Anna Bernasek on the Economics of Integrity (Trust Quotes #6)

Anna Bernasek is author of the just-published book The Economics of Integrity

No stranger to the subject matter, she’s been a regular contributor to the Economic View column in the New York Times. She has been a staff writer covering finance and the economy at Fortune Magazine, TIME Magazine and Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald newspaper. She has frequently appeared as a guest commentator on broadcast media including CNN, CNBC, public television and NPR.

CHG: Welcome to the Trust Quotes series, Anna. Let’s lead with your book, if you don’t mind. What’s the central thesis of The Economics of Integrity? Or theses, if that’s too limiting?

AB: If there’s one thing I’d like readers to get out of my book, it’s that integrity—or trust if you prefer—is an economic asset. Once you understand that, you can think about the topic without being limited by the conventional idea that integrity is a personal virtue, and that it’s costly. If one approaches it in the right way, integrity isn’t a cost at all. It’s an investment opportunity, a way to build wealth. That’s very exciting because there’s no upper limit to how much trust—wealth—we can create. I think it’s the biggest opportunity we face.

CHG: You use several examples of inter-dependence to make your point about integrity; care to share one?

AB: Well, one of the points I try to make is that integrity—in the sense of trust and interdependence—is an abundant fact that is found literally in every aspect of our economy. For me, a good example is milk. There are about 15 people who are directly involved in making a gallon of milk. Think of the farmer, the vet, the milk hauler, lab technicians at the milk plant and so on.
If you include all the people who are indirectly responsible for making milk the number grows exponentially. When everyone does what they say they are going to do they all benefit. If one cuts corners or does the wrong thing it can hurt everyone in the chain. That’s why integrity is a shared asset. We share in the rewards of integrity but we also share in the risks.

CHG: What do you believe is the most controversial point you’re trying to make? Controversial, that is, compared to current received wisdom?

AB: Not everybody gets my ideas right away. There are two classic responses to my book, usually from people who haven’t read more than a few words of it. The first is what the heck am I talking about, can’t I just pick up the paper on any day and see that nobody has any integrity anymore? And the second is that, well, there’s nothing new here because we always knew that trust is important.

I would say this. To anybody who says we are lacking in integrity, you don’t need to think very hard to see that if we totally lacked trust in our institutions and fellow citizens the economy would be back in the stone age. We are where we are because generations upon generations have through trial and error, with great effort and sacrifice, bequeathed to us an advanced society where our wealth and our economy depends on an enormous stock of integrity.

It’s so ingrained that we take it for granted, and most people can only think of the defects in our collective integrity assets. I’m saying it’s there, it’s enormous, and it’s very important. It’s an opportunity, not a problem. Sure there are places to improve. But that’s the point—let’s do that and we’ll benefit.

To those who say there’s nothing new here, I have to admit that I didn’t exactly invent or discover trust and integrity. But in mainstream economics trust is treated in an offhand way. It’s typically an assumption on which an intellectual superstructure is then constructed. I’m saying something new: integrity is an asset, and therefore has the property of quantity. Not easy to measure, but still a quantitative subject. We can create it, invest in it, and diminish it as we choose. What I’m saying is that integrity is not just related to, but integral to wealth.

CHG: Are you using the terms ‘trust,’ ‘integrity,’ and ‘virtue’ to mean largely the same thing, or do you see particular relationships between them?

AB: I make a distinction between integrity in its colloquial sense and integrity as an economic asset. In ordinary conversation, integrity is a personal quality. That suggests personal ethics and morality, desirable and virtuous qualities in anyone. When I talk about integrity insofar as it relates to the economy, I am talking about relationships of trust.

In economic terms it doesn’t matter how pure your soul is if nobody knows about it. But if somebody respects you and trusts you, then you have something valuable. So I use the word integrity to describe a relationship of trust between persons or institutions. That trust is an economic asset and it’s very valuable. It underlies everything we do.

CHG: You write that the recent financial crisis was first and foremost a crisis of integrity. To what extent do you think we—government, business, the public—have learned this lesson (or not)?

AB: I think a lot of people recognize that what I’m saying makes intuitive sense. The issue for many people, and the reason I wrote the book, is that they don’t have the tools and concepts they need to think deeply about the problems we have experienced with integrity and about the solutions we need to go forward. It’s not going to cut it anymore to say that we need to deregulate financial markets and encourage financial innovation. But what is going to replace the rhetoric of deregulation? I think my book has some pretty good answers.

CHG: You’re a fan of disclosure in financial markets; how far can disclosure along take us? What else has to happen to increase trust in financial markets?

AB: Disclosure is probably the single most crucial step we can take. But it can’t happen in a vacuum. If there are no norms and guidelines, disclosure becomes an exercise in futility as enormous quantities of irrelevant information obscure what’s really going on. We need to get the important and relevant information out there in a fast, organized and convenient way.

But look at the tools we have now. The internet is the greatest tool ever invented to get this job done. And once we have norms and guidelines, we need to have accountability so that they aren’t just ignored. It’s a big job, no doubt, but the payoff is even bigger. We simply can’t go back to where we were before the crisis. It’s a broken system.

CHG: You’ve written recently about our health care situation, and the recently-passed legislation. If legislators had read, and absorbed, your book (it’s a hypothetical, I know), what would they have done differently?

AB: Just about everything, I’m sorry to say. There are a couple of key points that are hidden in plain view.
First, our existing system is grossly inefficient. On the whole we are paying way too much for health care and we’re not getting results. Second, our system is grossly unfair. Everybody is getting care, but not at the right time or place and certainly not at the right cost. That’s actually making people less well than they could otherwise be.

And along the way, a minority of people are being bankrupted or severely burdened financially in a way that literally adds insult to injury, while others–including caregivers, taxpayers and local communities–are bearing inappropriate burdens.

Every other developed nation—every one—has a better system. There are existing, proven, tested, popular solutions that are being ignored. The biggest travesty of the whole legislative process was the calumnious abandonment of single payer.

Only single payer moves us significantly forward. Everything else, no matter what desirable features it has (and there are a few positive things in the legislation) further entrenches a bad system and endangers not only our future health but our economic prosperity. The only thing I like about the recent law is that it is proof that change can happen. But it wasn’t the change we need.

CHG: I’ve often thought of brands as the corporate equivalent of personal trust. What is, in your view, the relationship between personal trust and corporate, or systemic, integrity? Can you have systemic trust without personal integrity?

AB: Personal integrity is a building block for corporate integrity. Of course you can imagine a situation where someone has a defect in personal integrity but it doesn’t affect their institution because it isn’t relevant to the institutional context. However, I don’t tend to think that’s the norm.

CHG: You talk about the DNA of integrity. Is integrity born, or can it be made? Can we develop integrity, or must it come with mother’s milk? How long does it take?

AB: Integrity can be created. And I think that’s what’s so exciting about it. I think a good example is eBay. From scratch eBay created an integrity system where buyers and sellers came together in a relationship of trust to create wealth. The more people heard about the good experience, the more people were encouraged to try eBay and it created a self-reinforcing system of integrity and wealth.
It can take decades to create integrity or it can literally happen overnight. It depends on whether the DNA of integrity is present (disclosure, norms and accountability) These three conditions together create integrity. They are present in eBay and they are present in other integrity systems like the NYSE.

CHG: Anna, it’s been a pleasure to have you share these thoughts with Trust Matters readers; thank you very much.

AB: Thank you!

This is number 6 in the Trust Quotes series.

The entire series can be found at:

Recent posts in this series include:
Trust Quotes #5: Neil Rackham
Trust Quotes #4: Peter Firestein on Trust, Character and Reputation
Trust Quotes #3: Dr. Eric Uslaner on the Nature of Trust

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