The scandal engulfing the financial industry is yet another sign that our business leaders no longer respect the rule of law.
Maybe the acronym at the heart of the scandal is too confusing. Or Americans are simply tired of hearing about greedy bankers. By any measure, though, the Libor bank scandal is an extraordinary example of the 1 percent stealing from the 99 percent - and our crumbling ethics.
If an organized crime group was accused of breaking into the Nassau County Treasurer's Office on New York's Long Island and stealing $13 million, outrage would be widespread. And if the same group was accused of stealing millions from the City of Baltimore and other struggling municipalities, they would emerge as an issue in the presidential campaign.
Instead, the Libor scandal is emerging in dribs and drabs and drawing little public attention. The middle class is being victimized, and there is little protest.
Last month, the British bank Barclays agreed to pay $453 million to American and British authorities to settle allegations that it manipulated key interest rates for profit between 2005 and 2009, specifically the London Interbank Offered Rate, or Libor. American and British investigators are now examining whether traders at a dozen other banks -- including the "too-big-to-fail" U.S. banks JPMorgan, Citibank and Bank of America -- also manipulated rates.
It is hard to overstate the impact of the Libor benchmark, which is used to value some $360 trillion in loans and financial contracts worldwide. It affects lending to governments, businesses and consumers, and even student loan and credit card rates.
So Barclays' victims weren't just other banks and traders. They included taxpayers in dozens of communities who are believed to have paid millions more in interest than they should have at the height of the financial crisis. Teachers and other public servants may have been laid off because of bankers' pursuit of ever-higher profits.
Lawsuits filed by the City of Baltimore and dozens of other parties against Barclays, JP Morgan, Bank of America, Citibank and Deutsche Bank have been consolidated into a single case in a New York federal court. Banks are denying any wrongdoing, and the true scope of the losses -- and the role of American banks -- is expected to emerge in the complex legal battles ahead.
I do not believe all bankers are evil. I admire business owners who innovate, create jobs and strengthen communities. But theft -- whether the perpetrator is clad in a business suit or blue jeans -- is theft.
And let's not kid ourselves. Our ethical decay stretches beyond Wall Street. It spans industries, political parties and groups. In April, systematic bribery by executives of the U.S.'s second-largest company - Walmart - was reported across Mexico. In June, American sports officials accused cyclist Lance Armstrong of engaging in a massive doping conspiracy. And Jesse Jackson Jr. appears to be the fifth member of Congress to be embroiled in an ethics scandal in two years.
Around the world, a globalized economy is creating planetary-sized profits -- and relentless pressure. A May survey by Ernst & Young of 400 chief financial officers around the world found that a growing number of them were willing to pay bribes and falsify their firm's financial performance to survive the financial downturn.
The number of chief financial officers who said they would engage in bribery to stay in business grew from 9 percent in 2011 to 15 percent in 2012. And the number who said they would misstate their company's financial health to get though a downturn rose from 3 percent in 2011 to 5 percent in 2012.
"One of the most troubling findings of the survey is the widespread acceptance of unethical business practices," Ernst & Young said in a statement. "It is particularly alarming that respondents are increasingly willing to make cash payments."
Corporate boards and other overseers, meanwhile, appear to be looking the other way. Eighty-one percent of those surveyed worldwide by Ernst & Young said anti-bribery and anti-corruption codes of conduct were in place in their companies. But nearly half said they did not believe employees had been punished for violating those polices.
The same problem exists in American institutions. Senior executives at Walmart tried to bury internal reports of bribes being paid. Leaders of Congress continue to hand out shamefully light punishments to their peers, such as the 2010 censure of New York Representative Charles Rangel.
And a report released today by former FBI Director Louis Freeh found that Joe Paterno and other senior leaders at Penn State covered up Jerry Sandusky's sexual abuse of children for over a decade to protect the university's multi-million dollar football program.
Many columnists have said this before and many more will say it in the future. I am no paragon of virtue and I have made mistakes. But we can and must do better. Our moral decay threatens us.
A liberal, capitalist democracy -- and a middle class -- can only thrive in a culture where the rule of law is respected, information is reliable and the playing field is as level as possible. If we abandon that, we lose much more than self-respect. We squander a way of life.
This post originally appeared at Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.
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