The bad guys and the worse guys

I’m looking for a new job. Yesterday evening, sitting in a local café, I shocked my wife by suggesting that I would consider working for an investment bank (in IT, not their signature skullduggery). If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you may will be as astonished as she was – after all this ranting and raving about the causes of the recent crisis and recession, how could I possibly be thinking of working for such dreadful people! What a hypocrite!

Maybe. But the answer is, the investment banks are indisputably the bad guys, but where are the good guys? Haven’t you ever worked for someone who was doing some good, my wife replied? Someone who treated their staff well and was doing something socially useful (as opposed to the irredeemable social parasitism of the contemporary investment bank)?

Not really, I answered. Well, it’s not that they are all relentlessly evil, but rather that all their benevolence seems to stem from the single-minded desire to maximise profits. And if you had to be nice to people to achieve that, then you were damned well nice to them. And when it becomes more profitable to treat them like dirt, that too will come to pass.

Nor are personnel policies the only issue.

  • Some years ago I was working for a major testing consultancy. It collapsed as a result of the .dotcom debacle. And then the fun began. Within a few months we were hearing fascinating tales about the board being investigated by the FBI and our own ex-CEO being highly sought by some quite undesirable company that wanted a word about their relationship.
  • More recently, I spent some time with a major UK supermarket. Their employees told me that they were pretty good to work for – but as soon as you found out anything about how they exploited their suppliers, you’d realise that this was not out of unqualified benevolence. And so on. It’s the norm – companies are indeed becoming more benevolent, but only a) where they have to, and b) it’s the price they pay for extracting more and more high-level value from the employees – you only give potted plants to the ones who need a comfortable environment in which to work effectively.
  • Or going right back into ancient history, when the creative accounting practices used by Arthur Andersen at Enron came to light, I seem to recall that the reaction of many people in the City was ‘Why couldn’t you do that for us?’

So in a sense they are all the bad guys – that’s what it means to be in business. True, some are truly beyond the pale – the tobacco companies, for example, or arms dealers. But investment bankers? Given how the average company uses its ‘treasury’ operations (i.e., lending cash, buying and selling derivatives, etc.) to boost its profits, they were colluding with Morgan Stanley, Lehman and a rest. They weren’t very clever about it – most of them were caught out – but that doesn’t make them less culpable.

Conversely, the investment bankers aren’t breaking the system – on the contrary, they represent its apotheosis.

So perhaps I’m making the wrong distinction – there are bad guys, and there are worse guys. The worse guys seem only to be a little smarter and little more determined than the not-quite-so-bad guys, but fundamentally? I’m not sure I can really tell the difference anymore. I’d love a job with the good guys, but I have no idea who they are.

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