But the NHS were trying…

I was impressed that the libertarian press was sticking the boot into the mainstream media, Labour and the NHS in an apparently co-ordinated effort today. The City AM editorial made the point nicely and Guido backed it. It is vital to ask why one story – Libor or horse meat – is getting more press than another – the large scale failure of NHS hospitals. This is how bias is revealed.

The question is powerfully raised, but I don’t like the answers. Guido simply highlights that the difference exists, and points to the equine story as a distraction, and so made no contribution on this point. Heath gets it wrong by highlighting “double standards”, but there is a totally consistent standard that is being applied.

The NHS is set up to help the poor get healthcare. The poor, having better things to worry about, tend not to be the people doing all the shouting. For that we have Polly-Toynbee-style trustifarians with smart houses and cushy jobs writing daily columns, not filling sandwiches nightly in factories.

What the shouting in favour of the NHS is usually about is that the NHS helps others. Not the speaker. Everyone except the speaker who is alright-actually thanks-for-asking. That the NHS failed to care for 1200 people, resulting in their deaths is regrettable but the NHS was trying to do good. It was trying to help others, not the speaker and not the NHS either. The fact that the NHS is a lose-win deal makes it virtuous. The NHS and everyone who pays for it lose and the patients win; that’s the point. Were NHS staff greedy, self-absorbed, evasive and dishonest? Almost certainly, but they are part of a larger project aiming for a lose-win outcome.

Meanwhile, meat manufacturers and bankers exist to help customers. Customers who pay them money. Their normal mode of operation is rationally self interested: a win-win. Such sustainable trades are morally neutral at best, but eyed with suspicion. Are those win-win outcomes really fair? How come one party has more buildings and employees?… hmnn…. In this context the greedy, self-absorbed, evasive, and dishonest minority tip the scale and the result is an anger which is unmitigated by any appreciation for a larger virtue.

The standard then, to spell it out, is nasty unpleasantness on one side balanced with lose-win altruistic contributions; and the NHS is seen as a massive charitable program. It might very well be avoiding criticism due to bias and short-termist point scoring by the left, but the NHS is supposed to be forgiven, it’s trying and that is good enough. That it might be trying something unsustainable and foolish is not part of the analysis. The problem is that the whole moral analysis is flawed, and that is why this blog keeps returning to the point that to win we must change the terms of the moral analysis.

Bob Diamond should take his bonus and sack his traders

This trend for senior executives of scandalised firms to waive their bonuses is not a healthy development. It says to the mob that if you screech loud enough the rich will eat themselves. The targets of bullying and violent threats are sanctioning and legitimizing those threats. Hearing an aggressive tone they immediately hand over their lunch money to save themselves the trouble of a wedgie and a pinched nipple. It will only encourage more of the same.

Obviously there is a lot more to learn about the events at the center of the current conflict, and this post is at least 50% speculation. I want to talk about how my principles apply to the facts as I understand them, and if the facts change I’ll update my opinion.

© MDGovPics

The mob’s chosen hate figure is Bob Diamond, whose leadership did not start until after the events had apparently concluded. He is the target, and people want him to be accountable as CEO but accountability follows control which, it seems, he did not have. The mob thinks this is a moral issue and the buck stops with the boss, but he wasn’t the boss at the time which makes this demand a lynching.

Rather than pandering to them Diamond should act, as he has before, in his own long-range self-interest and take responsibility now for sorting out the mess. Acting honestly and consistently he can do the right thing and create something resembling a win-win outcome for him, Barclays and the mob. First, if he was involved directly then he should indeed resign and take the resignation benefits he is due according to the terms of his contract. If he’s not involved, then he should not accept the guilt being pushed on him and he should keep the bonus his contract says he deserves and stay in his job.

Next, the traders that deserve it should come under fire for the dishonest conduct attributable to them. Some of them may be disappointed at this apparent disloyalty, but if their conduct was criminal then they get what they deserve. Even if their conduct was not technically criminal some will have breached contracts and failed to deliver real value as their employer wished. Diamond should follow Murdoch and audit his company’s logged communications to identify wrong doers. He should highlight relevant cases to the police and clean out.

This is about justice, it is about your right to what was agreed in your contract and a dispassionate judgement as to whether the agreed criteria are met. But people must earn their keep spiritually as well as financially. Actual criminals should expect zero sympathy, which they should have earned by avoiding criminality, and all those involved will have plenty of time to reflect on the integrity and honesty that they failed to exercise. I’ve no doubt a few of them will complain that it was the culture and they would have lost their positions if they didn’t use the same tricks as everyone else used (Bob Diamond, disappointingly, seems to have made the same claim for Barclays). In fact, it was not in anyone’s real interests to act dishonestly. That much is becoming apparent in the share price. I know that those involved should have known better and I believe that they probably did know better. Getting swept up in a negative culture demonstrates a lack of independent spirit and a disturbing willingness to evade the certain knowledge that what you are doing could lead to more trouble than it is worth.

Meanwhile, Diamond should not accept any guilt that he did not earn, or reproach himself for failing to fix what he did know know or could not control. In addition, his visible actions with regard to his bonus should match his judgement of his own conduct. It’s possible he’s decided he is guilty, but continuing the fashion for bonus-waiving will not help him next year. If guilty he should resign and find another way to earn his keep out of the way of the mob. If he is innocent, then protesting as much won’t get him anywhere. He should ignore the media and take action that will change his company’s culture and lay out his expectations unequivocally: that loyalty is earned by producing real value.






Note: the author owns a small number of Barclays shares