The “C” Word

Not what you think.

Sequoia Fund Manager Campaigns Against Goldman Board Member, Former Fannie CEO Jim Johnson

Yves Smith, Naked Capitalism

Thursday, April 19, 2012

I had a colleague tell me today that I shouldn’t use the “c” word, meaning corruption, since it would alienate potential allies. The logic is similar to arguments against being shrill. He claimed that even if a lot of people in positions of authority engage in corrupt looking behavior, that doesn’t mean they understand it to be corrupt, so calling the corrupt will merely get them worked up to no useful end. They could well think they are doing the right thing and just be victims of cognitive capture.

I deeply oppose this line of argument. First, it assumes that decision-makers don’t recognize when they are taking ethically problematic actions. The people I know who have yielded to institutional pressures to do the wrong thing say they knew they were doing so and found a way to rationalize it. And I suspect even sociopaths know where the lines are. They have to do a better job of covering their tracks when their conduct is dubious.

Second, it assumes that it isn’t worth taking a firm position on ethics because it will turn off powerful people who have engaged in questionable behavior. Better to be less accusatory in order to have a dialogue with them. I don’t buy that because being indulging their justifications of their conduct helps preserve a bad status quo.

One aspect of American exceptionalism is many still believe the US is cleaner and more above board than most other advanced economies. But if you go overseas, you will find that a lot of businessmen see the US as not particularly ethical. One British colleague who has worked with major US firms described the US as becoming more and more a scam-based economy (in fairness, he was really talking about the financial services industry). An American who works a great deal with foreign investors said his clients saw the US at best as on a par with other big countries, at worst, with Russia.

One of the big reasons for the erosion in US behavior is the notion that elite crimes shouldn’t be prosecuted because it would harm the system. Glenn Greenwald describes the pardon of Richard Nixon as a critical embodiment of this principle.

So it is important to define norms and not shy away from words like “fraud” and “corruption” when they fit. While it would be nice if more people in power were capable of feeling guilt, shame will do. Thus naming and shaming are legitimate strategies for letting the elites know that the broader public is not fooled.

(h/t Lambert Strether @ Corrente)


  1. in relation to the lenght of time “great” empires in human history have lasted.  Or in other words to “fix” shit one needs an empire ending event, war, massive population die off to erase the human created cumulative effects of corruption.

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