Should Corrupt Bankers Face the Death Penalty?
Let’s be clear: financial misdeeds ruin lives. If a Madoff takes your money and uses it to pay off other investors in a ponzi scheme, you won’t be able to get it back. If a Blankfein underling issues you with misleading advice, and then bets against you (creaming himself a nice profit), you won’t be able to get it back. If a Corzine steals your money and uses it to bet on the European sovereign debt market, you might not be able to get it back. You might end up in poverty or worse. You might lose your children’s college money, your retirement money, or capital you needed for your business. You might lose your home.
So shouldn’t we take a tough line against financial misdeeds? Shouldn’t tricking and stealing from investors, tricking and stealing from the public, tricking and stealing from clients carry a heavy disincentive, like death? Would a corrupt banker not think twice about their misdeeds if they knew that apprehension would mean a noose around their neck and a kicked bucket?
Certainly there is a popular impression that big-time criminals with titles, status and MBAs get it easy, while protestors (sometimes protesting the misdeeds of big-time criminals) get shafted by the hyper-vigilant modern security state:
A lot of commentators — like for example, Max Keiser — seem to think so.
And in China financial crimes are treated with a gravity far beyond a cushy minimum security cell, and home visits on the weekends.
Financial criminals in China are often executed.
In a recent case, Wu Ying, a 28-year-old woman, will soon be put to death for taking out multi-million dollar loans from investors she was unable to pay back.
We in the West appear to have a problem; financial crimes ruin lives, but financial criminals either get away with a comparatively small fine (like Goldman did after they misled clients), a cushy prison cell, or sometimes even a taxpayer funded bailout.
Simply, they keep the upside of their behaviour, and pass the downside off to someone else (either a sucker investor, or a junior partner, or the taxpayer).
Hammurabi, the Babylonian King, had a simple principle for dealing with such bullshit:
Exact equivalence; you destroy someone’s livelihood, and your livelihood shall be destroyed. Such justice would leave a lot of people, and not just bankers — Dick Cheney, John Yoo, Larry Summers, Tim Geithner — with a lot to fear.
But would it work? Well, China executes bankers — as well as corrupt party leaders, (watch out, Bo Xilai) — and bankers in China keep screwing investors and the nation.
I think the biggest problem with capital punishment is that it is administered by the state (or the mob) and that means that very often it is administered to the wrong people, for corrupt or flawed reasons. Putting the power of life and death in the hands of the state is quite dangerous. More likely than not, the person executed will end up being the innocent junior intern (“take one for the team, buddy!”) while the corrupt CEO enjoys a retirement of golf courses, hookers, viagra, and oxycontin.
A much better goal to aspire to is the end of bailouts, and the end of firing off wads of QE-dollars to preserve badly-run (but well-connected) companies and systems (zombification).
Still, in matters of financial fraud I think it is important to seek out equivalent justice; you destroy a livelihood, we take your trust fund, and your Swiss bank account to compensate the victim. The status quo — where regulators shoot off tiny fines for huge financial crimes — is a joke.
But the best way to punish Goldman Sachs (etc) for their misdeeds is to not bail them out the next time their hyper-fragile leverage-driven business model fails them and they end up over a barrel. It is quick, dirty and emotionally satisfying to talk of executions, but giving the state the power over life and death has far bigger, and far more dangerous consequences, not to mention huge potential for abuse.