Archive for the ‘scandal’ Category
Several weeks ago, hacker group The Impact Team threatened that they would release the identities and credit card numbers of clients of infidelity promoting social network Ashley Madison. This week, they made good on their threat, releasing details of a reported 36 million user accounts.
For the moment, the data is apparently out there — some news outlets clearly have access already — but it’s hard to find. But informed commentators suggest it may soon be available and searchable online.
Some will call this a victimless crime: a scuzzy company’s lying-and-cheating customers are getting exposed for what they are. But it’s worth noting that there may be some innocent victims in all this: some Ashley Madison accounts may be spoofed by people using stolen credit cards. Others accounts may belong to people who are not in fact married, but who nonetheless don’t need their online dating habits shared with the world. And even the company’s ‘core’ customers, the ones who truly are acting dishonourably, don’t necessarily deserved to be punished in vigilante style. Or perhaps more to the point, it’s not that they don’t deserve it, but rather that The Impact Team doesn’t have the right to decide.
What about Ashley Madison itself? It’s in a sleazy business to say the least. Of course, employees at Ashley Madison aren’t themselves committing adultery (well, unless they happen to be, incidentally). So some people might wonder whether the company itself is doing anything wrong in the course of business? I think pretty clearly, yes. When you actively and knowingly contribute to someone’s wrongdoing, you share the blame. And there are a range of familiar examples in which helping someone to do wrong is considered blameworthy. Think of lawyers suborning perjury. Think of business agents facilitating bribery.
Naturally, many are calling this a “wake-up call,” for web-based companies and for the corporate world more generally. Reports suggest that insiders at the company knew that privacy was a big risk, and worried about “a lack of security awareness across the organisation.” One sign of a lax attitude toward privacy: according to a report in The Guardian, while customer passwords were stored in hashed (scrambled) format, “information such as addresses, credit card details and sexual preferences is all stored in plain-text in the database.” So anyone with access to the database has access to a treasure trove of private info.
Perhaps the moral of the story is that, human nature being what it is, it’s easier to make money by pandering to people’s baser instincts, than it is to protect the private information gathered along the way.
The picture above is one I took, of a box of free books a neighbour of mine left outside on the sidewalk. When I ran by one recent Saturday afternoon, only one book remained: Armstrong’s book. Funny but sad, I thought. When I passed again roughly 24 hours later, the box looked exactly the same: just one book, unwanted even for free. I snapped a picture.
(Another perspective on the book’s value: Amazon is still selling the book, for about $11, though you can also buy a used copy via Amazon for just a penny — in other words, for the cost of shipping it.)
The book, as you can surmise from reading any of a number of reviews, tells the story of Armstrong’s rise to prominence in cycling, his battle with and ultimately triumph over cancer, through to his victory at the 1999 Tour de France. It is, in short, the story that made him a hero to so many.
We are now all but certain that Armstrong’s meteoric rise to the pinnacle of the cycling world was aided by pharmaceuticals, a sophisticated and rigorous doping program that he not only stuck to but bullied his teammates into adopting. Should he still be regarded as a hero in any sense? And is his book still worth reading? We all know now that the book left out crucial details, but as far as I’ve heard there’s no reason to doubt the basics: he had cancer, he had surgery, he “beat” the cancer, he trained hard, he won the Tour de France. So the basics of the hero story remain as valid today as they were when the book came out over ten years ago. So why is the book now effectively — literally! — consigned to the trash-heap?
For some, the explanation might be simple personal disillusionment. When a hero falls, he falls really hard. So some who previously lionized Armstrong may not want even to think back upon what they now see as their own naiveté. Others may not want to be ‘inspired’ by someone they see as a liar: perhaps they just don’t want to listen to life lessons and inspiring stories, no matter how useful, told by someone who cheated and then lied about it.
The best answer, I think, lies in the loss of trust. Armstrong’s message was one of hope and courage, and it can only really bring hope and courage to the reader if the reader trusts Armstrong’s words. Armstrong’s message was like that of the kind, experienced physician in whom the cancer patient puts his or her faith. “We’re going to take good care of you,” says the physician. Armstrong’s message: You too can triumph over adversity. Neither messenger can guarantee results: surviving cancer is much more a matter of luck, and good medical care, than it is of gutsy determination. But the other half of the message — the reassurance, the comfort, the message of hope — requires that the patient put their faith in the messenger. And that is the part of his own message that Armstrong so effectively killed.
This past Friday, David Petraeus, a retired 4-star general in the US Army resigned from his position as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He resigned because evidence had surfaced that he had had an extramarital affair.
On the surface, of course, this is just another example of a powerful man succumbing, as all too many seem to do, to the all too common temptation to betray his marital commitments. And, again on the surface, it raises questions about whether private foibles are sufficient reason to think a man unfit for public office. Petraeus himself, in his letter of resignation to President Obama, said he had shown “extremely poor judgment.” The question that always arises — remember Clinton/Lewinski? — is whether poor judgment in personal matters necessarily implied poor judgment in public matters, or whether instead the scandal really just amounts to a puerile bit of titillation.
But the fact is that Petraeus is not just another man, and not even just another man in a leadership position. He was, until November 9th, Director of the CIA, the most important intelligence organization on the planet. He was, in other words, one of the world’s most desirable candidates for blackmail. And so any transgression that could serve as fodder for blackmail is immediately amplified in magnitude. Clearly, marital infidelity is pretty high on that list. Someone in a position like the one Petraeus had has to stay squeaky clean, not for moralistic reasons, but for national security reasons.
And the seedier details that have been emerging seem to bear this worry out, at least to some extent. The woman with whom Petraeus is said to have had the affair, Paula Broadwell, is now said to have sent threatening letters to another woman who she saw as a rival for the general’s affections. That’s not to say that anything like blackmail was in the offing. But it suggests that the Petraeus/Broadwell affair had dark edges to it beyond your standard tale of marital infidelity.
There will surely be, in the coming weeks and months of analysis of this matter, plenty of talk about the demands of leadership and the character and integrity it requires. But what leadership at the highest level really requires is not just character, but an acute awareness of your own weaknesses — including weaknesses you share with the rest of the human population — and the ability to foresee and forestall the risks the flow from those.
On Wednesday, The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) released a small mountain’s worth of evidence against champion cyclist Lance Armstrong. Not surprisingly, comparisons to corruption in the world of business were not far behind. On Twitter, a number of wags referred to Armstrong as the “Bernie Madoff of cycling,” or variants on that.
The comparison with Madoff is unsurprising. In both cases, you have wrongdoing of impressive scope. In both cases, the wrongdoing was truly brazen, going on right under the noses of regulators. In both cases, you can’t escape the feeling that someone should have been able to figure it all out sooner. And in both cases, you see the eventual fall of a man who was a hero to many.
But the comparison is also off-target in important ways.
For one thing, the USADA’s account of things suggest that Armstrong was not just a cheat, but a ringleader. While others may have been complicit in Madoff’s scheme, there’s no suggestion that he engaged in organized, cynical bullying to push others into wrongdoing the way Armstrong apparently did. Armstrong is accused of having used his position of leadership to coerce others into cheating too.
The bigger difference, though, has to do with differences in the nature of the competitive contexts in which Armstrong and Madoff were each embroiled. Madoff was a stockbroker and investment advisor. It is a job in which an honest person can find success. For all the talk of Wall Street being a place where crooks thrive, there’s no indication that an investment advisor has to be a crook just to survive or to do his or her job effectively. And even if it were the case that cooking the books was somehow normal, something “everyone was doing,” that fact would do absolutely nothing to justify Madoff’s ponzi scheme. It’s not something that, in any sense, Madoff had to do.
Armstrong, on the other hand, was a cyclist competing at elite levels, during an era in which, by all accounts, doping was absolutely rampant. And in such a setting, it does at least arguably matter that “everybody does it.” It is an unfortunate fact that in the world Armstrong competed in, for every individual cyclist doping was a necessary evil, a way of keeping the playing field level. Any cyclist not engaging in doping was effectively relegating himself to the back of the pack. That’s not an excuse, but it’s an accurate description of the facts of the case.
So doping was, in a sense, non-optional for the elite cyclist trying to do his job properly, because after all his job is to try to win. And during the era in question, doping was apparently “allowed” under the unwritten rules of the cycling game. It was embedded in the social norms of the relevant group. It was, in other words, a collective problem. Regrettable, to be sure, but the sort of problem that is devilishly hard to solve, and against which individual integrity is absolutely impotent to solve it.
In this sense, doping is much more like bribery than like a ponzi scheme. Where bribery is rampant, it may literally be true that a company cannot compete without engaging in that kind of corrupt behaviour. But bribery, like doping, is an arms race that no one can be sure of winning. And the damage it does is significant. Like doping, it exposes competitors to all sorts of dangers. And when such behaviour is exposed — as in the case of Walmart Mexico earlier this year — the result is not just scandal, but a loss of confidence in the integrity of the game itself.
Is the collapse of capitalism upon us? Are we facing a moral armageddon in the marketplace? Is every scandal-driven headline another sign of impending apocalypse in the world of business? You could be forgiven for thinking so, if you read enough editorials.
Just look at the opinion pieces carried by major news outlets over the last month. Eduardo Porter editorialized in the NY Times about The Spreading Scourge of Corporate Corruption. The Atlantic carried a piece called The Libor Scandal and Capitalism’s Moral Decay, by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Rohde. Even business school professors are down with the effort to convince you that the end is nigh: Bloomberg just recently featured a piece by Prof. Luigi Zingales, who went to the apparent heart of the matter by asking, Do business schools incubate criminals?
But do editorials of that sort really bring to bear any solid evidence that things in the world of business are getting worse? Not as far as I can see.
I’ve argued before that the evidence for a real moral crisis in business is pretty scarce. Headlines don’t count as evidence. And pointing to the fact that people don’t trust business is putting the cart before the horse. People have been wringing their hands about moral decay and longing for the good ol’ days at least since the time of the ancient Greeks. So as far as I can see, things may not be all that bad. I’ve even argued that we are currently enjoying a sort of golden age of business ethics. Business today is, in may ways, more accountable and better behaved than ever before in history.
But I could be wrong about that. Really, who’s to say whether things are getting better or worse? It really depends an enormous amount on what you count as improvement, and how you measure it. So let’s call it a draw, and focus on what’s really important. The question isn’t whether moral standards in business are higher or lower than they were at some point in the past. The point is whether they’re currently high enough, and assuming the answer is “no,” what to do about it.
And there’s plenty of work to do. To begin, we need to keep working to find the right balance of regulatory carrots and sticks to encourage good corporate behaviour. And we need to figure out the right corporate governance policies and structures to foster good behaviour within corporations as well. And to the extent that bad behaviour in the corporate arena — as in literally every other area of life — is unavoidable, we need to think hard about the appropriate mechanisms to mitigate and remediate the effects of such behaviour. All of this requires a good deal of humility, of course, and a willingness to tolerate, even foster, a degree of creative experimentation.
But one thing is certain. Rather than wasting time worrying about whether the world is coming to an end, our energy would be better spent figuring out how to make it better.
It’s worth starting at the very beginning, by considering the very basic question: What’s wrong with bribery in the first place?
The fundamental ethical problems with bribery are clear. Bribery of public officials induces those officials to engage in acts of disloyalty. Civil servants are sworn to uphold the public good, and every decision they make needs to be made on that basis. Bribery violates that principle; it interferes with the decision-making of the functionaries of a democratic system.
Bribery also tilts an otherwise fair playing field. It’s one thing for a company like Wal-Mart to muscle into new territory by means of its superior management techniques and hyper-sophisticated supply-chain. Such advantages are well within the rules of the game. If you invent a better mousetrap, the maker of the old mousetrap has little grounds for complaint when driven out of business. But bribery is well outside the rules of the game. It represents a refusal to compete openly and fairly, and an attempt instead to gain special advantages that have nothing to do with ingenuity or with the quality of one’s services.
And, from a systemic point of view, bribery is a zero-sum game that acts as a drag on an economy. Consider: when two companies engage in bribery as a competitive strategy, the only guaranteed winner is the undeserving recipient of the bribe. The companies involved suffer unnecessary expenses that could better have been spent on research and development, on higher wages for employees, and so on — if only they were jointly able to forgo the bribery.
There is, from an ethical point of view, no plausible pro-bribery argument.
What about cultural differences, you ask? We are all aware that, in doing business in a foreign country, we are liable to run into ways of doing business that would not pass muster back home. And we’ve all heard the saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” But that saying is no doubt used as an excuse for wrongdoing far more often than it is used as a reminder to be sensitive to cultural variations. The trouble is that bribery is a lousy way to show respect for someone’s culture. You don’t respect a culture by corrupting its public officials. Never mind the fact that bribery, though perhaps not uncommon in Mexico, is none the less illegal.
But perhaps the most stinging critique of bribery is this. If you have to engage in bribery in order to succeed, it implies that you are not very good at your job. Eduardo Castro-Wright, the man who was Wal-Mart de Mexico’s CEO at the height of its bribery activities, was considered a true Wal-Mart star. In fact, he’s now vice chairman of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. And his reputation was built in no small part upon his stunning success in pushing Wal-Mart de Mexico’s rapid expansion. But, as it turns out, he wasn’t quite as great a manager as he seemed to be: the rapid expansion wasn’t so much a credit to him as it was a credit to the campaign of carefully-targeted bribery conducted by his underlings. As is so often the case when it comes to white-collar crime, this suggests that senior managers at Wal-Mart de Mexico were not just lacking ethically, but lacking as managers too.
What is it that justifies the record-breaking $92.8m fine slapped on Raj Rajaratnam by the US Securities and Exchange Commission?
I’m not posing this question skeptically. That is, I don’t particularly doubt the fairness of the fine. But it’s still useful to ask what reasons lie behind particular instances of punishment, particularly when those punishments are record-breakers like this one.
It’s worth noting that Rajaratnam is also going to jail, as a result of a separate criminal proceeding related to the same wrongdoing. But let’s focus just on the monetary judgement issued as a result of the SEC’s civil case. There are at least 4 possible justifications for punishment by means of a fine.
1) Deterrence. Sometimes we punish in order to make the offender less likely to re-offend, or to set an example for others who might otherwise have been tempted to commit similar crimes.
2) Restoration. Sometimes a financial penalty can be used to “make whole” the parties harmed by the wrongdoer. This, of course, would require that (some of) the fine actually be given to those who lost out due to Rajaratnam’s hijinks. As far as I know, that’s not going to happen. But then, there’s a sense in which society as a whole loses out when someone violates market norms as aggressively as Rajaratnam did. So maybe American society is the ‘victim,’ here, and is being compensated through its representative, the SEC.
3) Retribution. The fine might just amount to imposing pain on a roughly eye-for-an-eye basis. From this kind of point of view, the goal isn’t to achieve any particular outcomes (like, say, deterring wrongdoing) but rather just to ‘get even’ with the wrongdoer. Retribution is rooted in some pretty primitive (and, frankly, ugly) emotions, but it certainly has its appeal and plenty of defenders.
4) Denunciation. Closely related to retribution, denunciation is essentially the act of saying “No!” in response to crime. From this point of view, a big fine is a way of saying, loud and clear, that the kind of behaviour in which Rajaratnam engaged is simply not OK in our society.
What does the SEC say?
“The penalty imposed today reflects the historic proportions of Raj Rajaratnam’s illegal conduct and its impact on the integrity of our markets,” said Robert Khuzami, Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement.
OK, that helps. But let’s get it from the horse’s mouth. Let’s look at the words of the judge. According to Judge Jed S Rakoff,
“S.E.C. civil penalties, most especially in a case involving such lucrative misconduct as insider trading, are designed, most importantly, to make such unlawful trading a money-losing proposition not just for this defendant, but for all who would consider it.” He added that it was a warning that, if caught, “you are going to pay severely in monetary terms.”
So there you have it. The rationale behind the historic fine is deterrence. The fine was a warning to others. Of course, the fact that deterrence was the goal doesn’t mean that the fine is actually going to deter anything, or that the outsized fine is going to be more effective in that regard than a more modest fine would have been. Does anyone seriously think that a $92.8m fine is going to work where a $50m fine would not have?
But anyway, the problem here is liable to be the same as that faced in trying to deter street crime, which is that no one expects to get caught. That’s likely to be doubly true of a man like Rajaratnam. After all, he was a Wall Street titan, a self-made billionaire. He was — to steal a phrase from Enron’s Jeff Skilling — the ‘smartest guy in the room.’ How could a man like that even imagine being caught by the mere mortals at the SEC and FBI? The result is that deterrence may well be futile. So what we really need is for our markets and regulatory agencies to be designed with the full expectation that, every once in a while there’s going to be a Raj Rajaratnam. We need institutions to put safeguards in place, precisely to deal with the inevitable lapses in conscience and lapses in our belief in our own fallibility.
The documentary Chasing Madoff opens this week. I had a chance to attend a preview of the movie last night (courtesy of eOne Films).
The film is really the story of fraud investigator Harry Markopolos, the guy who, while working as an options trader at Rampart Investment Management, discovered Madoff’s scheme and worked valiantly to get the Securities and Exchange Commission to take notice.
It’s kind of a fun film, but not a great film. The film lacks a narrator, opting instead to tell the entire story through the first-hand accounts of a handful of people (primarily Markopolos and a couple of colleagues, along with a few of Madoff’s victims) and snippets from newscasts. The focus on first-person accounts gives the film a personal feel, but it also inevitably means a perspective that is slanted, though perhaps not fatally so.
There are a few laughs in the film. Markopolos is a bit of a strange cat. He’s a likeable guy, and apparently a man of integrity, but also a bit paranoid-sounding. On-screen, he tells us that he feared Madoff so much that he was ready to pre-emptively shoot the guy, if Madoff had discovered his investigation. He also describes what his strategy would be in the event of an armed standoff with the SEC, should they ever come to his home to get his files — files that included damning evidence of SEC complacency. Just for emphasis, one scene shows him leaning against his desk, brandishing a pump-action shotgun. These humourous parts are, I think, intentional, or at least surely the director (Jeff Prosserman) must have known they would spark laughter. And humour is fine, but it tends to undercut the filmmakers’ stated intention of generating outrage in their audience.
What’s most striking, perhaps, about Chasing Madoff is what it doesn’t tell us about the Madoff scandal. For example, it points fingers at the SEC, but tells us nothing about the agency’s funding levels, and whether it had the capacity to keep up with complaints like Markopolos’s as they flowed in. There are also allegations that “someone higher up” at the Wall Street Journal tried to stifle the story before it broke, but little evidence to back that up. And there are intriguing hints about the large number of individuals and organizations that must have been complicit in Madoff’s crimes, and hints at why they had no economic incentive not to keep putting faith in his results. There’s even a claim that Madoff “paid top dollar” to those that would bring him “new victims.” But the relevant parties are not named and the film makes little effort to explain the connections.
Bottom line: I’m a university professor — would I show this movie in my Business Ethics classroom? Probably not. It’s a fine portrayal of man of integrity fighting the good fight, but it teaches relatively little about how the financial crime of the century happened, or what if anything would prevent it from happening again.