Arthur Levitt “Defends” Goldman Sachs

Arthur Levitt, the former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman and a senior adviser to Goldman Sachs, says no one puts customer’s first and the firm should stop saying they do. He says this in response to Greg Smith’s op-ed published on the day of his departure from Goldman Sachs. Smith, of course, said that Goldman Sachs was disrespectful of clients and did not put their interests first. Levitt thinks it is wrong to expect financial services firms to put the interests of clients ahead of their own. That would be unreasonable, and anyone who doesn’t understand that is just too stupid to even be doing business, apparently. Levitt said, “That’s not to stay that buyers should beware. It is to say there should be transparency. But on the other hand, let’s not create a fellowship of buyers and sellers that will march into the sunset.”

What he is saying, I think, is that the most successful firms are also the most ruthless. If they put their clients first, they will fail. This is the same reason so many athletes use performance-enhancing drugs. It isn’t that it is right; it is just that everyone is doing it, so it has become necessary to compete. More regulation and oversight might help financial services, but this doesn’t seem to occur to Levitt.

But it does occur to Matt Taibbi, reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. Way back on May 11, 2011, Taibbi reported on Wall Street and the Financial Crisis: Anatomy of a Financial Collapse, the 650-page report just released by the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, alongside Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. From Taibbi’s article:

“But the mountain of evidence collected against Goldman by Levin’s small, 15-desk office of investigators — details of gross, baldfaced fraud delivered up in such quantities as to almost serve as a kind of sarcastic challenge to the curiously impassive Justice Department — stands as the most important symbol of Wall Street’s aristocratic impunity and prosecutorial immunity produced since the crash of 2008.”

But we shouldn’t be too critical, right?

It seems absurd to even have to write about this in an ethics blog. Is there any ethical question here? The fact that anyone would defend fraud and client abuse is a sad indication of our current state of moral decay. How do we revive a sense of honor and decency in corporate executives? How do we weave a new moral fabric and replace the one that is soiled and rent?


What Makes the Trayvon Martin Case Different From Other Murders

I did not intend to make any comment about the Trayvon Martin case as I thought there was plenty of thoughtful commentary on it already, but I’ve been reading too  many blogs on it today, and it seems to me that many people are missing the point. As I see it, it does not matter whether George Zimmerman is Hispanic. It doesn’t matter whether Trayvon got into trouble in school (how many teenaged boys never get in trouble at school?), wore gold fronts on his teeth for a camera, or tried to act tough. If Trayvon’s problems make him deserving of death, then many people I love and admire would fall in the same category. How many of us want to be judged for the decisions we made when we were 16 and 17 years old? And it doesn’t matter that many other teenagers are murdered every year. This case is different.

It is different because of the police response to it. It is different because the police say they did not have enough evidence to arrest anyone, but they do not appear to have made much effort to gather evidence. They seem to have spent more time trying to find evidence Trayvon was up to no good than they spent trying to find out whether he was the victim of stalking and murder. The police seem to have dismissed the case as just another death of a young, black criminal. They seem surprised that anyone cared enough about Trayvon to pursue the case and try to get the facts.

Yes, it is a tragedy when anyone is murdered, but it is an outrage that young men of a particular color are viewed as disposable human beings by many in our society. That someone’s life could be of so little value that it is deemed unworthy of investigation is appalling.

Don’t force me to pay for your religious practice

Members of the Catholic Church have expressed outrage that the new health laws require them to provide contraception to women. This was weeks ago, but Catholics continue to double down on this position. They say the state has no right demanding that they violate their own religious beliefs.

This argument makes perfect sense. The government has no right telling private individuals how they should conduct their affairs. So long as they aren’t taking public money, serving the general public, or hiring non-Catholic employees, there should be no controversy at all.

But according to an article in Mother Jones:

Under Obama, Catholic religious charities alone have received more than $650 million, according to a spokeswoman from the US Department of Health and Human Services, where much of the funding comes from. The USCCB, which has been such a vocal critic of the Obama administration, has seen its share of federal grants from HHS jump from $71.8 million in the last three years of the Bush administration to $81.2 million during the first three years of Obama. In fiscal 2011 alone, the group received a record $31.4 million from the administration it believes is virulently anti-Catholic, according to HHS data.

Under the first amendment, the government must not establish a religion. Funding of faith-based charities avoids violating the first amendment by demanding that those charities do not use their services to promote their faith or discriminate against those of other faiths.

Requiring them to use public funds to offer public services without discriminating against non-Catholics is not an attack on religion. Permitting charities receiving public funds to discriminate against non-Catholics would be using my taxes to promote religious views I find reprehensible. I am amazed that conservatives, libertarians, and Tea Party members aren’t outraged at this use of taxpayer money. Surely conservatives believe we should trim the federal budget and protect religious liberty at the same time.

If Catholic Charities want to exclude contraception from their health plans and refuse to recognize the rights of same-sex marriages, they should immediately refuse all public funding, including federal, state, and local funds. If they refuse, the federal government should simply withhold the funds (courts have supported such actions in the past). Or, they can continue to receive taxpayer money and offer their services without discrimination.

The unsexiness of Denzel Washington and the ethics of evolutionary psychology

In a blog on the laws of sexual attraction, Andrea Kuszewski explains why we may be more sexually attracted to people who are not quite perfect, a little asymmetrical. She says that Denzel Washington is extremely attractive and appealing due to his symmetry and overall good health. This would make him a great mate, she explains, because:

Denzel Washington after a performance of the B...
Denzel Washington after a performance of the Broadway play Julius Caesar in New York City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From an evolutionary standpoint, symmetry implies fitness to reproduce. Animals and organic objects with a great deal of symmetry are generally without genetic flaws, and thus more likely to reproduce and have viable offspring. It would make sense that these are preferred for purely mating purposes.

This must be why so many women want to sleep with Denzel. They are imagining how wonderful their babies might be. If they really wanted to have pleasurable sex, Kuszewski says they would prefer Joaquin Phoenix, who has just the right amount of asymmetry to drive the women wild with desire. She says we like people like Joaquin because, “We visually interpret their features longer, so naturally we form a greater attachment to them, and thus find them more alluring.”

All right, I’m no scientist, but this just doesn’t sound right to me. Can you imagine there ever being a moment in our evolutionary history when someone had to look as good as either Denzel Washington or Joaquin Phoenix in order to reproduce? If that had been the case, I aver there would be far fewer humans on the planet right now. Quite the contrary, it seems the human proclivity to have sex just for pleasure has helped to ensure that the overwhelming majority of people, symmetrical or not, find at least one mating opportunity during their lives.

The other problem I see with the theory is that contraception has not been reliable for most of human history. Women got pregnant, regardless of whether their attraction was based on parental fitness or pleasurable sex. To be sure, humans compete for the best mates, but at the end of the day (or night), they tend to take the mate that is available, and reproduction ensues. If humans are undone by evolution, it will be because of our great success, not our failure, at passing on our genes.

Of course, I’m being a little facetious here. I do understand that the theory only tries to explain why one mate is preferred over another and that it makes no claim that slightly unattractive people are unable to find mates, but I think it fails to explain about as much as it explains. Michael Taft wrote a defense of evolutionary psychology here. I won’t go into his arguments here, as I’m not really trying to discredit an entire field. However, he mentions two good reasons for holding evolutionary psychology theories in suspicion. They tend to reinforce contemporary notions of sex and sexuality (too often in a reactionary manner) and they offer theories that are wholly untestable. We can do elaborate tests to see what kinds of faces people find attractive, but drawing conclusions about our ancestors on this information is little more than conjecture.

Now, I really dislike when non-scientists claim that scientists are misinformed. For example, the people who know the least about climate science are the ones claiming that climate science is a big hoax. Perhaps I am misguided about evolutionary psychology. I will await further education.