Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Occupied with righteous anger

NO ONE has ever accused me of being a socialist. In fact, when I sent a Washington friend a recent picture of myself with former US deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz, someone I have known for many years, his reply was typical: 'I always knew you were a neocon, old man.'

Perhaps I earned the reputation for my earlier preoccupation with military issues and army politics when I lived in turbulent Thailand in the 1970s and 1980s.
But there has always been a side of me which becomes downright reactionary, revolutionary even, when I see injustice and moral turpitude. Such a time is now.
I don't think I have ever been so incensed at anything as I am at the world banking system and the suits who control it. In other words, capitalism, the holy grail of conservatism, requires a lot more regulation than has been the case so far.
Put me down as an arch supporter of the Occupy movement, whose spontaneity is a clear measure of the rage young job-seekers in particular feel over the way greedy, overpaid bankers have brought the world economy to the brink and left them with an uncertain future.
The pattern is disturbing. Just ask a bright young woman I know in Singapore who thought there was a job at the end of her internship, then was told there wasn't. Or another new graduate in the US who went through eight internships before he finally found employment. I would call that slave labour.
Sure, some of the Occupy groups may have been infiltrated by leftist troublemakers. Conservative talk show host Bill O'Reilly of Fox News, who I have always found a rather entertaining rogue, seems to think that is more important than the phenomena itself.
Why shouldn't bankers be held accountable for the irresponsible money- grubbing that keeps on causing hardship around the world? Malpractice has serious consequences for the medical profession. Why not for the money men too?
Criminal for me is the way American banks lent as much as US$1.5 million (S$1.9 million) to young couples building their first home, a core reason for the sub-prime mortgage crisis. What happened to saving enough for a substantial downpayment on something more affordable at such an early age?
US President Barack Obama seems to feel the same, announcing in his populist State of the Union address that he will expand investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages.
Equally reprehensible is rewarding top executives with huge annual bonuses - even while their bank or company is going down the drain. How can that possibly be justified when laying off workers is always the first response to any economic downturn?
Ask around, as I did, and you will be surprised at just how many people are as angry as I am. They may not be out there in the streets, but they certainly share the sentiments of protesters who feel capitalism has spun out of control and is causing an ever-widening gap between rich and poor.
Just recently, we were greeted with what I thought was the heartening news that British Chancellor George Osborne was drawing up new legislation under which financiers will face criminal charges for 'corporate negligence'. The new law will prosecute any chief executive of a 'systematically important financial institution' whose actions have had a significantly damaging impact on the wider economy.
That means bankers can go to jail in much the same way as reckless doctors and drivers. As Mr Osborne told one think-tank: 'Those who put our big banks at risk... should be held to account, just as those who destroy property or endanger the health of their fellow citizens.'
But my initial enthusiasm began to wane after talking to a banker friend who called the law a 'capricious use of legislative authority' (no surprise there) and was willing to lay a bet that there will be no more than three convictions in five years. The reason, he explained in that smug banker's way, is that prosecutors will find it difficult to blame a single individual - such as Mr Fred Goodwin, the chief executive of failed Royal Bank of Scotland, who earned public ire by escaping serious censure and walking away with a multimillion pound pension deal.
Rather than fat cats like 'Fred the Shred', as the British media calls him, the real targets of legal retribution should be the non-executive bank directors on the board of commissioners who are supposed to act in an oversight capacity.
My friendly banker ominously warns that, for all their moral outrage, the masses should be careful what they wish for. Over-regulation, he points out, affects the ability of banks to make money (or at least gross sums of the stuff, surely) and dissuades them from lending, as is happening now in Europe.
'Greed may be un-Godly', he points out, 'but it is not illegal.' He had me there - well, at least until I had time to climb back on my hobby horse, a spirited beast columnists are permitted to whip into a gallop whenever the occasion demands. As it does now.