If You Ask Me: A Global Banker Reflects on Our Times

Wriston, Walter B.


The Big Cop-out


One of the things that bother me at the moment is that the value system of our times has been transferred from the individual to the institution. Years ago, individuals had values--old-fashioned values if you want--and they didn't expect institutions to mirror those values. Today, the exact opposite is the case. We have the "now" or the "need" generation of entitlement, and the expectation is that all institutions have the old values, whether it be business or universities or governments, Congress or the Presidency or whatever.

These institutions are not supposed to be rip-off artists. They're supposed to be honest. They're supposed to have all the old virtues that individuals once had, while individuals now have a completely value-free system. But I would suggest to you that institutions don't have morality. Only individuals have morality. The individual is the centerpiece of American democracy. The Constitution even gave us, as individuals, rights against the state. That was truly revolutionary.

So, because individuals operate all our institutions, we are developing a dichotomy in this country, which I think will be a significant problem in the years ahead.

Think about it: A clerk from Bloomingdale's on her lunch hour will come in and give a hard time to one of our tellers with Excedrin headache number two, who has three kids under five and a babysitter who didn't show. Bloomingdale's clerk is going to go out and say, "That damn Citibank is a rip-off'."

At five o'clock the same teller goes over to Bloomingdale's to buy a pair of shoes and gets ticked off because the point-of-sale terminal doesn't work, the clerk doesn't know how to fill out a sales ticket, and they're out of her shoe size. She goes home and says, "Damn Bloomingdale's! They don't care about people. They don't have any corporate value system. They're a giant rip-off."

And they're both right.

So, it comes back to the individual. Only an individual can innovate. Only an individual can be honest. Only an individual can have a sense of morality. If you get a bunch of individuals together and you put them in a university or a magazine or a bank or a corporation, and the leadership is such that the individuals know the value system is correct, you will spread it throughout the organization. People will say that that corporation or that university or that magazine treats people in an honest way.

But there's vast confusion over the transfer that has taken place in this generation from demanding individual responsibility, of which there is no other kind, to sloughing it off onto an institution.

Everybody wants institutions, per se, to have those values that they themselves don't have. It's the first time, I think, this has happened.

  • The document was created from a compilation of interviews and question and answer segments with Walter B. Wriston which was later compiled into "If You Ask Me: A Global Banker Reflects on Our Times" in 1980. The original speech is located in MS134.001.034.00018.
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 Title Page
If You Ask Me: A Global Banker Reflects on Our Times
I: Getting Down to Fundamentals
The Big Cop-out
You Can't Go Bail for Everyone
Risk Is What It's All About
II: Some Basic Ills of the Body Politic
Lincoln Wouldn't Have Made It
Unpredictable Is a Dangerous Country
The Pitfalls of Single-issue Politics
Expect To Get Zapped
The Perils of Legal Pollution
The Injustice of Our Tax System
Those Wonderful People Who Bring You Inflation
Stop the Presses
Silly Premises Lead to Nutty Conclusions
Easier Said Than Done
III: New York, New York
New York City Is Alive And Well
The Road Back
IV: Careers
Rx for Happiness
Good Forward Planning
Dull Job?
A Simple Matter of Survival
Making It at Citibank
What Fast Track?
No Hiding Place
V: Once Around the World Quickly
South Africa
China: A Matter of Timing
The Real Significance of Iran
Iran and the Money Markets
Fashions in Country-criticizing
VI: The Global Financial Scene
The Elusive Eurodollar
De Facto Payments Mechanism
Too Big To Move
The Foreign Exchange Game
They Can't Leave the System
Baskets of Money
Swiss Francs
The Value of a Dollar
Not a Loss Since 1897
A Rational View of LDC Loans
Free Trade Benefits Consumers
The Destructive Costs of Regulation
The Big Rip-off
A Real Entitlement
Can Regulations Prevent Bum Loans?
The Insidious Side of Controls
Competition in Regulation
VIII: The Shape of Things To Come
Not As Big As You Think
What Lobby?
Armageddon Is Late, as Usual
Some Simple Facts about Interest Rates
An Expensive Luxury
How Big Is Big?
What We Did Yesterday Won't Work Tomorrow
A Matter of Semantics
Unpredictable Is a Dangerous Country
Privacy: A Serious Problem
The Unseen Revolution
Things Are Going To Be Different
Take the Handcuffs off Everybody
The Gray Areas of Lending
No Mouse under the Rug
Thank God We Don't Have National Banking
Competition Keeps You Awake
Accounting for Loan Losses
Not a Utility
People Like It
Computer Frauds
Some Final Words on Responsibility
About the Author