Public Agenda

Ethical Blind Spots on Wall Street AND Main Street

by Daniel Yankelovich

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

The Wall Street versus Main Street narrative is popular. It is comforting to believe that greed and putting your own interests ahead of others are confined to Wall Street, while the rest of us are merely innocent, norm-abiding bystanders.

Wall Street’s behavior does feed this perception. The real estate boom preceding the Great Recession of 2007-08 featured an ugly feeding-frenzy devoid of ethics. Some of our most highly esteemed financial institutions developed a massive ethical blind spot that violated our society’s most treasured moral norms.

A closer look, however, shows a more nuanced – and balanced – picture. Yes, the banks had lowered their ethical norms. Yes, they had handed out so-called “liar mortgages” indiscriminately. Yes, the rest of us were fleeced.

But that doesn’t mean that Main Street’s ethical norms remained pristine while Wall Street’s norms deteriorated. The liar mortgages were given to people who blatantly lied about their own financial situation.

It is comforting to believe that greed is confined to Wall Street, while the rest of us are merely innocent norm-abiding bystanders.

Unfortunately, we appear to be living through a period of general decline in ethical norms. Sociologists refer to this phenomenon as “anomie” – a state of normlessness.

Such periods are not “black swans” that happen only once every few centuries; they are normal occurrences that break out in all cultures at one time or another. We are living through one of these bad patches today here in the United States.

A general decline in ethical standards is not easy to detect or document.

My research on public values suggests that one sign of moral decline is an increasing frequency of over-the-top behavior by law-abiding citizens. Ordinarily well-behaved citizens engaging in bizarre and deviant behavior is a danger signal of something morally amiss in the larger society.

For example, our nation’s colleges are experiencing steady annual increases in student rape. The rape rate has now reached 20 percent – one out of five students are victims of a crime that once used to invoke the death penalty. The president of the United States cited this statistic as one of his major worries.

Our military services – the navy, army and air force – are all currently caught up in a series of scandals that has the Secretary of Defense worried about our moral character and courage. The scandals involve a wide range of violations of social norms: cheating , drug abuse, accepting kickbacks and sexual misconduct. Hundreds, if not thousands of military personnel are involved, including high-ranking admirals and generals.

On the civilian front, an ever growing of number of Congressmen and other government officials are being caught in sexual misconduct. One example of weakened moral norms stands out: In a movie theatre just outside of Tampa, Florida a 71-year-old retired police captain shot and killed a younger man – a total stranger – because the younger man wouldn’t stop texting while the movie previews were playing.

Two ordinarily law-abiding citizens allowed their own willfulness to override the most elementary of social norms, resulting in violence and tragedy. This is an extreme example of over-the-top individualism – people sweeping aside social norms that interfere with their own desires. “I’m going to do what I want. If you don’t like it, fuck you!” Ordinary citizens are crossing the line, oblivious to the moral norms that have prevailed in our society since we became a nation.



Rebooting Democracy is a blog authored by Public Agenda co-founder Dan Yankelovich. While the views that Dan shares in his blog should not be interpreted as representing official Public Agenda positions, the purpose behind the blog and the spirit in which it is presented resonate powerfully with our values and the work that we do. To receive Rebooting Democracy in your inbox, subscribe here.




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