Back in the spring of 2000, I had the chance to do a book signing aboard the tall ship Lady Washington during its stop in Redwood City, south of San Francisco. The vessel is a replica of the junior partner of the Columbia Expedition, which left Boston 221 years ago on trading voyage and the first-ever American circumnavigation of the globe. Holding a promotional event here for my historical suspense novel, “The Bostoner,” was fitting since the story revolved around the original’s commander, Captain John Kendrick of Orleans and Harwich.
It also gave me the chance to catch up with old friends who now lived and worked in Silicon Valley. Invited to tag along at a dinner party, I was given the opportunity to observe those at the heart of the dot.com bubble at close-quarters. I think I was brought along as a novelty -- “Look, we brought a creative-type!” As long as the food is good, I don’t mind.
Very little of that evening stays in my mind besides my first encounter with one of those now-ubiquitous oversized pottery outdoor fireplaces. Very little else, that is, except for the discussion with two of the other guests regarding their most recent business ventures.
Although they were involved with a new hi-tech startup, they were talking about their previous company. Sound familiar? Seizing on the Internet-investor frenzy, they’d taken the company public, the idea had failed to catch on, so towards the end they were pulling out as much capital as they could, disguising new capital as income, cashing in their stock options and selling office furniture to pay their salaries.
And they were laughing about this. Like it was some sort of play where the props, lighting or sound (or all three) had gone horribly wrong, and the lead kept fumbling her lines.
There was no sense of fiduciary responsibility. There was no shame. There was no remorse that they may have blown the values of countless 401K’s on nothing more than rented office space. And, perhaps worse, no one else at the table expressed any shock or disgust at the attitudes of these two, never mind that they appeared to have gotten new jobs better than assistant toilet-bowl cleaner.
They had failed. That’s OK. In the American system, you have the right to try, and maybe fail, maybe succeed. You don’t have a right to succeed. To their credit, these two didn’t seem to argue that point -- that the government or society owes them its support to make sure their business plans makes it, no matter how useless, outmoded or just plain dumb.
Too often today, many businesses look to us as a guarantor against the negative results of their bad business decisions, or just their own stubborn refusal to adapt to change. There’s a subsidy here and a change in regulation there. But as comedian Ron White observed, “You can’t fix stupid.”
With the turmoil in financial markets these days, I’ve been thinking more of those two Silicon Valley Boys. Eight years later, we seem to be back where we started. Any economic growth seemed built upon rising home prices, and more and more innovative investments that seemed, at their core, designed to be against an investments success.
For the most part, however, America doesn’t seem to do anything anymore. Instead, we have grown very good at marking time. This may be the inevitable result of a large segment of the population approaching retirement.
Meanwhile, we are facing the “moral imperative,” as it referred to by economists. By bailing out people who make bad decisions, whether it is to get more of a mortgage than they can afford, or to grant more of a mortgage than a customer can afford, the government sets a precedent that says, “We will save you from your bad decisions.” Or in this case, “If you are going to fail, go big.”
It wasn’t the government that taught this lesson to my two dinner companions, but American business. These two were again in the same line of work. They had demonstrated their willingness to look out for number one, instead of for their investors, and for some reason had been scooped up. There didn’t seem to be any suggestion that, their MBAs aside, they should reassess their career goals and look into the growing opportunities in air conditioning installation and repair, for example. For the good of us all.
More than anything else, this attitude is what troubles me during discussions as to what the government should and shouldn’t do to help the finance industry. Those who made decisions so bad that global credit markets froze up should be barred from ever working in the sector again. Otherwise, those responsible on Wall Street (and beyond) will not learn anything more than how to game the system better.
The “system” then, meaning the U.S. taxpayer.
Read Andy's other columns at this blog or at The Cape Cod Chronicle.