Sunday, March 01, 2009

A-ROD or J-THAIN: WHOSE SUBSTANCE ABUSE SHOULD WE BE MORE CONCERNED ABOUT?

I really don't get all the bloviating about the substance abuse by Alex Rodriguez and other professional sports figures. After all, these folks are paid for performing, and they are expected to perform at a level commensurate with their pay. In the world of sports-as-entertainment-industry, it should not surprise us that those paid to perform do whatever they can to please us.

At the same time, I think we need to shine the spotlight of substance abuse inquiry more directly on people like John Thain, the recently departed CEO of the Merrill Lynch unit of Bank of America. Thain, like so many of his colleagues in Wall Street Big Houses, also has a problem with substance abuse, only the substance in question is money. We all have read the stories about how J-Thain remodeled his office bathroom for about $1.2 million dollars, how he handed out a couple of billion dollars worth of bonuses to Merrill Lynch execs just prior to the acquisition by BofA, without BofA being in the loop, and how he reportedly didn't clue BofA to the fact that Merrill had $15 billion of losses in the last quarter of 2008 (doesn't say much about the due diligence processes at BofA).

A very large factor in the current global economic crisis is the creation, sales and holdings of what are now called "toxic assets" by financial institutions. This is substance abuse, pure and simple. The people in these businesses who created, bought and sold these assets knew that they were serious flim-flam, but the lure of profits and bonuses made them do it.

The analogy here breaks down in at least one major way: guys like A-Rod used substances that actually enhanced their performance - they work in an industry that is based on reward for performance. On the other hand, guys like J-Thain fell into substance abuse and got away with it because they work in an industry that ignores performance - they get big bucks and big percs regardless of how their firms perform.

Even though I'm not a huge sports fan, I do remember the exciting baseball season when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were slugging them out of the park chasing the record. In the back of my mind I recognized that these guys couldn't be real - they had to be using some kind of special juice. But all the steroids in the world wouldn't turn me into a home run hitter; these guys were skilled professional ball players who enhanced their skills and power with something special. Would we be complaining if that something special was a couple of cans of spinach every day? And, after all, who got hurt by it?

The J-Thain crowd, on the other hand, were using special juice that wasn't theirs - it was money that belonged to you and me. And a lot of people got hurt as a result of these guys swinging for the fences.

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