Privatizing Success, Socializing Failure: FAIL

I decided to turn the “Twitter quote of the day” series into real posts, rather than simple “retweets.” There is so much great stuff on twitter, but some links stand out. Someone posts a short bit from something they’ve read or thought. I retweet a lot to share the best of what I find, and pass on stuff not just on twitter but also through my network of email correspondents and other sources. Sometimes there are great finds that don’t lend themselves well to 140 characters. So with today’s piece.

@monstro: “privatize success (by chalking it up to individuals) & socialize failure (by blaming it on large systemic problems).”

This quote is from a great critique of the economic discussion at Davos by Daniel Gross on Slate.

More from the same piece:

For centuries, historians have debated whether history is propelled by Great Men (and Women), human forces of nature who bend events and systems to their will, or by vast impersonal forces (communism, capitalism, globalization) that render even the most powerful of us a mere reed basket floating in a massive river. There’s no session on the subject at the World Economic Forum in Davos. But at least with regard to finance and business, the consensus seems to be clear: Success is the work of Great Men and Great Women, while failure can be pinned on the system….

At a CNBC event yesterday, groups of 10 to 12 people sat at tables and mooted three questions: Which policy assumption failed? Which regulatory failure proved to be the largest systemic shock? And which market failure proved most damaging? The answers were obvious: poor regulation of the shadow banking system, mispricing of risk, the failure of models. But there was very little talk about the people who helped design and justify the systems, the mispricing, and the models. At one point, someone in the crowd stood up and said: “It’s intriguing nobody is to blame. In other industries, there are consequences if you make toxic products that hurt people. Policy makers need to make it clear that there are serious consequences for that type of behavior.” Big applause! And yet aside from the odd mention of Alan Greenspan and an oblique reference to Robert Rubin, the former treasury secretary who became a senior executive at Citigroup, there was little talk of individual players who had responsibility.

Alas, how true. While we don’t need a witch hunt, Daniel Gross has put his finger on something important.