Must bankers be bad?
By Dr Tom Cutterham, lecturer in United States History at the University of Birmingham
In this post Tom Cutterham discusses the moral complexities behind the University of Birmingham’s event ‘Must bankers be bad?’ Participants explored how bankers, from the 18th century to the present day, have understood the ethics of their work and learn about the key role the humanities must play in today’s banking climate.
Since the global financial crisis of 2007, the problem of ethics in the modern economy has felt ever-present. Where earlier scandals like the collapse of Barings Bank in 1995 seemed like the work of individual bad apples in a generally self-regulating financial ecology, we’re now much more inclined to think systemically. Is there an inherent instability in 21st century capitalism? Does the financial system drive the growth of massive inequality? Should governments do more to regulate that system—could they do so even if they wanted to?
‘Must bankers be bad?’ aimed to address these questions from a range of perspectives, within and beyond the humanities. It took place at Birmingham Impact Hub in Digbeth, near the city’s financial centre. We aim to take our research and ideas from the university campus into the heart of the city, to engage with citizens of Birmingham across all walks of life. Rather than a simple condemnation of Big Banking, we want to facilitate a nuanced conversation that might lead to new ideas, and grow shared understandings.
The starting-point for my own contribution was the life and letters of an 18th century financier—a transatlantic wheeler-dealer by the name of Daniel Parker. His story shows off how men and women at the dawn of global capitalism understood their ethical responsibilities, just when ideas about interest, virtue, and the meaning of credit were shaken by an age of revolutions and the take-off of industrial growth. Parker, like us, lived under the shadow of crisis, and like all good entrepreneurs, he took it as an opportunity. His way of handling the competing demands of friendship, honour, and self-interest can help us to navigate the dilemmas that similar figures face today, as well as to place them in the context of a world-spanning, centuries-old economic system.
If the 1780s were a moment of transition in the Atlantic economy, the 1980s were a coked-up, hypertrophied moment of expansion. Emma Barrett, my colleague in the History Department, works on the financial world during the so-called Big Bang under Margaret Thatcher. Her research uncovers how financial workers in the period constructed their identities and networks, including their feelings on the moral content of their working lives. Given the direct impact of the Big Bang era on today’s financial industry, Emma’s historical analysis could have important implications for the path we choose today.
Historical approaches to these issues aren’t the only way humanities can help though. Yan Huo, a philosopher and research fellow at the University of Birmingham’s new Centre for Responsible Business, added to the picture with her study of contemporary finance-workers’ own reflections on virtue and character. Her work also contributes an international perspective, putting Confucian philosophy in conversation with western moral traditions. If we can see ethics as a cultural and historical artefact, we might be better able to rethink its role in building a better world—both within and beyond the finance sector.
The questions at the heart of this discussion hinge, ultimately, on the fraught relationship between the individual and larger social structures, including the global economy itself. Is a system only as good, or as bad, as the people who are part of it? Or can certain forms of power and relationship lead even good people to do bad things? What is it we want from financial systems in the first place, and how can we change the way they function? We know these questions can’t be solved in an afternoon—but we believe that without the humanities, they could not be solved at all.