Is Hammurabi's Code the key to fixing the banks?

Over the years there have been a chain of events that have led us to where we are now. This is true not only for the US but for the rest of the world. In a previous article we tried to determine when the US was at its strongest, to maybe shed some light on where the US went off track. It seemed clear that when the US middle class was the largest portion of the population domestic production was also at its greatest. Simply put, people were working and had money to spend. More demand created more production and more jobs.

 

Looking at the non-farm payroll reports you would think that everything is booming yet we see from a number of sources that low unemployment numbers do not tell the whole story. There are a large number of facts and arguments that support that point of view. Things are not well and getting worse but the subject of this article is what to do about it?

 

We know from the financial crisis of 2007 that very little was done. The New York Times highlighted the differences between the Savings and Loans Crisis of 1983 and the Financial Crisis of 2007 where following the S&L crisis there were 1,100 prosecutions, compared to 2007 where only one banker went to jail.

 

The population that was affected by the crisis tried to vent their frustration in anyway they could. So the protest movement, Occupy Wall Street was born The main issues raised by Occupy Wall Street were social and economic inequality, greed, corruption and the perceived undue influence of corporations on government—particularly from the financial services sector. The OWS slogan, "We are the 99%," referred to income inequality and wealth distribution in the US between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the population. That was 2007 and now it is worst.

 

How did the financial media cover this?

"SERIOUSLY?" CNN's Erin Burnett asked mockingly after finding one protester who didn't know the government made money on the Wall Street bailout.

Fox News largely mocked them as "whackos" and "communists," and took pains to compare Occupy Wall Street unfavourably to the Tea Party.

At the time, CNBC's Lawrence Kudlow suggested the protests were unpatriotic (currently President Trump’s chief economic adviser).

 

Most financial media criticised the protests for not supplying any concrete solutions and to stop playing the “Blame Game,” and here lies one of the main issues. The levels of greed and corruption are through the roof yet fewer and fewer are being punished, in spite of the fact that these so called white collar crimes have had serious repercussions in the greater economy and do affect peoples lives indirectly. Today the motivation behind greed to steal and harm others seems to be stronger than the deterrents from the risks involved. We should therefore be playing the blame game even more and bring people to justice. Here we look to the Code of Hammurabi for some insight.

 

The Code of Hammurabi is a well preserved Babylonian law code of ancient Mesopotamia, dating back to about 1754 BC. It is one of the oldest deciphered writings of significant length in the world. The sixth Babylonian king, Hammurabi, enacted the code, and partial copies exist on a man sized stone stele and various clay tablets. The Code consists of 282 laws, with scaled punishments, adjusting an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth as graded depending on social status, or slave versus free man. Nearly one half of the Code deals with matters of contract, establishing, for example the wages to be paid to an ox driver or a surgeon. Other provisions set the terms of a transaction, establishing the liability of a builder for a house that collapses.

If an architect was hired to construct a bridge, he and his family would be forced to sleep under the bridge. If a captain was hired to sail a ship and he was responsible for wrecking it, he would be personally liable for the damages. If a builder built a house for someone and did not build it properly, and the house that he built fell and killed the owner of the house, then the builder would be put to death. These are examples of clear and direct irresponsibility. If the builder purchased crappy materials at a cut rate, he would still be responsible. The principle concept is to hold people responsible for their actions.

 

If an accuser brought an accusation of a crime but could not prove it, the accuser would be put to death. Or, thieves would have their fingers cut off. We are supposed to be living in a more civilised society and are not advocating such exaggerated drastic measures, although one of the closest allies to the US employs them.

 

The main idea here is holding those in power accountable for their actions to the point where should their actions harm others, they would be “personally” liable, or as Nassim Taleb advocates having “skin in the game.”

 

How could the code be applied to today’s incidents? Think about how many investment manager market forecasters would change their tune if what they pushed their clients into was taken out of their personal accounts. You would most likely begin to see the most conservative portfolios you have ever seen. It would probably cut Goldman Sachs business by 60%. How would Jim Cramer react if his “Buy Buy Buy” rants held him personally liable for any losses he may incur?

Wells Fargo used improper accounting techniques to hide losses in order to borrow money from the Federal Reserve at lower interest rates — effectively defrauding the government by hiding the true scope of the bank’s financial problems. According to Hammurabi’s code, if the line of management responsible for such actions were forced to pay damages, not under the guise of an incorporated company, but from their personal net worth it is doubtful that those responsible would have ever authorised such actions. The result of the present judicial system is that the bank continues to replicate such actions and at worst the CEO is dismissed with a massive bonus.

 

Before economic activity can be developed to where the middle class becomes stronger once again, putting the greater economy on a stable footing for all, regulations have to be enforced and more crimes need to be punished. Crimes need to be punished accordingly. To do this requires political will, but those politicians need to be also held personally accountable. However, we need to start somewhere so the financial industry seems like a good place to start. As Billy Ray Valentine said in the movie Trading Places, “You know, it occurs to me that the best way you hurt rich people is by turning them into poor people.” The movie Trading Places was essentially an example of an eye for an eye. You may remember that the Winthorp's bet was for $1, no skin in the game. 

 

Getting 5 years in prison for stealing a few packs of gum compared with ripping off billions from tax payers and getting a slap on the wrist is an economy on the edge of chaos, not stability. As trend forecaster Gerald Celente likes to say, “When people lose everything, they lose it.”