The Roman moralist Plutarch wrote a number of parallel lives of illustrious Greek and Roman notables to offer his Greek-reading audience ethical lessons about character, virtue, and culture. He was trying to teach his fellow Roman citizens the importance of ethics, and to remind them that their own ancestors were often as illustrious as the great Greeks of the past.
Let us try to use his example to learn something about modern morality from the contrasts within a few matched pairs of contemporary notables, prominent in the recent news.
I know from media accounts that someone called Richard Fuld supposedly ran the once cash-laden and 158-year-old Lehman Brothers investment and banking house into the ground. Indeed, various newspapers and news shows convinced me I should dislike Fuld — given his apparent arrogance to his underlings, and insidious greed in harvesting an aggregate $300 million in salary and bonuses over eight years from his sick firm.
So I confess I was not particularly bothered to hear that someone in the company gym supposedly punched Fuld in the face after his brazen and shameless congressional testimony.
But why have we not heard commensurate censure of former whiz kid Robert Rubin at Citigroup? The stock of that mega-lending institution has descended from blue-chip status to being now nearly worthless. I was recently talking to a teller in Fresno at a small branch office of Citibank, who sighed, “Who’d have thought I may lose my job because we knew more about running a tiny branch office than those guys in New York who ran us?”
While among the top echelon at Citigroup (as someone called “Citigroup Inc. director and senior counselor”) Rubin took in an aggregate $115 million in pay and bonuses — even though his bank’s stock crashed and lost 75 percent of its value, and now the conglomerate totters close to bankruptcy. On Wall Street it appears that the role of a “senior counselor” earning over $100 million is to use one’s influence with people one has met in government to lobby them to do things for one’s present employer that they would otherwise not necessarily think was ethical — such as trying to get the government to bail out a Citigroup concern like Ken Lay’s bankrupt Enron.
I recall that Robert Rubin, as Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, oversaw the deregulation of Wall Street that certainly contributed to the present meltdown. But while we can associate the name Fuld with Lehman Brothers, and Ken Lay with Enron, and both with abject greed, probable malfeasance, and systematic incompetence, why are we unable to make the similar connection between Citigroup’s near collapse, its reckless foray into the morass of subprime loans, and Robert Rubin’s very lucrative, but ultimately disastrous leadership role within the banking conglomerate?
Such an examination might be useful inasmuch as Rubin’s own protégés Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner will now oversee the nation’s financial policy for the new Obama administration. On a final note, examine Rubin’s Fuld-like response to such charges: Apparently he claims as a “senior advisor” and member of the board of directors of Citigroup, he had both no responsibility for lunatic decisions of his company, but yet enough responsibility to be worth $115 million.
I remember why most Republicans, other than Colin Powell, abandoned the soon-to-be convicted Ted Stevens. And the names of Mark Foley and Larry Craig are now understandably infamous. It is altogether fine and proper that Republicans turned on their own miscreants, who needed to be turned on for their various misdeeds.
But why in the world is Rep. Charles Rangel still the Chairman of the House Ways and Means committee which oversees U.S. tax policy — especially at this critical juncture in our nation’s financial history?
I say “Why?” not out of sarcasm, but out of real bewilderment: Rangel’s record of financial and ethical improprieties is no longer a matter of hypocrisy, but rather one of probable criminality.
Let us count the ways: (1) Rangel paid no federal income tax on some $75,000 in rental income from his Caribbean villa — that lapse would result in a felony tax-evasion charge for the rest of us who dared to try that year in and year out. (2) Something called Nabobs Industries gave $1 million to something called the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York — and, apparently in exchange, got tens of millions of dollars in tax waivers from Rangel’s committee. Surely if Scooter Libby went to prison for faulty recall about not being the first one to “out” (non-covert) CIA operative Valerie Plame, a special prosecutor could also examine Rangel’s role in what may have resulted in a nearly $1 billion shortfall to the federal treasury. (3) Rangel seems to be claiming his New York campaign office as his home in order to continue to garner rent-control exemptions, improperly saving him thousands of dollars through aggregate subsidies. That someone who oversees the drafting of American tax policies and regulation cannot follow them himself is now a statement of fact, not baseless slander.