Publicly, the discourse is all about the dangers of "false market assumptions" and the now-infamous "financial engineering." (I seem to remember it being called "financial innovation" last year.) But offstage, top bankers, private equity bosses, and hedge fund stars keep chitchatting and socializing, just as if banks had not had $1 trillion write-downs, the financial markets had not lost $25 trillion, and up to 30 million jobs were not at risk around the world.
To achieve this state of mind, any human being probably needs to construct a formidable mental shield. A survey I personally conducted at Davos this year of 60 top central bankers, financial market regulators, fund managers, and industry opinion-makers gives an idea of what this shield looks like.
When participants were asked whether they think they have done something in their career which "might have contributed, even in a minor way, to the financial crisis," 63.5 percent opted for a clear "no"; 31.5 percent went for a "yes," often adding in the same breath that nobody in the industry can honestly claim otherwise; and 5 percent said "maybe."
The "yes" people were then asked to explain what triggered their wrong decisions. They had three options: "too much optimism" (68.7 percent), "I felt I had to keep dancing while the music was playing" (31.3 percent), or "greed" (0 percent).
David Rubenstein, cofounder and managing director of the Carlyle Group, expressed surprise at the results. "How strange," he said. "I thought 100 percent of them would say they had nothing to do with it."
The debates about whether religion is good for society are endless for a reason: There are too many variables, too many religions, and too many definitions of "good" to make anything like a universally-accepted answer possible. But I'm pretty comfortable saying that a certain kind of religion is good for a certain kind of person. And it's hard to escape the impression that the world would be in better shape today if more of our elites - our bankers and financiers, our tycoons and captains of industry, and yes, our Presidents as well - had spent the last decade's worth of Sundays on their knees listening to readings from Ecclesiastes, and Jansenist-inflected sermons about the innate depravity of man.
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