Friday, June 8, 2018

Ethics, Expertise, and Judgment

In 2009, as they struggled to put the economy back together, the Obama administration faced hard decisions about how to treat bankers and banks. Many Americans were in a vengeful mood and wanted all the gambling bankers and bond traders put in the pillory at least. But Obama renounced punishment. He took the position that for the economy to recover the banks needed to regain confidence, and that meant the bankers had to regain confidence, and that was not going to happen if they were worried about being thrown in jail. So instead of taking a loud stand against the bankers – or the auto executives or any other such group – Obama's people worked with them to save as many firms as possible, get the money flowing again, and limit the economic damage.

It was a controversial decision at the time and remains so. But it was small potatoes compared to the thousands of somewhat similar but much weightier decisions faced by the victorious Allies in 1945.  How many Nazis or Japanese nationalists should be punished? After all almost every one in both nations had gone along with their governments, and millions had actively worked to advance Nazi or nationalist policies. The general idea was that the top leaders should be punished, ordinary citizen and soldiers forgiven; but who was a leader? How far down the pyramid should the purges go? And which jobs were to be considered so important that former Nazis or nationalists should not be allowed to hold them? The Americans were especially concerned about teachers, but once they had removed all the German teachers they considered too Nazi, they were left with nowhere near enough to get the schools running again. It was the same in other fields; water engineers seem to have been a strongly pro-Nazi group, which meant that a thorough purge would have left no experts on hand to  organize the reconstruction of shattered water and sewer systems. Of course bankers were a major focus of these concerns, but when they did jail some Nazi bankers the Americans found themselves traipsing back and forth to the bankers' prison cells to solicit their advice, and eventually all the bankers were released and "rehabilitated." They, like the civil engineers, the agronomists, the architects, and other groups were considered too important to be judged and jailed. The need to rebuild overwhelmed the desire to punish.

And this gets me to the point I want to make: cases like bankers who lost trillions and Nazi waterworks managers bring to the fore a deep conflict between two ways of understanding or evaluating society: one based on ethical judgments that divides us into good and bad, and another that focuses on expertise and divides us into those who know how and those who don't. It sometimes seems to me that these modes are fundamentally incompatible and often cut against each other; valuing expertise means disregarding moral character, and vice versa. I wonder if the conflict between these two way of thinking about society has a long and important history

In ancient Israel the leaders of the ethical judgment school were the prophets. They called down judgment on the wicked, not sparing irrigation experts because their knowledge was too important. These days, I submit, ethical judgment is the mainstay of political populism. Populists scorn expertise; don't bother trying to tell them that experienced politicians can get more done, or that we need Wall Street bankers to make the economy work. Populists tend to see all problems as moral problems, especially problems of corruption. We don't need experts in charge, we need good people in charge. To the extent that "drain the swamp" means something more than tossing out the other party, it implies that insiders have no special knowledge or expertise, they just pretend to in order to line their pockets.

In the populist mind, technical problems are trivial; what matters is having the right morality. Taken to extremes you get statements about how easy it would be to bring back manufacturing jobs, or from the other side a suspicion that we don't have a male birth control pill because of simple sexism. What is lacking is the right moral character, because to really good people what needs to be done is obvious.

To get back to 1945 for a minute, consider what actually happened in Germany and Japan. After less than a decade of austerity and rubble clearing, both nations embarked on extraordinary economic growth. The managers of that growth, by and large, were ethically and politically compromised people. It was not those who resisted tyranny who rose to the top, but those who had made horrific systems run. In western Europe many of the actual anti-Nazi resisters were communists, and they were quickly sidelined as the Cold War settled in. After a brief nervous time the old elite, which had mainly collaborated, was firmly back in charge, the rebellious rabble of the resistance put back in its place. Of course that was not entirely true, but it certainly felt that way to many anti-Nazis. What mattered after the war was what had mattered before and during: family, education, connections, political and managerial skills. Morality and especially resistance to tyranny were shoved aside.

The other question I want to ask is, how much does the expertise of elites really matter? After all the Soviets killed all the bankers and managed, after stumbles, to keep the country running and even modernize it. Do we really know that Germany needed its old bankers in 1945, or that America needed Wall Street in 2009? Or is that just an assumption shared by other people who are either also in the elite or wish they were? Some of the most notorious philo-Nazis in France were fashion designers, and they all came through the war and the vengeful aftermath in great shape, because, I guess, stylish clothes are as important to modern Europe as water systems or banks.

Here's another interesting example: recent events in Egypt. The revolution started as a struggle within the urban elite, with Mubarak's corrupt system on one side and on the other people who wanted a more open society and economy, like in the US or Europe. But when elections were held it turned out that a majority of Egyptians supported neither elite faction; they saw the nation's problems as fundamentally moral, and their solution was to bring in the Muslim Brotherhood. They wanted a clean sweep of corrupt insiders, not managerial improvements. Aghast, the pro-western intellectuals immediately turned to the Army to get rid of the Islamists, and the corrupt system was restored.

I feel muddled. I believe in knowledge and skill; it has taken me years to learn how to run a $100,000 archaeological project effectively, a simple problem compared to running a big bank. But I also believe that sometimes elites use their special knowledge to justify enriching themselves to a degree wholly unjustified by their actual importance. The elites are divided from the rest in important ways, and ordinary people are entitled to stand up for their view of the world.

So, questions:

How much would jailing the Nazi bankers and the Japanese economic planners in 1945 have hurt the future growth of those countries? And how important is that economic growth (and the greater life expectancy etc. it created) compared to punishing those who abet tyranny and genocide?

How much would prosecuting a bunch of bankers in 2009 have hurt the US economy, and is there some countervailing good – call it justice, or simply a sense among ordinary people that the elite have to follow the rules, too – that would have made that financial loss worth it?

How much immorality should we tolerate in hyper-competent people? And how much reduction in living standards and the general coolness and excitement of our world should we tolerate in pursuit of a more ethical world?


David said...

I think there are a lot of complexities to these issues. In principle, morality and expertise may have some incompatibility as political philosophies, but in practice, they go together all the time. Nazism itself was, in part, a moralistic, populist movement designed to reject expertise--for example, that of "Jewish" physics and "Jewish" banking, Weimar Republic leaders who negotiated with foreign powers instead of bullying them, and businessmen who said that what Germany needed was an export economy and not a headlong rush to prepare for war. Many admired Hitler because of his guise as an ordinary man illumined by passionate love of country and called to a great destiny. But of course Nazism was also a "reactionary modernist" movement that admired things like the expertise of military tacticians, eugenicists, and test pilots.

Similarly, the populist-expert tension in this country has strong elements of moralism on both sides. And many US conservatives tend to like expertise when it tells them what they want to hear, especially if it comes in a sufficiently masculine, especially military, guise.

I suppose I will also protest again at the use of the Soviets as just another model. Yes, the Soviets were able to raise capital for industrialization without the use of bankers, largely by raping the countryside and allowing millions to starve. Yes, Stalin was able to turn his country from an agrarian throwback into a quasi-superpower in about 15 years. But is a model where you have to kill 10 million of your own people and essentially break your own society really worth talking about? I will add I'm not sure anyone but Stalin, in his particular circumstances, could pull it off. Mao's modernization schemes were abysmal failures.

G. Verloren said...


"How much immorality should we tolerate in hyper-competent people? And how much reduction in living standards and the general coolness and excitement of our world should we tolerate in pursuit of a more ethical world?"

The problem I have with how you're approaching the problem is that you're focusing on punishment after the fact on a mass scale once things are already bad, as opposed to constant vigilance against corruption and immorality to begin with, preventing things from ever actually getting that bad in the first place.

We are far, far too tolerant of immorality in compentent individuals. It's a behavior and a way of thinking which is reinforced everywhere in our culture. Look at all the movie and television heroes who are arrogant, abusive jerks to everyone they meet, but who get excused for that behavior because of their competance. Look at all the real world celebrities who get away with awful behavior, up to and including sexual assault, simply because they're famous. (Thankfully this is beginning to change!) We traditionally allow certain kinds of people to prey upon the innocent simply because they are wealthy or infuential. That's monstrous.

I don't think it's too much to ask for both competance and morality - there are plenty of people who already fit the bill, as good people who do good work. There's no inherent need to turn a blind eye to competant people. They're talented enough to learn the skills necessary to become experts in their fields, so they don't really have an excuse for not also learning how to behave morally. Plenty of less talented people manage to be moral just fine.

But when your culture not just tolerates but even celebrates immorality among the highly competant, you invite destructive behaviors. And our major problem in this field is that we do exactly this - we let people gain power with demonstrations of competance, without also requiring a demonstration of morals.

G. Verloren said...


If we held people to higher standards to begin with, and weeded out immoral people by denying them advancement, we wouldn't be having this discussion. It's like dealing with tumors - you have to cut out the rot and sickness early, before it spreads and roots in so deep that your only options become purging it all at once at great risk, or leaving it mostly intact and just hoping for the best.

That's the primary failing of modern civilization. We don't do enough to weed out the rot and corruption early. We turn a blind eye to it, and let it dig in and fester. We don't establish and enforce rules of conduct - we simply make suggestions and tut tut to ourselves when unscrupulous people ignore them.

Far too many of our systems do far too little to prevent immorality. The expectation is just that it won't happen, or that if it does happen we'll simply handle the problem at that point in some ad hoc manner. This mentality is everywhere - even in the highest echelons of our government.

The sitting president is currently flagrantly violating the foreign emoluments clause and has refused to divest himself of conflicts of interest, entirely because he was not required to do so, but merely expected to do so by tradition - effectively recommended to behave morally. If we instead had a system in place that enforced these strictures, and denied him office until he met the appropriate requirements, this entire problem wouldn't exist.

Heck, we already enforce other requirements in exactly this manner. You can't be elected president if you're under the age of 35, for some reason. You can't be elected president unless you're a natural born citizen - no naturalized foreigners allowed, for some reason. You also need to have been a US resident for at least 14 years, and you also can't have been president for two prior terms. If you don't meet those requirements, you can't be president - end of story.

And yet, we bizarrely don't require anything else to be eligible. We don't require proof of literacy or competancy. We don't require passing a psychological evaluation to prove sanity or mental health. We don't bar murderers from being elected president. Heck, we even elected one once: Andrew Jackson. And we don't require moral conduct of our presidents or prevent corrupt self enrichment.

David said...


On the specific issue of how much Germany and Japan should have been purged after WWII, I think in Germany's case events have proved the degree of purging that was done was probably the right one. On the whole, Germany has done an admirable job of acknowledging its guilt, teaching its children an unvarnished version of the past, and showing determination not to repeat the past or miss it. A wholesale purging might have created the opportunity for a discourse of victimhood that could have seriously weakened that project.

Japan's acknowledgement of its past has been less satisfactory, particularly in the eyes of other East Asians. I'm not sure of all the ingredients that go into that. I imagine Baruma has much that is illuminating to say about it. One does get the impression that the Americans and British weren't especially zealous in investigating Japanese crimes against Asians, as opposed to Anglo-American POWs.

G. Verloren said...


I do think part of the issue with Japan was the greater degree of difference in cultures between the occupied and the occupier. Allied soldiers stationed in Germany were a lot more familiar with German culture, and there was far less of a language barrier.

It was easier to figure out the motivations of German individuals - their worldview was less foreign; their expectations and obligations easier to understand; their own words and terminology less cryptic and byzantine. It must have been a nightmare trying to figure out which Japanese officers, officials, et cetera, were or were not merely acting out obligation to an honor system and web of societal expectations that is little understood by Westerners today, and was even less so at the time.

szopen said...

There is another side to this problem. The allied actions created a feeling in easter european countries, that Germany never was actually punished and won the war, which fuels resentments and influences the politics to this very day.

David said...

If eastern Europeans weren't satisfied with Germany's total military defeat, the utter downfall of its regime and the public punishment of its political leaders, the complete devastation of its infrastructure, the loss of much of its territory and the forced migration of millions of ethnic Germans, then I'm puzzled as to what would satisfy them. The downfall of the Third Reich was the most complete defeat of a major power in modern times. What more, short of genocide or mass enslavement, could one want?

One begins to wonder if sometimes the feeling of resentment becomes a goal in itself.

Anonymous said...

Gustav Adolf Nosske was freed on dec.1951, Martín Sandberger was freed May 9 of 1958, Georg Heuser.... an endless list of war crimínals or even worse, that did not paid for their crimes.... But...How many germans died on concentration camps and of hunger after the war? First time I read about it I couldnt belive.... I think there should be no mercy for competent monsters, and let everybody know their fate. N13