Friday, 21 October 2011

Ah, Sweet Semantics.


My sister-in-law has jumped into the blogging pool with both feet this month; her writing is more of a personal nature than mine, discussing life events rather than complaining about the state of the world.

Today, she has posted some observations about accountability that I think are particularly useful and timely, given what's going on around us.  I won't steal her thunder, of course, but her comments provoked me to consider what "accountability" really means, and how it plays out in the modern world.

Every day, we hear all sorts of people talking about "accountability."  The President talks about accountability for the financial mess we're in.  Executives speak of how they pledge to be "accountable" to their shareholders, workers, and customers for decisions.  Janet Reno, the former AG, spoke to much acclaim from the press about how she accepted "full responsibility" for the disastrous raid on the Waco compound of religious fanatics (of course, "responsibility" and "accountability" are not precisely the same, but close enough to be useful here).  The Occupy Wall Street protesters are demanding that "The One Per Cent" be held to account for the myriad ills they perceive.

One can, of course, flip open a dictionary (or even more conveniently, look it up on-line, which carries far less risk of a paper cut) to see what the word "accountability" means.

It's one man's observation, of course, but I find that none of these people who claim to accept "accountability" actually do so.  Accountability means more than just insincere (or even sincere) mea culpas on "60 Minutes." Part of the deal is that there be parallel consequences.  People are willing to do the former, but precious few are really prepared for the latter.

In the operetta "The Mikado," the eponymous character at the beginning of the second act sings of his goal to make the punishment fit the crime, and then proceeds to list precisely how he plans to carry this out. It's parody of course, but I highly recommend a listen.

The head of a bank that twisted the rules to the limit of breaking so he could fatten his bonus is not really accepting "accountability" by saying "Sorry.  I won't do it again."  Sure; his firm may pay some fines (the source of which is more than likely to be recovered in fees passed on to some of the customers he defrauded).  He's ain't giving up his home in the Hamptons.  He may toss a few low-level employees to the wolves, of course.  SOMEONE has to be accountable, I guess.

Janet Reno said she would take responsibility for incinerating dozens of people, including small children.  She continued on for many years as AG, and even ran for governor of Florida and currently tours the country making lucrative speeches about the criminal justice system.

Is that "responsibility" in any real way?

Has anyone on Wall Street really been held to accounts in any tangible way?  Any CEO or other executive appeared in the dock to answer for what they did?

The Occupy Wall Street people are right to demand that those responsible for facilitating our economic meltdown should be made accountable for what they've done.

But are even they willing to be responsible?  Responsible for borrowing money to buy a house that they could not afford?  For running up massive debts to buy gadgets that they did not need or to spend six years partying in college, ultimately, in many cases, failing to obtain a degree of dubious value to begin with?

When I was child, it was understood that if I broke the rules, my parents would hold me to account - and they largely did.  I don't know if that's still universally true (a few years back, some wealthy parents in Saratoga, California actually threatened to take their school to court if it disciplined their children who had admitted cheating on the AP exams), but most kids do get that if they get caught breaking the rules, they will be punished.

And that punishment will not likely include being allowed to keep millions of dollars in bonuses that were gained as a result of their misdeeds.

Accountability must include real contrition, and also must include consequences that, more often than not, will at least discomfit the person "accepting" accountability.

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