Friday, October 03, 2008

Missing from America's financial crisis - acknowledgement of responsibility, apologies and atonement

During my six days in Sri Lanka, the full scope of America’s financial crisis escaped me. International events are sparsely covered in local newspapers and I had no access to television. After many visits over many years, I find in natural to assume a Sri Lankan perspective, even during a short stay.

My wake up call came late last evening in Doha, the capital of Quatar Emirate, where I made a brief stopover between flights. Interestingly, the wide screen television in my elegantly furnished hotel room did not seem to offer either BBC or CNN. I turned to the English service of Al Gazerra for a news update. (How Al Gazerra and CNN differ might be the topic of another posting). Failure of the US House of Representatives to pass Secretary Paulson’s financial bail out package, and its implications, was the sole news story. Pictures showed the historic vote’s conclusion in the House chamber. Experts speculated about the possible impact on stock prices in the upcoming day’s trading. Wall Street stock traders were shown exhibiting stress, panic, exhaustion and despair. A beleaguered Treasury Secretary Paulson urged further negotiations. This is a crisis and something must be done, he emphasized. A seemingly detached President Bush spoke of the need for bipartisan cooperation, failing to acknowledge the number of Republican votes that had helped defeat the bailout package. Republican Presidential candidate John McCain seem to blame both the crisis and the bailout package’s defeat on Democratic Presidential candidate Barrak Obama

Perhaps I have missed it, but there are phrases that seem absent from discussions of the financial crisis, at least those that I have heard. Phrases I have been seeking are ones like “I made mistakes, I regret those mistakes, I take responsibility, I apologize. I will do whatever I can to make things right.” In the past several weeks we have witnessed the collapse of investment banking houses, of the two federal mortgage lending agencies and, now, of several commercial banks. Each of these organizations had chief executives. They held positions of responsibility, They drew large salaries, including ‘performance bonuses.’ They made false and misleading (perhaps not intendedly false and misleading) statements about the health of their organizations. They failed in leadership or regulatory oversight. They have now departed the scene in disgrace, but not without benefitting from bloated (in my opinion) ‘golden parachutes.’

In traditional Japanese society, those who failed in leadership positions, often atoned for their failures by committing suicide. Public acknowledgement of failure, along with an apology to those impacted is still common. In Korea, some political leaders and business leaders have reflected on their shortcomings during extended retreats in Buddhist monasteries.

The consequences of America’s financial crisis are still unfolding - day by day. The future is uncertain. What seems clear is that many will suffer though no fault of their own. We would all feel better about the suffering that may lie ahead, I believe, if those responsible would acknowledge their complicity, “I made mistakes,” they should say. “These mistakes have caused the loss and pain you are suffering. I regret those mistakes. I take responsibility. I apologize. I will do whatever I can to share your suffering - and I will do whatever I can to make things right.”

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