The Sucker Factor: 7 steps to Wall St. boycott

That response grabbed my attention because it’s behaviour I’ve been looking at in other pathologies of daily life. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about environmental issues – my personal actions in terms of recycling, reducing consumption, and eating less meat. I justify inaction by asking, “Why should I make these personal sacrifices when so many others don’t?” There’s not much difference between that and saying, “If I don’t rip off the financial system, others will.” Either way, it's a betrayal of higher ideals and common good. (Interesting sidebar could be inserted here regarding game theory and "The Prisoner's Dilemma.)

It’s a perverse and unspoken contract amongst neighbours that could be called “the sucker factor.” You’re a sucker if you forsake easy money that others will grab or if you care for the environment more than others or if you make personal sacrifices trying to drive innovation in your workplace. In some ways, the sucker factor is a variation on “nice guys finish last.”

These moral dilemmas are certainly not new but we have lost something that traditionally tempered the scale and egregiousness of antisocial behaviour. Blame it on the demise of the family, the church, or on the media, but moral disapproval itself has now become the crime.

So, very few people today are willing to take a stand on the moral high ground and, even when they do, the targets of their wrath simply slough it off. Cultural relativism has made moral disapprobation impotent. We need new ways of dealing with the sucker factor and those ways need to be embraced by a critical mass of the population.

Unfortunately, the most hopeful ways of discouraging antisocial behaviour in others requires that we learn, and that we begin with our own behaviour and attitudes. But how can we motivate significant numbers of people to learn anything, let alone the dreary business of systems thinking and social psychology?

Well, in the case of Wall Street, the motivation to begin is already there. Outrage. If only we can begin to feel it in a coherent and meaningful way. The feeling of outrage is usually fleeting, then quickly swept under the rug of information overload – the diversions and distractions of daily life. Instead, we need to pull it out, and share it, and nurture the fire and passion of this powerful feeling. Beyond that, we require an agenda to capitalize on the momentum that begins with outrage. Here are the steps:

  1. We need to take Wall Street offences personally and we need to give our rage space and time. We need to risk alienating friends and associates by being shrill. But we need to do it methodically. It’s unthinking, solo shrillness that causes moral disapproval to be dismissed as irrelevant and impotent.
  2. We need to recognize that, while individuals may be at fault, the real problem is with the system. More than anything, we want change but we won’t get it – without a lot of time, money and damage to both sides – if we insist on destroying companies and individuals.
  3. We need to display some sense of mea culpa. Wall Street has been getting away with their slimy behaviour because, in one way or another, we let them. Perhaps we were too timid to fight. Perhaps we secretly admired their swashbuckling piracy. Perhaps we thought regulation was un-American. Perhaps we thought, somehow, their actions only hurt others and not us … or worse, there was something in it for us. Regardless, change will be much more difficult if we alienate and drive Wall Street into an extreme defensive mode. Individuals, especially whistleblowers, will be more likely to cooperate for change if they are not the victims of wholesale demonization.
  4. We need leverage to get the attention of Wall Street. Government ain’t it. This is personal so we need to make some form of personal sacrifice that earns respect and packs a punch at the same time. A strategic and massive boycott of one target bank is probably the best bet. One suggestion for a first boycott: Goldman Sachs has invested heavily in Facebook. A massive, if temporary, boycott of Facebook would certainly get their attention.
  5. We need to be clear about the changes we want. This is open for debate but we’re probably talking about new taxes on extreme wealth, rolled-back bonuses and financial regulation. Systemic overhaul of the whole finance industry may not be out of line. The main point about this change, however, is that Wall Street accepts it. That requires both the carrot of partnership in change management and the stick of boycott.
  6. We need business-like organization, goals and metrics. Make no mistake, we are a raging rabble demanding big changes but we are doing so with 21st century business weapons. We need rabble-rousing communication that amplifies and focuses our outrage. We need a recruitment strategy that targets not only the public but also insiders and potential whistleblowers. We need well-defined processes for every action we take. And we need step by step plans for achievable successes that will sustain enthusiasm amongst the rabble ranks and overcome the drag of the sucker factor.
  7. We need, for sustained socio-economic health, better learning about systems and social-psychology. Systems thinking as described by Senge, Meadows, et al will break the spell of traditional ways of thinking that perpetuate today’s problems. Integral Theory, as taught by Ken Wilber and others, provides a spiritual framework that makes systems thinking warmer and more human, and offers compassionate yet very effective tools for change management.