Saturday, December 28, 2019

Remove Fairness from Society and You Create the Conditions for Revolt


nakedcapitalism |  This site regularly discusses the rise of neoliberalism and its consequences, such as rising inequality and lower labor bargaining rights. But it’s also important to understand that these changes were not organic but were the result of a well-financed campaign to change the values of judges and society at large to be more business-friendly. But the sacrifice of fair dealing as a bedrock business and social principle has had large costs. 

We’ve pointed out how lower trust has increased contracting costs: things that use to be done on a handshake or a simple letter agreement are now elaborately papered up. The fact that job candidates will now engage in ghosting, simply stopping to communicate with a recruiter rather than giving a ritually minimalistic sign off, is a testament to how impersonal hiring is now perceived to be, as well as often-abused workers engaging in some power tit for tat when they can. 

But on a higher level, the idea of fair play was about self-regulation of conduct. Most people want to see themselves as morally upright, even if some have to go through awfully complicated rationalizations to believe that. But when most individuals lived in fairly stable social and business communities, they had reason to be concerned that bad conduct might catch up with them. It even happens to a small degree now. Greg Lippmann, patient zero of toxic CDOs at Deutsche Bank, was unable to get his kids into fancy Manhattan private schools because his reputation preceded him. But the case examples for decades have gone overwhelmingly the other way. My belief is that a watershed event was the ability of Wall Street renegade, and later convicted felon Mike Milken, to rehabilitate himself spoke volumes as to the new normal of money trumping propriety. 

Another aspect of the decline in the importance of fair dealing is the notion of the obligations of power, that individuals in a position of authority have a duty to those in their sway. 

The abandonment of lofty-sounding principles like being fair has other costs. We’ve written about the concept of obliquity, how in complex systems, it’s not possible to chart a simple path though them because it’s impossible to understand it well enough to begin to do so. John Kay, who has made a study of the issue and eventually wrote a book about it, pointed out as an illustration that studies of similarly-sized companies in the same industry showed that ones that adopted nobler objectives did better in financial terms than ones that focused on maximizing shareholder value.