The Accountability Problem

A number of pundits have talked about the need for accountability in our society, but in practice most of this talk has led nowhere.

Despite years of rhetoric, testing, and all sorts of initiatives in education, all the way from primary schooling through universities, the actual outcomes of American education have declined. I’m not talking test scores. I’m talking about the ability of American students to read, write logical and coherent paragraphs and papers without coaching, and to be able to think and make and understand logical arguments. Initiative after initiative has demanded greater accountability on the part of teachers. I’m not against teacher accountability, but it’s only half the accountability problem in education. Like it or not, students have to be held accountable for their learning — and they’re not. Instead, teachers must spoon feed, must inspire, must somehow get the students to learn. Why doesn’t anyone want to admit that, until students are also held accountable, the “education situation” won’t ever be improved?

Our financial system offers other cases in point. Little more than a year after the melt-down of the financial system and the near-collapse of the stock market, the investment banks and hedge funds and all-too-many of the other high fliers are at it again, paying enormous bonuses to executives, generally for those who can multiply profits to an obscene degree. Simply put, there is a risk-reward trade-off. The riskier the venture, the higher the reward, but the greater the probability of failure. The problem here is that the individual trader, hedge fund manager, etc., doesn’t face personally the magnitude of the downside. I have great doubts if many of them would be quite so interested in such jobs if they — and their CEOs and superiors — had to repay the money and then spend the rest of their life either in jail or working at a minimum wage job to repay what they’d already spent because they lost billions for other people. While the corporate structure was initially designed to limit liability, so that corporate failures didn’t destroy individuals, what everyone who designed the structure failed to foresee was that the structure effectively destroys accountability, and the larger the corporation, the greater the destruction of personal accountability. When a trader can walk away with hundreds of millions, does it really matter that much if he or she will never work in the field again?

The banks have jacked up consumer credit card rates, on average, to over 20%, partly because the federal government is trying to take away some of their least ethical and most profitable “charges,” such as $35 fees for $3 dollar ATM overdrafts. A major reason for the higher interest rates is because, first, the banks never priced their ATM/credit card services at their cost level and were using fees to cover costs and profits, and, second, because far too many consumers were less than accountable for paying when they ran up huge credit card bills — prompted by media advertising that further undermined accountability by encouraging people to buy, buy, buy…

Politics offers another lesson in accountability, if from the other side. Because of the intense media scrutiny of politicians, virtually all officials elected on a federal level are indeed held accountable — but they’re held accountable for what their constituents want… not for wise decisions. That was one of the reasons why the founding fathers designed a different system with various checks and balances that we’ve destroyed in the name of greater democracy… and that has led to less real accountability.

Our electronic communications and purchasing systems further undermine accountability. A thug who mugs someone for $50 has a far greater chance of being arrested and imprisoned than does a scammer or a phisher who uses the internet to con hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars — and we’ve set up the system in such a way that it’s effectively impossible to find such con artists, let alone to hold them accountable.

Given the way in which we’ve undermined accountability, the real wonder is not that the instances I’ve mentioned have occurred, but that there haven’t been far, far more than what we’ve experienced.

12 thoughts on “The Accountability Problem”

  1. j says:

    I have a rather pessimistic response to the recent blog entries. Frankly, I don't see how real change to the American system is possible short of an actual collapse.

    The American people are badly educated, they vote unintelligently, and on top of that they never have more than two canditates to choose from, because the constitution all but ensures that we have a two party system. Even an intelligent voter can only choose the best of two bad options.

    While Mr. Modesitt apparently worked in a Republican administration, apart from his surprising support for a flat tax, most reading this blog would probably have trouble identifying his views with those of the current Republican party: pro-environment, anti-religion, skeptical about capitalism, feminist, wishes higher education were taken more seriously and given better funding?

    To add to the pessimism, I find it difficult to see how the American system of 2008 is fundamentally different from the American system of 1929, except in the details.

    Perhaps it's true that there's been a cultural decline and I'm simply not old enough to have seen it happen. As far as I know, American students have always been indifferent; as far as I know professors have always had to deal with complaints from the football coach when they wanted to fail a player who couldn't manage a five page essay to pass his English class.

    Even after 2008, many Americans still seem to have an irrational faith in the free market system, one that was fed over a long period of time by the rhetoric of cold war polarization. Communism is evil; government intervention in the market is socialism; there's no difference between socialism and communism; hence government intervention is evil–so runs the logic. This certainly plays into the hands of the oil barons and wall street gamblers, who clap their hands with glee when they see the poor vote repeatedly against their own interests and to the detriment of future generations.

    The only thing that stops me short of a completely fatalistic response is the hope that new technologies will continue to improve living standards. But of course there's no guarantee of that.

  2. Derek says:

    I find Mr. Modesitt's views refreshing and realistic, and conservative in the traditional sense, not in the alarmist knee-jerk sort of conservatism we see these days from the talking heads in the media. That he actually calls for accountability of students, not teachers, shows that he understands the problem in education today.

    As an american….
    I would not consider my faith in a free market system irrational. The USA is a mixed economy. That a business or industry can lobby to recieve tax credits or tax breaks to artificially inflate the demand for the product is a testament to how regulated (not free) our market is.

    The current issue the market is facing is in large part due to intervention from the government. Greed is a problem in our market today, but it is not expressed by honest business men trying to make a living by selling a product or service. No, the problem is when a greedy business lobbys for special treatment and laws that give it a prefered status.

    When value is determined by the quality and demand for the product, and not by who you know in Washington, then the market system works fine. The market system tends to work fine until greedy individuals use force (examples being: Government regulation, or actual force and violence) to give themselves an artificial edge. This edge is usually seen in demand being higher than it naturally would, and this leads to a bubble. These bubbles burst. Please look at the housing market and what led to that bubble bursting for proof of this point.

    To claim communism is evil might reflect indoctrination. To claim communism is naivee would be more acceptable. Welfare, Keynesian style programs are okay so long as they stay within the realm of affordable. To lower the standard of living for the middle class majority in the name of the helping the poor minority (though that is a fairly vague classification, as the poor in many other countries are starving, and the poor in the United States usually have only one cellphone) is not my idea of a fair system nor bright idea.

  3. Iron Sparrow says:

    I agree that accountability is in short supply in our culture – it's certainly something I'm trying to teach to my children – but I was wondering if you could expound on this:

    "Because of the intense media scrutiny of politicians, virtually all officials elected on a federal level are indeed held accountable — but they're held accountable for what their constituents want… not for wise decisions. That was one of the reasons why the founding fathers designed a different system with various checks and balances that we've destroyed in the name of greater democracy… and that has led to less real accountability."

    I'm not sure what checks and balances we've destroyed in the name of democracy, and I'd be very interested to see you give it more detail or some specific examples.

  4. L.E. Modesitt says:

    I probably should have said that the combination of legal changes in the system and changes in technology have combined to thwart or weaken many of the original checks and balances. Senators were originally elected by the vote of state legislatures, not by direct popular vote, in order to retard or stop immediately popular political movements. Of course, this wouldn't work as well today because state legislatures now gerrymander both state legislative districts and federal congressional districts in ways never envisioned by the Founding Fathers. Also, direct federal income taxation was not allowed under the original Constitution [although this was a matter of legal contention for almost a century] and required a Constitutional amendment to become legal. In addition,the founding fathers assumed that regional differences would lead to debate and compromise, and this was reflected in the composition and structure of the Legislative Branch — but the culture and technology have changed so much that debate and compromise effectively exist only on massive appropriation bills, and in a fashion in which there is no public input or transparency. Likewise, the continued increase in the remumeration of the Congress has led to a class of professional politicians, again something never envisioned by the Founders, with large professional staffs, also never contemplated, even by the visionary Hamilton. Combining professional politicians interested only in re-election with direct democracy and modern communications technology is largely responsible, in my view, with the inability of Congress to deal effectively with national issues.

  5. Iron Sparrow says:


  6. Derek says:

    And the post above is what keeps me coming back to this blog.

  7. j says:

    Mr. Modesitt's response makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately it also makes the prognosis for the American future look even grimmer. Nothing short of genuine disaster is going inspire the vast American electorate to demand the kind of fundamental alterations to the system that would be needed to rectify the problems he's listed. But then, peak oil isn't far away.

    To Derek: I wasn't so much trying to defend communism, or paint pro-market arguments in general as knee-jerk, as to attack the currently popular right-wing rhetoric, which wants people to believe that socialism and communism are the same thing, or that socialism necessarily precipitates economic disaster, or that the American center-left can even reasonably be labelled socialist. Western Europe and Scandanavia both have nations far more socialistic than ours, with a quality of living that is as high or higher than the American one.

    As I've remarked once before, my perspective is affected by my time spent living and teaching in France. When I tell Americans that the French get two more months of vacation per year than Americans do, and work ten hours less a week, and are guaranteed health care and education; well, then our marginally higher incomes seem much less impressive, and our critique of the 'inefficient' left wing continental governments seems outright ridiculous.

  8. Derek says:

    Yes, I'm slightly annoyed by the right-wing rhetoric myself, but probably for different reasons. Right now the political ideologies are Altruism, and Altruism-lite.

    Altruism is the main principle or philosophy behind socialism and communism. Self-sacrifice for the greater good, but in reality it rarely is self-sacrifice of a person's own choice. Instead the haves are held to the whims and needs (or perceived needs) of the have not’s. The have not’s have a 'right' to the benefits of the labor and hard work of others. Their collective need makes a right, and an individual’s success becomes a curse.

    I find this, personally, repulsive. But that is a personal opinion. Liberty I can get behind, altruism ultimately seems self-destructive if not regulated. Liberty if not regulated within reason becomes anarchy, and altruism if not regulated within affordability becomes tyranny and theft.

    The major problem right now is we do not have two philosophies in Washington right now. The two-parties basically claim they are trying to help people (altruism), except one party realized the quickest way to ‘help’ was redistribute wealth. The other party caught on to that concept later, and their idea for ‘helping’ is to redistribute less wealth.

    So, along with some of the things mentioned by Mr. Modesitt above, there is a lack of a ‘real’ opposition party. We have a party without an opposing philosophy, just less liberal (altruistic) than the Democratic Party. When the debate is basically, “I want to help people,” and, “So do I,” then we as a people will lose in the long run.

    I want a less regulated market place not because it strengthens the economy (a byproduct) but because it is liberating the people who (according to my philosophy) are getting trampled on. And if the right-wingers wanted to become a party of opposition, not just some child in a game of tug-o-war for power, they’d find a philosophy and stick to it. As it is, they are resorting not to intellectual debate, but name calling, smearing, bigotry, racism, and yelling matches. They're using the most ignorant and childish methods possible to try and win a debate, abandoning the real principles behind their positions.

    Guess that was a little long winded, J, but that’s kind of where I’m at. It feels like the right forgot (or abandoned) what their philosophy was and decided the left’s philosophy was sexier.

  9. j says:

    Well, I have two main objections to your argument.

    The first is the underlying idea that obtained wealth is 'earned' wealth. The CEO of a company is always going to obtain more money than, for instance, the engineers and scientists that actually invent the products. But does the CEO really 'earn' 100 times their salary? No, he just obtains 100 times their salary.

    If obtained wealth were really the same as earned wealth, the argument that redistribution is 'unfair' would be valid. But the difference between obtained wealth and earned wealth is vast.

    Secondly, your altruism argument stinks of Ayn Rand. The Randian vision of heroic CEOs and useless lackeys and underlings is a bizarre myth with little discernable relation to reality. Are the upper 2% of 'obtained' incomes really the greatest benefactors to society? Or are they just better at obtaining money from the rest? If we cry foul at unproductive CEOs with ridiculous incomes who sent the economy down the drain, are we asking for altruism? I don't think so.

    If you ask a mugger who's obtained the money in your wallet to give it back, you're not asking for altruism. What you're really demanding is that obtained incomes more accurately reflect earned incomes.

    Although I'm sure Mr. Modesitt would go about achieving this in a different way than I would, many of the recent blogs are more or less making the same argument: obtained income should reflect earned income; the 2008 crisis happened partially because there was a vast gulf between these two.

  10. Derek says:

    The difference between the mugger and the CEO. The mugger did so by force. The CEO did so by consensus of shareholders who only looked at the bottom line.

    One is criminal, the other is incredibly stupid and lacking in foresight.

    Those who are guilty of fraud and other crimes ought to be prosecuted. But as for irresponsible behavior, that tends to be self correcting. Well, without the bailouts that is.

    Rand is the antithesis of Marx, have you read her? It wasn't an arguement against the worker or the underling, it was an arguement against the looter. Those who felt entitled to the wealth of others. Her views are very utopian and some very borderline anarchism, and Man (the kind who took responsibility for their work and living) was her hero, not the CEO.
    The heroic characters weren't all CEOs, they were competent people doing their job and wanting those who would hold them back in the name of 'fairness' out of their way. Utopian and unrealistic? Yes. But the message carries with it some good sense.

    I'd say the more moral system leans towards Rand rather than Marx. I'd much prefer the debate between the two rather than Marx and Marx-Lite.

  11. Ian says:

    Are we talking rhetoric or sophistry good sir?

  12. David says:

    > Like it or not, students have to be held accountable for their learning — and they're not. Instead, teachers must spoon feed, must inspire, must somehow get the students to learn. Why doesn't anyone want to admit that, until students are also held accountable, the "education situation" won't ever be improved? /END QUOTE

    Because holding students accountable would bring attention to racial gaps in student performance, which is something that many of the people in charge of making policy in government and academia do not wish to do.


    The Inequality Taboo

    Charles Murray

    [Not a religion-oriented document, despite the URL.]


    Thirty Years of Research on Race Differences in Cognitive Ability

    J. Philippe Rushton and Arthur R. Jensen

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