With the holiday season upon us, it’s a good time to reflect on the things we have that we truly need and the rest that is just superfluous. How greedy are you?
In line with this thought, our very own Dan Ariely and Aline Grüneisen published an article in the November/December Scientific American Mind on the price of greed.
For a juicy excerpt, read on:
Ferocious competition may occasionally lead to optimal market outcomes, but it can also have harmful side effects. Think about competition in sports. At first glance, the drive to be the best appears to propel human achievements to new heights. World records are surpassed, and yesterday’s Olympic medalists pale in comparison with today’s champions. Yet extreme dedication has costs. Athletes may not spend enough time with their friends and families, or they may sacrifice their long-term health to perform better in the short term — by overexerting their body or taking performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids.
The consequences of unchecked greed can also spill over into society. In his 2011 book The Darwin Economy, economist Robert H. Frank of Cornell University outlines some of the disastrous effects of allowing competition to run free. Take, for example, neighbors gunning for social status. Each tries to outdo the others, purchasing a slightly flashier car, bigger pool or more expensive grill. When Joe Jones down the block builds a home theater and Jane Smith across the street installs a 3-D amphitheater, you will no longer be satisfied with your meager widescreen television. We don’t simply try to keep up with the Joneses, we try to surpass them…
This week we learned that former Nasdaq chairman Madoff likely swindled investors out of $50 billion – arguably the largest financial fraud ever. And thinking about the gravity of the scam, it occurred to me that Madoff’s scam could be compared in terms of its effects to terrorism. Here’s how:
Consider that there was a time when terrorism wasn’t the big deal that it is now. This was before advances in technology, when terrorists only had recourse to low-level weaponry like stones and knives – which, while harmful on an individual level, are not quite weapons of mass destruction. In time, though, “better” technology came along, leading in turn to “better” terrorist tactics: suicide bombing and the like. Still peanuts, though, compared to what came later: 9/11 planes, bio terror – this is when things really got serious; now even one crazy person can cause a world of damage.
Now, I think Madoff’s case is equivalent in a financial sense. Whereas in the past one person’s monetary misdeeds could affect a handful of people at most, now there’s more at stake: a single person – like Madoff – can cause a whole lot of fiscal damage. And the reason lies in interconnections: when companies began investing with other companies, any fraud can spread and cause damage across many companies.
There’s one other similarity here. What makes terrorism so powerful are its randomness and intentionality: it can strike any time, and you never know when you’ll be a victim and it is done on purpose. Things that we can’t predict, control or at least think we can control make us more afraid. And that’s exactly the case with Madof’s scheme: the investers probably assumed that they were in control and all of a sudeen we all learned that we are much less in control, and that someone can do this to any of us.
If we view the stock market through this terrorism perspective, and we understand that just a few individuals can cause so much damage, it becomes clear that more regulation is needed – we do so much to check people at airports — shouldn’t we use the same level of security for hedge funds?
From the NYT op-ed
BY withholding bonuses from their top executives, Goldman Sachs and UBS may soften negative reaction from Congress and the public if their earnings reports in December are poor, as is expected. But will they also suffer because their executives, lacking the motivation that big bonuses are thought to provide, will not do their jobs well? (more…)