Editor's note: A version of this post originally appeared on LinkedIn.
What do HealthCare.gov, JPMorgan Chase, the National Security Agency and Johnson & Johnson have in common? They're all organizations of such size and clout that they're unbound by the laws and social norms we pipsqueaks must abide by.
Recent events suggest that leaves giants predisposed to engage in reprehensible behavior and to get away with it, even in a society supposedly guided by the rule of law. History suggests that unchecked giants are, in fact, so prone to behave badly as to render trivial by comparison the many recent misdeeds of our government, corporations and banks.
The historian David McCullough drove home that fact for me in Truman, his biography of the 33rd president, which I'm currently reading.
McCullough describes how, when Harry Truman was a U.S. senator from Missouri, his Truman Commission built a reputation for unflinching but measured and bipartisan investigations of World War II-era military contractors.
One hearing involved Glenn Martin Corp., the maker of the B-26 bomber and a predecessor of Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT). When Truman asked why the company had failed to fix a known flaw with wings that weren't wide enough to provide lift, its namesake replied that plans were already too far along "and besides he already had the contract." Truman told Martin to widen the wings or have the contract yanked.
Another egregious case involved a newly launched tanker called the Schenectady. Built by shipbuilding magnate Henry J. Kaiser (now the moniker of a leading philanthropy), the ship broke in two because officials at a Carnegie-Illinois rolling mill had falsified tests of the steel used in the vessel. A chief specifications examiner named Murray Stewart admitted to the Truman Commission that workers would in some cases just "make up" data when the real numbers weren't known. Such bogus figures were given the prefix "F" to denote the four-letter word "fake."
A metallurgist from another plant testified that one company tester was caught by a Navy inspector falsifying data because "he cheated more than he was supposed to cheat." The man was demoted but eventually given a better-paying job.
"I don't know anything about the steel business and don't expect to know anything about it," said Truman, "but I can tell you when the books have been tampered with and when there is a bunch of crookedness going on."
With the Schenectady, who was ultimately responsible for what went on was never really answered. Nor were any muckety-mucks ever punished.
We now know that just like with the Schenectady's steel, an "F" could be affixed to much of the data used in mortgage securities (JPMorgan Chase is in the midst of making infamous the term "Event 3"), Libor interest rates and, perhaps, currency rates, oil futures and many other financial indicators. The difference with Truman's findings was that, instead of money, the stakes were the lives of thousands of men and women, and the effort to win the war.
Modern giants are likely to behave at least as badly as their World War II counterparts. To put their own pecuniary interests above all else (JPMorgan Chase). To wastefully mismanage projects paid for with other people's money and then bury the truth (healthcare.gov). To rationalize in the shadows behavior that undermines personal freedoms, like the National Security Agency. To be led by people so clouded in their thinking that the health and welfare of those they have a moral obligation to protect takes a backseat to the mighty dollar (Johnson & Johnson).
To Truman, the answer was a Jeffersonian vision of democracy, McCullough writes. One where power was wrested away from giant organizations and entrusted to an agrarian population. That's undoubtedly a bridge too far for our modern society. But there are plausible ways we can fight back. One is to cut our biggest banks down to size. If instead we persist in allowing them to remain too big to fail, we'll have only ourselves to blame when, invariably, they again abuse their power.
Neil Weinberg is the editor-in-chief of American Banker. The views expressed are his own.