As I sat watching the riots unfold across Britain last week, I couldn’t help but draw similarities with another two recent events. Firstly, the MPs expenses scandal and secondly, the financial shenanigans which nearly brought down the Western banking system.
The link between these three events is also a theme that runs through my 2009 thriller, The Human Race, and its recently completed sequel due out February 2012. It is the simple observation that humans are inherently greedy animals and our hunger knows no bounds. This is never more apparent than when our greed goes unchecked and our behavior becomes the accepted norm within a social or business group. Such a situation can lend legitimacy to an otherwise unlawful act just as it did during the riots in London.
In my novels this theme focuses on the airline industry and the lengths to which some of my characters are prepared to go to lay their hands on a device that can cure global warming. This in itself presents a number of conundrums. Do you keep it for yourself? Do you give it away for free to save the earth? Or do you try and sell it to the highest bidder?
The greed of humanity is equally applicable to the riots and the lending and expenses fiascos.
Let’s look at this in more detail, in terms of the banking crisis. The banking disaster was firstly triggered by thousands of individuals working for the financial services industry and operating within lax regulations. But it was also the fault of borrowers worldwide who gladly soaked up the unsustainable loans; including businesses, homeowners and credit card holders. Nobody made anyone borrow anything, but we did, in our millions. And we did so in part because everyone else was doing it, but also because asset values far outstripped debt values and we all wanted more. Admittedly some of the lending bordered on criminal behavior, particularly given some of the terms bankers used for it – such as ‘toxic’ loans and bombs. But we all gladly took the money and everyone turned a blind eye to lending practices and credit criteria that, within another age, would frankly have been regarded as insane. Worse still, there were no consequences for the actions taken until it was too late.
The same can be said for the expenses scandal. MPs were regulated, but only very lightly, and they clearly manipulated their expenses to maximise their own returns. But it didn’t matter. It’s the same old story – everyone else did it and so that made it ok. Therefore it continued unabated until some whistleblower burst their very convenient bubble.
Last week’s riots followed a similar pattern. The riots in London had nothing to do with the death of Mark Duggan in Tottenham. Instead it had everything to do with the police’s strategy for managing it. Essentially they let the situation go unchecked until it very quickly warped out of control, as those involved realised there were no consequences to their actions. On and on it went until there were gangs of hooded kids – many with good jobs – ransacking shops during broad daylight in some of our biggest cities.
But I think the police have got a raw deal in all of this.
They have been rendered almost paralysed by a series of scandals that have highlighted problems with their methods. And in turn this has meant that they are now almost incapable of doing their job effectively. The result was last week’s riots in London and across the country.
But I don’t believe that the riots suggest evidence of anything other than human greed and group behavior allowed to run unchecked in the knowledge that there are very few consequences for terrible actions. And to me this is exactly the same mindset that bankers and MPs possessed.
So, what’s the answer?
Well, like anything in life, expect the pendulum to swing sharply.
More punishment for wrongdoing.
There has been a slew of banking legislation to prevent the financial crisis happening again. As for MPs, on 20 May 2009 Harriet Harman announced the creation of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. This authority is intended to manage MPs expenses at “arm’s length” from the House, thus putting an end to the historical self-policing of their own expenses. And now the rioters are also feeling the heat in the form of severe sentencing.
As human beings our inclination is to want more, even when we have enough. We need boundaries to keep that very animalistic urge in check. We need clear consequences for our actions. Quite simply it is the basis of a civil society. If not, we get extremes. Be it a banking crisis, an expenses scandal or rioting in the streets.
What do you think the answer is? And do you agree with my assessment of human nature?
Image credit: chicagoenne