The Folly of Punishing Institutions

A great deal of campaign rhetoric seems to concern itself with issues involving institutions or faceless groups — the greedy corporations who shift jobs to third world countries, the illegal immigrants who take low-paying jobs and keep decent wages from being paid to Americans, the predatory lenders and banks, the automobile industry that lobbies against decent mileage standards for cars, the health-care industry that bankrupts the forty million Americans without health insurance… and so it goes.

And more than a few politicians and public figures all have ways to punish these groups and institutions. Satisfying as thinking about punishing such institutions is, any such punitive solution won’t solve the problem, and it’s likely to hurt other individuals even more, often those who’ve already been injured.

No…I’m not being a corporate apologist… just a realist. The reason why corporations are corporations, why they incorporated in the first place, was to limit, if not to eliminate entirely, personal liability for its executives and employees — except in clear cases of direct criminal behavior.

So… if lenders market mortgages to low-income or high-risk borrowers whom they know are likely to default… or who end up paying far more than they might have with a 30 year mortgage… and then the lenders securitize those mortgages and sell them to investors, what can anyone do? The government will find it difficult, if not impossible legally, to regain the lost assets, and will spent millions in attempting anything. The borrowers will still lose their houses, and the investors will lose a great deal of the money they paid for the securities. The original homeowner or homebuilder might not lose money, but, then again, they might end up with a devalued property. Since a significant portion of mortgage lenders nationwide were involved to some degree, punishing them all would only make buying homes more difficult for everyone. Punish the “more guilty?” Where do you draw the line, legally and practically? How can you legally punish someone for bad judgment and for ethically reprehensible but legal lending practices?

If government changes the law to deal with abuses, as it has done many times in many areas, two things inevitably happen. The overall transaction costs go up, and seldom are any but the worse of the abuses curtailed, because the perpetrators go on to find another legal way to do the same thing.

The problem with corporate and institutional misbehavior is two-fold. First, corporate law effectively shields corporate decision-makers from being held liable for bad or questionably legal corporate decisions. Second, even if corporate misbehavior is wide-spread, the fall-out from negative actions will still fall disproportionately upon the innocent. In the case of Enron, for example, employees at all levels of Enron headquarters knew that the company was running a phony second trading room. They may not have known about the off-book financial manipulations, but scores if not hundreds, knew about the phony trading room, and few if any reported to authorities about that bit of fraud and deception. But, before the collapse, Enron had 5,600 employees, the vast majority of whom were innocent, and most of whom lost their jobs, their retirement, and their future. A handful of executives were found guilty, but that did nothing for the thousands who suffered.

Similar events unfolded with Global Crossings and WorldCom, although the unraveling of both those corporations had far more to do with bad management. Still, in the end, that bad management had disproportionately negative impacts on innocent employees, suppliers, and investors.

Is there a workable governmental solution? I honestly don’t know, but it’s clear that corporate law creates a real barrier to individual responsibility at the corporate executive level. It’s also clear that corporations continue to fire incompetent or unsuccessful CEOs and send them off with “golden parachutes” paid for by consumers, the shareholders, and, in some cases, even indirectly by government.

The same factors are at work in government, another institution. To get elected, politicians promise what the majority of people want, but they seldom, if ever, tell anyone how they’ll pay for it, except in generalities, usually targeting the “rich” and corporations. That doesn’t work, because the rich have better lawyers and accountants, and the corporations are legally structured to pass on all the taxes and costs to the consumer. Add to that the fact that government isn’t generally all that efficient, and we wind up paying more taxes for programs and services that usually don’t satisfy anyone… and then we blame the politicians — every one of them except “our” representative, who did what “we” wanted. After all, more than 90% of all incumbents get re-elected.

Of course, the most workable solution would be if we, as a culture, backed off the demand for more and more at the lowest possible price to ourselves… but then, we couldn’t blame the government and all those greedy corporations for doing whatever they legally can to meet our demands. And who’s to say that the corporate executives, and the higher education executives, and the health care executives, not to mention the politicians, just wouldn’t keep padding their expense accounts and payrolls?

Of course, a greater societal emphasis on individual ethics and responsibility over “fame and fortune” wouldn’t hurt, either. But… I confess a certain skepticism about seeing that happen anytime soon in the reality-TV culture we’ve developed.