down this year." ---- ".... the share of wind and solar power in Germany’s total final energy consumption, which includes heating, industrial processing, and traffic, was a meager 6.7%. And while wind and solar generated 29% of the country’s electricity output, electricity itself accounted for only about a fifth of its final energy consumption." ----- "If Germany suddenly halted Russian gas imports, gas-based residential heating systems – on which half the German population, approximately 40 million people, rely – and industrial processes that rely heavily on gas imports would break down....."
Apr 1st 2022
EXTRACT: "For Putin, the past that matters most is the one the dissident author and Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn exalted: the time when the Slavic peoples were united within the Orthodox Christian kingdom of Kievan Rus’. Kyiv formed its heart, making Ukraine central to Putin’s pan-Slavic vision. ---- But, for Putin, the Ukraine war is about preserving Russia, not just expanding it. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently made clear, Russia’s leaders believe that their country is locked in a “life-and-death battle to exist on the world’s geopolitical map.” That worldview reflects Putin’s longstanding obsession with works of other Russian emigrant philosophers, such as Ivan Ilyin and Nikolai Berdyaev, who described a struggle for the Eurasian (Russian) soul against the Atlanticists (the West) who would destroy it. ---- Yet Putin and his neo-Eurasianists seem to believe that the key to victory is to create the kind of regime those anti-Bolshevik philosophers most detested: one run by the security forces. A police state would fulfill the vision of another of Putin’s heroes: the KGB chief turned Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov."
Apr 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Ukraine, known as the breadbasket of Europe, is struggling to export last year’s harvest, and may be unable to produce much this year either. In addition, the war has caused a global fertiliser shortage, which will push up food prices around the world too. Coming at a time when the global pandemic had already increased food insecurity and depleted resources around the world, many countries may not be resilient to a major food crisis brought on by the war. Back-to-back global catastrophic events like this have not happened for close to 100 years." ----- "Another useful analogue is the case of Germany during the first world war. When war broke out in 1914, the German authorities had anticipated a short conflict – not too dissimilar to Russian assumptions a few weeks ago. Just like in Ukraine now, the first world war severely disrupted German farming."
Mar 31st 2022
EXTRACT: "The horrors of World War II – the death camps, slave labor, and inhumane experiments on people – produced a global commitment never to permit such crimes to be repeated. This began a transformation of international politics whereby appreciation of the value of every person’s life and dignity ensured that even most authoritarian governments at least paid lip service to human rights.  ----- But the Soviet Union and many of its successor states, particularly Russia, never internalized this change. More than three decades after the USSR collapsed, most post-Soviet countries are still governed according to the old “imperial” paradigm. So, it should come as no surprise that we are now witnessing a clash between fundamentally different sets of values and ultimate goals for statehood."
Mar 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "Referencing past legacies as a justification for present-day political decisions is often effective – such appeals trigger emotional reflexes and contribute to thinking about politics in terms of rivalry and defence. The irony within the tragedy of the current situation is that Putin will assuredly go down in history as the figure that did more to unite the Ukrainian people (albeit against Russia) than any other in recent memory."
Mar 24th 2022
EXTRACT: " Despite the death and destruction that Russia rains down daily on them, the vast majority of Ukrainians are bullish about the future: 77% believe the country is moving in the right direction, 93% think they can beat back Russia, and 47% expect to win in the next few weeks.  Ukrainian policymakers are no less bullish, driving a hard bargain in negotiations with the Russians. Several factors account for this remarkable optimism."