I thought Senator Chuck Grassley’s initial impulse to suggest that AIG-folk ought to kill themselves, samurai-style, was a bit over the top. But there was a ray of truth in what he was saying. And I think he found the way, saying that there’s a need for some personal responsibility and contrition among the masters of the universe who destroyed the global economy:
In the case of the Japanese, you know, they do one of two things. They either go commit suicide or they take a deep bow and say apologies and then sometimes resign. But they take full responsibility. And we’re not hearing that.
And obviously, I don’t want anyone to kill themselves because I don’t believe in that sort of thing. But I do believe that when you have done bad for your company, for your stockholders, and eventually for the taxpayer…you ought to say I’m sorry.
Right. We’ve somehow managed to construct something of a post-shame society, in which elites have convinced themselves that the rational agent model of human behavior is not just a useful modeling tool, but an ethical guidebook. There’s something to be said for the idea of a sense of honor and personal responsibility. You’d like to see a story in a newspaper somewhere about some Wall Streeter whose lost a lot of money over the past 18 months and is saying “you know what, I lost a lot of money over the past 18 months but I’m still a lot better off than most people are, and unlike a lot of those people I never really did much of anything to earn this wealth — that’s why I’m giving what I have left to the local soup kitchen.” Do I expect everyone to act like that? No, that’s not realistic. But I think that in a healthy society, you see some consideration of issues of honor and duty and moral responsibility and certainly Americans of more humble means don’t strike me as being nearly as taken with the “greed is good” personal ethic.
That said, turning attention back to Grassley, the man’s a United States Senator. He’s in a position to not only offer commentary on passing events, but to change the structure of American public policy. He could, for example, show his outrage at greedy elites by supporting a budget that undoes the pro-rich-people Bush tax code to finance tax cuts for working people and expansion of health care coverage. Thus far, though, he seems content to stick with his pro-rich policy agenda.