I solemnly swear...
The Globe recently, and usefully, ran some oaths of ethical conduct now taken by business students at Harvard, the Ivey school in London, Ont. and so on.
This is a topic ripe for ridicule, of course. But the initiative is worthwhile, no less than the introduction of mandatory ethics studies at MBA mills about which I wrote in my first book, on corporate ethics, back when the Earth was still cooling.
Have a read of these oaths, and the above-average commentary that follows. My only fault with them is length. Americans like to codify things; Brits prefer a principles-based approach. We're somewhere in between. The trouble with rules, as the Americans discover over and over, is that the imposition of one is immediate cause by some to find the invariably present loopholes.
That's why the succinct oaths work best. For caregivers, it's "First, do no harm." Sir William Osler embellished that a bit with the sage, "Treat the patient, not the disease." That is, spend the time to observe carefully the patient, his body language, attitudes, changes in mood from day to day.
And for all of us, of course, it's the Golden Rule, to be found in variations in all the founding documents of all major world religions, from the Koran to the Torah to the King James version of the Bible. You can't beat the Golden Rule as both a starting and end-point in decision-making. Would I want to be treated like this? That's the general principle, to which I'd add the more strategic "First, do no harm."
The epidemic of white-collar self-interested recklessnesses that accounts for the current tens of millions of unemployed around the world today began with the mortgage broker in Tulsa who talked a young family into financing a house they couldn't afford. Would you do that to yourself? And the banks that endangered each other and thus the entire global system by playing hot potato with $250-billion packages of those same sure-to-sour loans were either had not thought of, or didn't care to dwell on, the consequences. If the trader at Bank of America took seriously the admonition to "First, do no harm," she would have chosen differently than to fob off the toxic assets to Deutsche Bank, en route to HSBC and thence to Switzerland's UBS, which alone took more than $40-billion (U.S.) plus in writeoffs on mortgages issued to income-challenged buyers of new, $450,000 split-levels in Santa Barbara.
It's worth noting that such personal commitments to the highest ethical standards do, or should, apply to regulators, as well. No less than the bankers, or any group of businesspeople overcome by a fleeting euphoria, they give in to peer pressure and dicta from on high - from politicans and lobbyists - to let this particular outrage pass. And the next one. Until collateralized debt obligations - "weapons of mass wealth destruction," as Buffett calls them - become the new norm.
As far as I know, only Richard Clarke, the U.S. counter-terrorism chief in the Clinton and early Bush era, apologized to the American people, in his introductory remarks in Congressional testimony, for failing to anticipate the events of 9/11. ("We let you down. Your government failed you.")
We've yet to hear an apology from any banker over events triggering the worst downturn in 70 years, and the first truly global one. Or from any regulator - and pretty much every one of them failed, also, from the Federal Reserve Board to the Securities and Exchange Commission to the exotic regulator that had only Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to oversee, and managed to be so thoroughly "captured" by the regulated that it bungled as well. No apologies from the lobbyist-influenced Congressional oversight committees, either.
Maybe they're all waiting for someone to go first. Well, I have, as financial journalist who didn't see the epic catastrophe on the horizon, and warn about it. So Phil Gramm, Alan Greenspan, Chris Cox, Stan O'Neal, Chuck Prince, et al, anytime now. We already think the worst of you. An apology could only help your reputations.