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Book on greed shows Gordon was a moron

It is delightful to read a short book (43 octodecimo pages). There are so many books that could say what they need to in 43 pages. I would venture the FCA Handbook for one. This ‘pocket rocket’ packs a punch. It should be compulsory reading for everybody entering the financial services industry. How about a copy in each induction pack – at £7.99 it would hardly break any bank’s budget.

The contention is simple; greed to excess is dangerous to society. Based on the writings of David Hume, that pillar, alongside Adam Smith, of the immediately post-union 18th-century Edinburgh enlightenment, Sutherland builds the case that “this avidity alone is directly destructive of society”.

This is the legitimisation of regulation. Without justice there is no property or claim of ownership. He contrasts this with Oliver Stone’s film Gordon Gekko to whom famously, “greed is good”, and for whom there is no shame, purely inadequacy. Mr Sutherland finds no shortage of parallels to Mr Gekko’s philosophy in modern-day banking behaviour, from Libor-fixing and dis-proportionate bonuses to systemic tax evasion. Did he also watch ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, I wonder?

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For someone so eminent and widely experienced (he is head of three UK universities), it is surprising that the author offers few practical measures to either educate or restrain. One proposal he does mention is the full public transparency of individual and corporate tax returns – now that would be entertaining. He does identify the injustice of only the rich having access to an overly expensive legal process that has the effect of suppressing legitimate questioning, but the author, having made that point in some detail, is surprisingly confident in the efficacy of public discourse and even the processes that encourage ‘naming and shaming’.

“The type of society we inhabit is formative of much of who we are and what we do,” Mr Sutherland concludes. I would echo those thoughts, as I develop the concept of “Corporate Faith” for a much weightier tome due out next year – the basic beliefs, assumptions, values and purposes that companies or societies rarely consider or challenge yet which shape all that corporations and their staff do, risk, lose, profit and effect.

Looking beyond the immediate confines of the financial sector, as Sutherland’s book does, is at once liberating and enervating, and a must if we are to learn the lessons for future sustainability. Of course, sadly, this is anathema to wannabe Gekkos for whom, to paraphrase the film’s protagonist, “justice, like lunch is for wimps”.

David Jackman is managing director of The Ethical Space and formerly head of ethics and Education at FSA