Institutionalizing Trustworthy Social Behavior

I am an occasional correspondent with Jim Peterson.

Jim’s resume is built for perspective. He is American, but has worked in Europe for many years; he is a lawyer, but also was 20 years in-house with the CPA’s at a Big 4 Accounting firm.

Finally, for many years he wrote a column for the International Herald Tribune. These days he writes a blog, Re:Balance. One of his enjoyable posts suggested all you needed to know about Bernie Madoff was that Donald Trump suggested he (Madoff) habitually cheated at golf.

Jim has well thought out and well backed-up opinions about many of the issues of our times: Madoff, accounting scandals, international relations.

I asked him the other day if he’d be willing to pontificate at a very high level How To Fix The World. Well, anyway, the world of perfidy, scandal and untrustworthiness in business. Here’s his response:

Of course, that’s difficult — especially when talking more broadly about basic principles on which societies regulate themselves. Your partner Stewart’s piece on school-kids the other day resounds — and causes me to mention the book "Nudge,” by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, two really smart guys from the University of Chicago. There is discussion there that compares the results of coercive, top-down law enforcement with the setting of normative behavior by broadly-achieved social consensus, and where to draw the line on the tolerance level for deviant behavior.

My own examples and contexts would include, for example, the complex issue of drinking age rules on college campuses, the neighborhood decisions on cleaning up after dogs, and (as I remember) the de facto legalization of marijuana use in Central Park back in my early New York days.

As put in "Nudge," pedestrians don’t stop at cross walks because it’s illegal to jay-walk, in other words, but because it’s the social convention that cars generally won’t run you down (but there’s always the possibility).

In the corporate world I put weight on these principles:

– Law enforcement will always be reactive, behind the social curve and typically not effective as a deterrent.

– The American reliance on good quality disclosure and investor responsibility has generally served well, and better than most other systems, but requires serious re-calibrating.

– "Tone at the top" by way of management quality is of paramount importance, trumps almost everything else in the areas of ethics trainability, and can be observed and measured from the outside if investors and other users are only willing to do the work. (And per contra, Madoff and others demonstrate that sub-standard behavior is observable and measurable.)

That’s at least what comes top of mind to me.

What comes top of mind to you?