Broken Incentives: “People See What They’re Incentivized to See. If You Pay Someone Not to See the Truth, They Won’t See the Truth.”
hat tip: Washington’s Blog
Monday, March 15, 2010
Upton Sinclair said:
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
Bestselling financial writer Michael Lewis is now saying the same thing. In an interview with 60 Minutes, Lewis said:
Wall Street is able to delude itself because it’s paid to delude itself. That’s one of the lessons of this story. People see what they’re incentivized to see. If you pay someone not to see the truth, they won’t see the truth.
As Lewis makes clear, the broken incentive system causes the heads of the Wall Street giants to act in ways which are not only destructive to the economy as a whole and to American jobs, but to the long-term health of their own companies.
If the broken incentive system were fixed, Wall Street big shots could suddenly be able to “see” the destructive effects of fraudulent and risky behavior.
That would take politicians getting out of bed with Wall Street for a couple of minutes, which is unlikely, given how warm and cozy it is Unfortunately, that’s probably not politically feasible.
Of course, executive compensation should be linked to performance, in the sense of creating sustainable wealth for shareholders and the economy as a whole. But if the companies and politicians are too spineless to do that, at least ill-gotten gains could be taken away after the fact when executives are found to have committed fraud or driven their companies into the ground.For example, as I wrote last April:
[William K. Black - the senior regulator during the S&L crisis, and an Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri ] provided the historical background to the PCA [The Prompt Corrective Action Law (PCA)] in a little-noticed essay last month:
… PCA also recognized that failing bankers had perverse incentives to “live large” and cause larger losses to the FDIC and taxpayers. PCA’s answer was to mandate that the regulators stop these abuses by, for example, strictly limiting executive compensation and forbidding payments on subordinated debt.