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Excerpt: "But America's problem isn't a breakdown in private morality. It's a breakdown in public morality. What Americans do in their bedrooms is their own business. What corporate executives and Wall Street financiers do in boardrooms and executive suites affects all of us."

Portrait, Robert Reich, 08/16/09. (photo: Perian Flaherty)
Portrait, Robert Reich, 08/16/09. (photo: Perian Flaherty)

Private and Public Morality

By Robert Reich, Robert Reich's Blog

14 March 12


epublicans have morality upside down. Santorum, Gingrich, and even Romney are barnstorming across the land condemning gay marriage, abortion, out-of-wedlock births, access to contraception, and the wall separating church and state.

But America's problem isn't a breakdown in private morality. It's a breakdown in public morality. What Americans do in their bedrooms is their own business. What corporate executives and Wall Street financiers do in boardrooms and executive suites affects all of us.

There is moral rot in America but it's not found in the private behavior of ordinary people. It's located in the public behavior of people who control our economy and are turning our democracy into a financial slush pump. It's found in Wall Street fraud, exorbitant pay of top executives, financial conflicts of interest, insider trading, and the outright bribery of public officials through unlimited campaign "donations."

Political scientist James Q. Wilson, who died last week, noted that a broken window left unattended signals that no one cares if windows are broken. It becomes an ongoing invitation to throw more stones at more windows, ultimately undermining moral standards of the entire community

The windows Wall Street broke in the years leading up to the crash of 2008 remain broken. Despite financial fraud on a scale not seen in this country for more than eighty years, not a single executive of a major Wall Street bank has been charged with a crime.

Since 2009, the Securities and Exchange Commission has filed 25 cases against mortgage originators and securities firms. A few are still being litigated but most have been settled. They've generated almost $2 billion in penalties and other forms of monetary relief, according to the Commission. But almost none of this money has come out of the pockets of CEOs or other company officials; it has come out of the companies - or, more accurately, their shareholders. Federal prosecutors are now signaling they won't even bring charges in the brazen case of MF Global, which lost billions of dollars that were supposed to be kept safe.

Nor have any of the lawyers, accountants, auditors, or top executives of credit-rating agencies who aided and abetted Wall Street financiers been charged with doing anything wrong.

And the new Dodd-Frank law that was supposed to prevent this from happening again is now so riddled with loopholes, courtesy of Wall Street lobbyists, that it's almost a sham. The Street prevented the Glass-Steagall Act from being resurrected, and successfully fought against limits on the size of the largest banks.

Windows started breaking years ago. Enron's court-appointed trustee reported that bankers from Citigroup and JP Morgan Chase didn't merely look the other way; they dreamed up and sold Enron financial schemes specifically designed to allow Enron to commit fraud. Arthur Andersen, Enron's auditor, was convicted of obstructing justice by shredding Enron documents, yet most of the Andersen partners who aided and abetted Enron were never punished.

Americans are entitled to their own religious views about gay marriage, contraception, out-of-wedlock births, abortion, and God. We can be truly free only if we're confident we can go about our private lives without being monitored or intruded upon by government, and can practice whatever faith (or lack of faith) we wish regardless of the religious beliefs of others. A society where one set of religious views is imposed on a large number of citizens who disagree with them is not a democracy. It's a theocracy.

But abuses of public trust such as we've witnessed for years on the Street and in the executive suites of our largest corporations are not matters of private morality. They're violations of public morality. They undermine the integrity of our economy and democracy. They've led millions of Americans to conclude the game is rigged.

Regressive Republicans have no problem hurling the epithets "shameful," "disgraceful," and "contemptible" at private moral decisions they disagree with. Rush Limbaugh calls a young woman a "slut" just for standing up for her beliefs about private morality.

Republicans have staked out the moral low ground. It's time for Democrats and progressives to stake out the moral high ground, condemning the abuses of economic power and privilege that characterize this new Gilded Age - business deals that are technically legal but wrong because they exploit the trust that investors or employees have place in those businesses, pay packages that are ludicrously high compared with the pay of average workers, political donations so large as to breed cynicism about the ability of their recipients to represent the public as a whole.

An economy is built on a foundation of shared morality. Adam Smith never called himself an economist. The separate field of economics didn't exist in the eighteenth century. He called himself a moral philosopher. And the book he was proudest of wasn't "The Wealth of Nations," but his "Theory of Moral Sentiments" - about the ties that bind people together into societies.

Twice before progressive have saved capitalism from its own excesses by appealing to public morality and common sense. First in the early 1900s, when the captains for American industry had monopolized the economy into giant trusts, American politics had sunk into a swamp of patronage and corruption, and many factory jobs were unsafe - entailing long hours of work at meager pay and often exploiting children. In response, we enacted antitrust, civil service reforms, and labor protections.

And then again in 1930s after the stock market collapsed and a large portion of American workforce was unemployed. Then we regulated banks and insured deposits, cleaned up stock market, and provided social insurance to the destitute.

It's time once again to save capitalism from its own excesses - and to base a new era of reform on public morality and common sense. your social media marketing partner


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+53 # walthe310 2012-03-14 14:00
It's really very simple: love thy neighbor as thyself and do unto others as you would have them do unto you and yours.
+8 # julillywk 2012-03-14 15:37
Actually, a Jewish friend of mine corrected my on that piousness. He said "that's what's wrong you you Christians-- you're always trying to get people to like what you like and believe what you believe. HOw we say the Golden Rule, (and evidently how it actually is in the Bible) is "don't do unto others as you would not have someone do to you."
This actually makes a lot more sense practically: just because I love chocolate, I shouldn't buy everyone else chocolate. But if I hate rum raisin, I just might steer away from buying others rum raisin....
-4 # hobbesian 2012-03-14 17:49
Silly response. Just let them eat what they want and when. Why should you think you should tell them when, what and where to eat? If you are buying, then offer the choices. Let them choose. Do you have to be the controller/boss of all?

"Do as you would be done by; or be done by as you did." Charles Kingsley in The Water Babies.
+3 # hobbesian 2012-03-14 17:53
I have just realized; you want them to have ice cream because you like ice cream and think you know what is good for everybody else. I don't believe you should be able to make them eat ice cream if they don't want it. It doesn't hurt your ice-cream-eatin g if they don't eat it. You can still "believe" in ice cream and carry on without inflicting it on them.
+4 # bluepilgrim 2012-03-14 21:31
1.The Platinum Rule is a moral principle related to but different from the Golden Rule, saying that "Treat others in the way they like to be treated."
+61 # xflowers 2012-03-14 15:39
Thank you Robert Reich. You are a very good writer all of the time, but this is brilliant! It should be posted on every blog and in every newspaper in the country. It is the message everyone should read. Bravo!
+13 # Jorge 2012-03-14 18:52
Yes, Reich's analysis is spot on, except for relying on the Democratic Party to change the Wall Street/Washingt on, DC collusion. President Obama (that noted "populist"/comm unity organizer) had a great opportunity for real change but he immediately surrounded himself with Wall Street banksters/Goldm an Sachs/Geithner/ Summers, etc. and none of the biggest crooks went to jail (remember when Martha Stewart when to jail in 2004 for lying about a stock sale? v. the massive recent WS fraud that led to the Great recession) Reich would have better results with a third-party candidate (Anderson) and working with OWS.
+1 # XXMD48 2012-03-22 11:36
Quoting Jorge:
Yes, Reich's analysis is spot on, except for relying on the Democratic Party to change the Wall Street/Washington, DC collusion. President Obama (that noted "populist"/community organizer) had a great opportunity for real change but he immediately surrounded himself with Wall Street banksters/Goldman Sachs/Geithner/Summers, etc. and none of the biggest crooks went to jail (remember when Martha Stewart when to jail in 2004 for lying about a stock sale? v. the massive recent WS fraud that led to the Great recession) Reich would have better results with a third-party candidate (Anderson) and working with OWS.

President Obama is facing from day 1 in the office absolute stonewalling and obstructionism from Republicans and the big money unprecedented to any previous president. "Great opportunity"?
+28 # MidwestTom 2012-03-14 15:46
The excess cash created by the Fed trying to restart the economy has brought out the greed in those who have access to it, namely the NYC crowd. Our best and brightest now go the banking, not industry. We need to level the playing field by taking away the punch bowl. Two suggestions: one can only buy derivative insurance for ones actual risk (this would probably shrink the derivative market by 90%0 a major risk gone. Second, institute a minimum holding period for common stocks of at least 24 hours. This takes some of the casino atmosphere out of Wall Street.
+9 # Granny Weatherwax 2012-03-14 16:56
Tobin tax would help too.
+25 # bugbuster 2012-03-14 16:25
One resists demonizing the political Other, but today's GOP makes that harder and harder. Their behavior is appalling. It goes far beyond disagreeing on cherished political philosophies.

I want to see it otherwise, but I can't help believing that these people have no interest in their hearts other than winning the power and perks of high public office. None of them even bothers to hint at what they might do if elected. They just hate Obama. That's it.

Perhaps this is what they have to do to appeal to their base. Is their base so base as that? Are they really just a hateful mob, or are they by and large decent folk with nowhere else to turn?

I could never bring myself to listen to anything Ronald Reagan or George Bush Jr. ever said. Same with Newt Gingrich and this Santorum person. The very sound of their voices makes my skin crawl. This must be what the GOP base feels about Obama, a man whom I consider plain-spoken, intelligent, articulate, and conscientious.

I don't understand the chemistry of all this. And I don't think it's anything new in American politics.
+21 # Billy Bob 2012-03-14 17:06
You're absolutely right. There is a difference between what repugs are willing to resort to to get their way and what Democrats will do. In fact, as agressively corrupt as the repugs are, the most corrupt thing about the Democrats is their collusion with those repugs.
+10 # Archie1954 2012-03-14 17:15
But how can we expect business executives to act morally and ethically when government officials and agencies are as immoral and unethical as Hell (see Wikileaks if you don't believe me)?
+17 # Glen 2012-03-14 17:27
Khrushchev once said that the U.S. would rot from within. He also said:

August 24, 1963 Khrushchev remarked in his speech in Yugoslavia, "I once said, 'We will bury you,' and I got into trouble with it. Of course we will not bury you with a shovel. Your own working class will bury you,"[5] a reference to the Marxist saying, "The proletariat is the undertaker of capitalism", based on the concluding statement in Chapter 1 of the Communist Manifesto: "What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable". Khrushchev repeated this Marxist thesis at a meeting with journalists in the U.S. in September 1959.

He was an atheist, so paid little attention to the religious fervor in the U.S. That fervor grew into a political movement that he would no doubt have included in the rot at the heart of the U.S.

Odd how unexpected outside commentators can speak a truth for the future.
+17 # DLT888 2012-03-14 17:34
I agree -- brilliant piece, Mr. Reich!

One thing that is clear to me is that the Republicans point the finger and accuse others of the exact bad behaviors they themselves are doing. So for them to call people who aren't Republican "immoral" means that Republicans are immoral and know it. It's a tactic they've been using for decades.

Mr. Reich is so right saying the immorality in this country in in our government and in the 1% whose money is running this country right now. That's exactly it.
+22 # BLBreck 2012-03-14 17:36
Thank you, once again, Mr. Reich for telling it like it IS! The GOP gang figures if they keep their constituents eyes narrowly focused on their neighbors bedroom they won't notice the wide swath of corruption and immorality being perpetrated in the larger world and how THEY are getting screwed. The frightening part is that it is working.
+12 # Vardoz 2012-03-14 19:55
They wage war for profit and when our wounded boys come home by the thousands- This will cost a trillion dollars in care costs according Joseph Steglitz Harvard economist - our miliarty is outrageously abuseive to those who in many cases will suffer for the rest of their lives FOR WHAT? And then many are commiting suicide - Our military has no morality, no patriotism, priciples or ethics. They prey onj the poor and do not csre if our young men and women die in the gutter! Now the GOP wants to privatize the VA so that they can minimize care even more! Our military has nothing to do with the welfare of the people of our nation or our nation. They just are into exploitation and abuse for their own gain. It is a totally barbaric and ruthless entity lacking any humanity at all.
+10 # Rick Levy 2012-03-14 20:01
As Reich noted, progressives saved capitalism from itself twice in the 20th century. Yet here we are back to square one.

Three strikes and you're out.
+12 # angelfish 2012-03-14 20:56
Bravo, Professor! Until the ReTHUGlicans pull their heads out of their Anal cavities NOTHING will change in Washington! It's past time to STOP the madness and get these Cretins OUT of our Bedrooms and back to the business of Government! They have become so morally bankrupt and are bereft of the ability to DO the business of Government becoming fixated on marching us all backward, ESPECIALLY women! What makes them think that we are incapable of taking care of our OWN private, PERSONAL business? Why aren't they busy delegating how often men need Prostate Exams and Proctoscopies? Why are men's Viagra and Penile Implants covered by insurance but a woman's reproductive needs go begging? Why aren't they regulating Wall Street and reining in the Oil Companies who are gouging us into oblivion overcharging for their products? They were sent to Washington to do the bidding of the PEOPLE, NOT to be Arbiters of Bedroom behavior, judging what's "proper" sexual activity between consenting adults! If the THUGS don't get the message soon their Party will go the way of the Dinosaur! They've ALREADY crippled it beyond repair with their Poisonous Partisan Policies. It is time for ALL Americans to put aside Partisan Bull-Puckey and get to Work putting our Country back on an even footing! If they continue to try and fulfill their goal of making President Obama a "one term President" they will succeed where the Taliban and Al Queda failed! Vote the Cretins OUT in November!
+3 # labman57 2012-03-15 00:03
It's a subtle yet important distinction between morality and ethics. Social conservatives are obsessed with the former and oblivious about the latter.
+2 # bluepilgrim 2012-03-15 00:18
"Let's show Oliver how to do it, boys"
__ Fagin, speaking to his gang of pickpockets.

First buy the government, then steal a bunch of money from the country and destroy the economy, then take over from the government and steal the rest.
Greece comes to the American Midwest
Bankers’ dictatorship for Detroit workers
By Patrick Martin
15 March 2012
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced Tuesday night that he was demanding the establishment of an unelected financial control board to run the city of Detroit, with the power to tear up and rewrite union contracts and impose across-the-boar d cuts in spending, including the selloff of city assets.

+2 # msleepyhead 2012-03-15 07:00
i hope i'm wrong, but i don't think we can overcome it this time. big money is too entrenched in elections and the entire "game". we the people do not have power to overcome what the supreme court enslaved us to....
+3 # ckosuda 2012-03-15 10:05
great article as usual, / however, "private" morality (which includes how do we treat each other , even when it dips into our vast pockets) is part and parcel of what occurs in "public" -
great book "The Sociopath Next Door" reveals that 1 in 25 of us are sociopaths - without a conscience / unfeeling towards the miseries we impose on others -
it appears that the bigwigs are all sociopaths -
certainly, as a former practicing attorney I can vouch that the heads of the law firms I worked for were all sociopaths / they called it "good for business."

time to get real, if the behavior is that damaging / the system we live in can no longer allow it to happen /

really, criminal prosecution is the only fix /

and as a condition of parole / mandatory health care.

this is what happens to all the rest of us / the little guys making up the 99% - it is time it happens to the criminals at the top.
+1 # Jorge 2012-03-15 23:18
Yes ckosuda, Dr. Martha Stout wrote a great book that helps explain how we end up with sociopaths at the top (Wall Street, government, military, CEOs, etc.). 4% in the U.S. born with no conscience/empa thy, live with no conscience, and die with no conscience (a good example is Dick Cheney). She gives good info on recognizing the types and how to fight back.
+3 # b_niles57 2012-03-15 10:30
While agree with the main sentiment of this excellent article, I think that there is another moral issue occurring. Republicans have begun using moral terms to describe inanimate objects, like "government", "taxes", "government agencies" or even "socialism", and are using this moral perspective to advocate getting rid of the protections many of us cherish. As Liberals, I think we should continue to insist on ascribing morality to individuals and their actions, holding PEOPLE accountable. In the end this is more powerful, and leads to more efficient solutions to the problems created by individuals in the Republican party. Wall Street, for example, is neither a moral, nor immoral institution. We need to hold PEOPLE accountable for the relative morality of their use of the system, while adjusting the parameters of the institution to insure more fair and just outcomes for all. When put in this context, we present an argument that is tough to attack.
+7 # Buddha 2012-03-15 12:39
The social warfare "attack on personal morality" is to COVER UP and distract FROM the accepted corporate immorality rampant in our capitalist system.
+1 # Innocent Victim 2012-03-16 08:45
Mr Reich is properly outraged at the stay-out-of-jai l cards that have been given to Wall Street's big names and the lack of significant reform since the crash.

But regarding public morality, there are two areas not in his radar because they are not related to the financial frauds, yet they are the most serious. The first is our world-wide imperial foreign policy, which is responsible for uncountable deaths and untold misery. The second is domestic, our governments', federal and state, licensing of nuclear power plants. Their operation is the greatest threat to the lives and property of Americans, on a scale orders of magnitude greater than the terrorism that was in bin Laden's fondest dreams. Not only their operation but the radioactive wastes that lie in open pools at every plant site and are continuously accumulating pose mortal dangers to Americans in every metropolitan area, and that means to almost all of us. Our governments, if they were led by sane people, would withdraw the operating licenses immediately, today, and permanently.

These are our worst problems of public morality, far worse than the serious failures to prosecute major fraud and to legislate safe banking practices. Foreign policy and nuclear power are not Mr Reich's chief concerns, but if we are to discuss public morality then the paramount immoralities of our leaders must be put first.
+1 # Martintfre 2012-03-22 04:11
//What corporate executives and Wall Street financiers do in boardrooms and executive suites affects all of us....
And the new Dodd-Frank law that was supposed to prevent this from happening again is now so riddled with loopholes, courtesy of Wall Street lobbyists,...//

Yet where is the blame where is the moral responsibility for politicians?

The democrat house, senate and president who bailed out wall street at main streets expense?

Are politicians helpless blameless babies in the hands of lobbyist ?
0 # Larkrise 2012-03-25 23:55
Obama has had four years to make a genuine effort to take Wall Street to task in a substantial and responsible manner. He has failed to do it. He had two years of a Democratic Majority in Congress to do it. I am weary of hearing excuses for him. Either he does not have the moral fortitude to take on Wall Street, or more likely, he wants their campaign contributions. He has repeatedly focused more on his political ambitions than on justice for the average American citizen. He has accomplished three things: 1)Insurance companies are not allowed to drop you due to a pre-existing condition; 2) He saved the American Auto Industry; 3) He withdrew the military from Iraq. All of his other reforms are flawed. The healthcare act is a big sellout to Big Insurance, Big Pharm, and Big Medical Equipment. Wall Street continues to run amok, and Obama scolds a bit, but does nothing of substance. What is tragic , truly tragic, is that we have no ethical, courageous, uncorrupted choices in the upcoming election.

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