Like most kids, as a young boy I couldn’t wait to get big. To me, and I guess to most very young people, being big meant being able to do anything, being free of the pain of failure. I was convinced that the bigger I became, the more successful I would become.
To a child, the concept of “too big to fail” makes perfect sense. Too bad we all have to grow up.
Part of growing up involves coming to grips with the fact that size doesn’t matter. That’s what all those stories are supposed to teach us: David can beat Goliath; a handful of rebels can beat a Death Star. It’s not about size, at least not to the little guy.
Of course, what the Treasury Department meant when Paulson told Congress that some financial services companies were too big to fail was that they were too valuable to lose. But nothing can be that valuable if we care about the success of the nation as a whole.
A story told of the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu comes to mind:
It was said that Sun Tzu could turn any group of farmers into an army that could not be beat. The king of Wu decided to test this before he engaged Tzu as an advisor. He told the great general to train his concubines, 180 women, as soldiers. After bowing low to the king, Sun Tzu assembled the women with the monarch’s favorite two concubines at the head of the group. He then commanded the women to turn to the right but his order was met with laughter.
The king smiled, having expected this result. Sun Tzu explained that every general must ensure, first and foremost, that his commands had been understood. If they are not, it is his fault that they are not obeyed. He then repeated the command, only this time he also demonstrated a quick turn to the right. Again, the women laughed.
Sun Tzu then quickly drew his sword and killed the king’s favorite concubines. As he wiped his blade clean, he explained that when orders are understood but still not obeyed, it is the fault of the officers. The king was shocked and protested, but the general pointed out that once a general accepts a position, he must fulfill his mission, even under the protest of the king.
The king fell back onto his throne and Sun Tzu turned back to the harem with a steely gleam in his eye. He ordered the women to turn to the right, a maneuver they executed perfectly as one.
President Obama is ready for the U.S. financial services industry to fall into line and last week he laid out some proposed regulatory changes that he says will make that happen, but he hasn’t cut down any concubines yet.
Most American companies operate and succeed based on a system of risk and reward. The harder you push the envelope, the closer you get to the line, the more you stand to profit. If the president wants to change the way the system works, he’ll need to use the risk/reward system to do it, with the understanding that you can be rewarded with negative consequences for certain actions.
To his credit, President Obama understands this.
“I welcome constructive input from folks in the financial sector,” he said. “But what we've seen so far, in recent weeks, is an army of industry lobbyists from Wall Street descending on Capitol Hill to try and block basic and common-sense rules of the road that would protect our economy and the American people. So if these folks want a fight, it's a fight I'm ready to have.”
Both sides can’t win.
But one thing is for sure: someone’s concubine is sure to get cut.