Or Spinning to Escape Blame

The statements being made this week before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Committee by our financial leaders look and sound like apologies.  But are they really?

Alan Greenspan testified last week: “I was right 70 percent of the time, but I was wrong 30 percent of the time.”  The next day, Chuck Prince, former chairman and CEO of Citigroup testified:  “I’m sorry that the financial crisis has had such a devastating impact on our country. . . .  And I’m sorry that our management team, starting with me, like so many others, could not see the unprecedented market collapse that lay before us.”  And then Robert Rubin, former Treasury secretary and former director of Citigroup, went on to say:  “We all bear responsibility for not recognizing this, and I deeply regret that.”

What exactly is being regretted in these statements?  Greenspan seems to suggest that his mistake was not being infallible.  Prince says he and his team failed to see into the future, while Rubin seems to regret that everybody was wrong.

This may play well on TV, and it may be enough to blunt public outrage.  But as some in the press have noted, these statements actually fall short of being true apologies.  For one thing, as The New York Times pointed out in an editorial, it’s simply not true that everybody was wrong, or that there was no evidence of reckless behavior.  The Times concludes:  “the ‘apologies’ are distractions.”  (See, “Who’s Not Sorry Now.”)

As a psychologist, I would like to add that in addition to being inaccurate and overly general, key failures in any real apology, these statements lack the stamp of authenticity.  There is a total absence of remorse, or even embarrassment.  They acknowledge mistakes and limitations, not personal failures.  And they provide absolutely no indication that those same mistakes couldn’t happen again – and again.  Any parent, truly concerned for the moral integrity of his or her child, could not possibly be taken in by such statements.

So what purpose do they serve?  What do they seek to distract us from?  I suspect that what they are trying to ward off is “punishment” in the form regulatory oversight and consumer protection.  The general apologies might suggest to an ambivalent Congress and a distractible public that the lessons of past mistakes have been learned and will be corrected.  Nothing more need to be done.

When we wake up and realize that we have been “spun,” it may be too late to act.