Saturday, January 03, 2009
The consensus among the City types I met over Christmas was that the banks did stupid things but they had no choice. They had to deal in toxic securities to keep up with the competition. But is this a Nuremberg 'I was just following orders argument'? If the banking system was at fault and there was no way the industry as a whole could stand back and see the big picture, then shouldn't that mean the individual - meaning one person or one bank - has more rather than less responsibiity?
Meanwhile, Shakespeare lookalike and once great editor of The Economist Bill Emmott explains why he got it wrong when he said 'Crisis, what crisis?' back in August. He used the wrong model - Japan - and he didn't allow for psychology (bit of an oversight that, Bill). Fair enough but, unfortunately, he doesn't draw the only possible conclusion - that it is the very idea of prediction that is at fault. The safest assumption to make about the future is that we know nothing about it whatsoever and that any forecast about the behaviour of any complex system is virtually certain to be false. This may not be quite right but it will at least save us from catastrophes caused by our delusions of future competence. Emmott, like the bankers, was just following the orders of the system in which he operates. The big picture, again, goes unnoticed.
This is a fine interview of Lynndie England by Emma Brockes. Brockes allows her material to unfold and presents a picture of unremitting bleakness. England was found guilty of abuses in Abu Ghraib. Everybody now knows the real guilty parties were the likes of Cheney and Rumsfeld. England was just following the orders of a depraved and sadistic culture within the prison that was directly inspired by the administration's casual, criminal and diplomatically insane acceptance of torture.
England seems to be a bewildered, hopeless type, apparently far removed from City sophisticates and former editors of The Economist. But they are all trapped by a failure to apply reasonable scepticism to the systems in which they are obliged to operate. They seem to remain in denial about the deep folly of those systems. Competition drove the banks, the idea of prediction drove Emmott and a need to belong drove England. But they all ended up in the same place.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 8:35 am