One of the largest, most powerful companies on earth is a mess because it has not learned—and doesn’t seem to want to learn—one of the basic lessons we teach kindergarteners. AIG (American International Group) is now a name associated with greed, recklessness, and everything that is wrong with Wall Street. Big bonuses to bozos and billions of bucks handed from friends in government to other companies it owes. The outrage across the country is the most encouraging factor in the company’s shameless behavior.
What’s the lesson we teach five-year-olds? Integrity. Integrity means consistently doing what is right—having a positive ethical code and living according to it.
But wait! The executives who got us into this international economic mess, and who said they were entitled to bonuses for doing it, now say they’ll return the bonuses. Of course they will. They don’t want to be taxed ninety percent or get lynched by angry mobs. That’s not integrity, only self-preservation. And the deeper problems within their company and others still remain.
Now AIG is having trouble selling their financial products. It seems people don’t want to do business with them. Surprise, surprise.
Some are saying that AIG’s “only solution” may be to change their name to salvage the company and move on. That makes sense, except for the “only solution” part. The first part of any good solution is learning the kindergarten lesson.
Alan Greenspan, and plenty of others, used to imagine that Wall Street executives would police themselves and do business with integrity. In other words, he assumed they had been to kindergarten. The Security Exchange Commission was asleep at the wheel and let AIG, Lehman Brothers, Countrywide, Freddie Mac, Fannie May and others, along with millions of consumers, get themselves into trouble. So many people missed kindergarten.
In the early 1980s, another corporation went through a major disaster. Tylenol bottles had tainted pills that killed seven people. The company faced international recrimination. But with humility and at great cost, the company apologized and made no excuses. Then they pulled every bottle off the store shelves—hundreds of millions. To a public used to cover-ups, Tylenol’s sacrificial integrity ended up boosting their name brand image, and their business resurged. The leaders at Tylenol must have gone to kindergarten—and paid attention.
If the signs so far are any indication, after AIG changes its name or diversifies, the executives still will not have learned the integrity lesson. And nothing will change, except what the government forces upon them. I wonder how many countless other corporations and executives are no different. They will pay for it. We probably will too.
We are all a small part of the economy. At least we have control over our own decisions, and they will affect our own future and that of our children. In the sophisticated and complicated world of finance, the most basic childhood lesson of knowing and doing what is right cannot be ignored for long. Three thousand years ago, the Book of Proverbs (10:9) made as much sense in the deserts of the Middle East as it does on Wall Street, Main Street or Your Own Street today: “The man of integrity walks securely, but he who takes crooked paths will be found out.”