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THE CULTURE OF DISHONESTY AND THE IMPORTANCE OF MORALITY IN ECONOMICS

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by Tamar Frankel

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The Montréal Review, October 2012

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"Trust and Honesty: America's Business Culture at a Crossroad" by Tamar Frankel (Oxford University Press, 2006)

"Tamar Frankel's book, Trust and Honesty: America's Culture at a Cross Road, is a provocative and broad-sweeping assessment of American culture, especially business culture. Weaving together press stories, observations, and research from economics, law, psychology, and sociology, Frankel draws a disturbing conclusion: Those in positions in trust are less trustworthy and our society is weakened by this trend."

--Peter Tufano, Sylvan C. Coleman Professor of Financial Management, Harvard Business School

 "The Ponzi Scheme Puzzle: A History and Analysis of Con Artists and Victims" by Tamar Frankel (Oxford University Press, 2012)

"A financial thriller, a masterly page-turning inquiry into tragi-comic gullibility and greed, of Ponzi victims and perpetrators alike. The belief in market rationality (another confidence trick?) and the rocketing returns of finance, induced clever people to forget that there was no free lunch."

--Avner Offer, Chichele Professor Emeritus of Economic History, University of Oxford

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What is so important about morality, especially in economics? And why is a culture of honesty crucial to the well-being of society? My books, "Trust and Honesty: America's Business Culture at a Crossroads" and "The Ponzi Schemes Puzzle" raise different aspects of these questions and suggest awareness of possible answers.

Humans cannot live alone; they are not self sufficient. They must depend on each other for sustenance. More importantly, a society cannot develop and prosper unless people rely on each other. We rely on the people we work with, on experts, on the managements of corporations, on the securities they issue, and in which we invest.

However, reliance is only part of healthy social relationships. After all, reliance involves risks. We might entrust too much power to the people on whom we rely. Therefore, a healthy society creates a balance. As President Regan of the United States said regarding the negotiations with Russia during the cold war: "Trust but verify."

The balance between trusting and verifying may depend on the need to trust and ability to verify. We must trust our surgeon more than a physician that provides advice; we may have to trust a money manager more than the adviser who leaves to us the final decision and execution of our transactions. But if people in society find that the people they must trust are dishonest, needy people will avoid seeking help and society is likely to become poorer in health and in wealth.

Trusting and trustworthiness are not dictated by law alone. Their balance is affected by the society's culture. Culture can be viewed as a social habit. Actions or abstentions bring automatic "knee-jerk" reactions rather than the results of evaluation and debate. There are things we simply do not do in a certain culture that may be done even if prohibited in another culture.

Morality is a level of trustworthiness that protects society from depletion. However, in contrast to culture I view morality as values that are self-enforced by the acting individuals. This type of morality is the most beneficial to society because it does not require any outside coercion. It is self-enforced.

I am a lawyer. Why did I write these non-law books? I did so because I began to notice in our society the deterioration of trustworthiness, the helplessness of the law, and the list of justifications for dishonest behavior. For example, "the trusting people are greedy." "They might cheat if they only had a chance, and therefore cheating them first is a defensive mechanism." And most of all: "everyone does it. Therefore, we must do it too. Otherwise, we will be the losers."

After the 2008 financial crash in the United States, there emerged information about a "little dishonesty" wrapped in justifications. This little dishonesty has caused so much harm, pain and shame to so many individuals and to the country as a whole. It is interesting how the blames of investors are identical, and how many justifications to defraud investors are similar to those outlined in my 2006 book. In addition, however, there are louder voices for justifying the wrongful "semi-frauds."

The road to dishonesty can be a slippery slope. One small dishonest act can lead to another, and expand overtime to a pattern of behavior, unless it is nipped in the bud. There can be arguments for allowing "small frauds." After all, we are not saints; we have weaknesses. Besides the other parties can protect themselves from these "small frauds." When I wrote my book on Trust and Honesty in 2006 I believed that these justifications will lead to social and economic disasters. I believed that our aim, whether or not we can achieve it, must be uncompromising. I still do. I am even more convinced after I researched the world-wide fraud that accompanies many financial systems-Ponzi Schemes.

Ponzi schemes have been practiced for a very long time. It is suggested that the United States President Ulysses Grant was a victim of such a scheme in 1884. These schemes appear around the world. They draw the wealthy, middle income investors and low income people. They touch on human frailty in a certain culture where the desire for more wealth and belief in gaining much in little time is prevalent. The con artists, who defraud by using such schemes, are talented and able psychopaths. Their methods differ in details but not in design. And their victims' weaknesses seem to follow a pattern as well.

I have drawn most of the facts of these schemes from court cases and suggested patterns of behavior, reasons for the difficulties of uncovering the frauds (they reflect "normal behavior" closely) and the analysis of the typical con artists and their victims. I have reached the same conclusions I did in the Trust and Honesty book. We must aim at uncompromising trustworthiness. The other conclusion follows the other aspect of trust: that is, self protection, whenever it is reasonably possible. Self-awareness can protect against fraudulent schemes, such as Ponzi schemes. If I recognize my tendency to be drawn to unique investments that offer enormous rewards (at no risk) I must stop. Never make the decision immediately. I must say: "Not now." Then I will probably avoid the enormous losses (even though I might lose some opportunities). Just as a person who has a tendency to become an alcoholic can protect himself by avoiding any drink, so a person who has a tendency to be drawn towards Ponzi schemes must take a deep breath and avoid the immediate decision.

Can a society become entirely immune to con artists' charm and draw? Probably not. Yet, an effective way to protect society against such persons and organizations, especially in economics and finance, is to treat them like lepers. Like lepers they are contagious; like lepers they are deadly. We must segregate and keep them away from us. Our culture must exclude them and thus protect even the weakest among us. This protection will strengthen our quality of life, our finance and economy.

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Tamar Frankel is Professor of Law at Boston University School of Law.

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