There is a profound disconnect between what some people understand as their ability or right to take action (or fail to, equally powerful in many cases) — and the very real, direct, life-altering consequences of those choices on others.
Doctors know it. Teachers live it. Mechanics see it. Builders create it.
But for too many people, their actions are invisible, while their consequences wreak utter, public havoc.
Two U.S. national news stories make this (again) clear, the ongoing recession (partly caused by much greed and recklessness of Wall Street professionals) and the Penn State abuse scandal now making headlines:
This is not a case about football, it’s not a case about universities, it’s a case about children who’ve had their innocence stolen from them and a culture that did nothing to stop it or prevent it from happening to others,” Frank Noonan said.
“What happened here was ‘grooming,’ where these predators identify a child, become mentors … then give them gifts, establish trust, initiate physical contact, which eventually leads to sexual contact,” Noonan said.
Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator on the college’s storied football team, faces charges that he abused eight boys. A grand jury’s report details his alleged sexual assaults of children as young as 10 in his home and in the team’s locker room showers.
In a recent issue of The New York Times, economist Nassim Taleb argues that bankers should not receive bonuses, as they reward excessive risk-taking — whose consequences the actors never directly feel:
The promise of “no more bailouts,” enshrined in last year’s Wall Street reform law, is just that — a promise. The financiers (and their lawyers) will always stay one step ahead of the regulators. No one really knows what will happen the next time a giant bank goes bust because of its misunderstanding of risk.
Instead, it’s time for a fundamental reform: Any person who works for a company that, regardless of its current financial health, would require a taxpayer-financed bailout if it failed, should not get a bonus, ever. In fact, all pay at systemically important financial institutions — big banks, but also some insurance companies and even huge hedge funds — should be strictly regulated.
Critics like the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators decry the bonus system for its lack of fairness and its contribution to widening inequality. But the greater problem is that it provides an incentive to take risks. The asymmetric nature of the bonus (an incentive for success without a corresponding disincentive for failure) causes hidden risks to accumulate in the financial system and become a catalyst for disaster. This violates the fundamental rules of capitalism; Adam Smith himself was wary of the effect of limiting liability, a bedrock principle of the modern corporation.
Bonuses are particularly dangerous because they invite bankers to game the system by hiding the risks of rare and hard-to-predict but consequential blow-ups.
I’m exquisitely aware of the effects of my actions as a journalist and author of two non-fiction books. I know that every single time I turn in an article or a book manuscript, I hold other people’s lives, words and reputations — both personal and professional — in my hands. This is serious stuff! (In the 20 years I’ve been writing for The New York Times, freelance, I’ve never had a correction published.)
When “Malled ” was completed, two lawyers read it over carefully. We excised certain elements, shaded others, and I learned a lot about libel law. I also bought liability insurance in case anyone I wrote about — under the amusing delusion I’m wealthy — decides to come after me.
I recently wrote about a man who runs a wilderness survival program, that I took and described in the Times. I wondered why I hadn’t heard back from him. He was so swamped with new students and interest from across the country that he only wrote this week to thank me. I’m delighted that my skills (and the platform of a major newspaper) have brought his work, skills and passion to a wider audience. This is such a privilege my work affords me!
I’ve known for decades that my actions have consequences, for good (yay!) and for ill.
I wish more people really understood this.