First up I need to thank my friend John Sullivan in Palatine, Illinois, for bringing the information below to my attention. For a long time I’ve recognized that the problem with American politics is, from start to finish, a personnel problem. Any conservative paying attention knows that there are ways to clean up every public policy mess we face. What’s been missing is the team to enact those solutions.
What I’ve assumed was that the issue was merely competence, and while it is mostly, that’s not the complete story. Many of the talented people who get themselves elected actually do have the ability to get the job done if they cared to; the problem is they don’t care to — often because of psychological reasons. We’re not just talking about run-of-the-mill mental issues either. In a lot of cases there is an actual brain structure problem. Not all crazy people are in asylums or in prison.
In the past I’ve also made the observation that politics is a magnet for nuts, flakes, and fruits. Normal people don’t crave the limelight or public attention that often comes with politics, and in fact, the more normal they are the more they try to steer clear of it. Many individuals with personality disorders, however, aren’t satisfied with private life or business and are drawn to the public square.
While I haven’t seen anyone addressing in any depth this topic of brain and mental disorders among our political class, there has been a good deal of writing about psychopathy within corporate America since the Wall Street collapse of 2008.
In a Bloomberg.net article earlier this year, author and former investment banker William Cohan speculated on this topic in a post titled, “Did Psychopaths Take Over Wall Street?”:
It took a relatively obscure former British academic to propagate a theory of the financial crisis that would confirm what many people suspected all along: The “corporate psychopaths” at the helm of our financial institutions are to blame.
Clive R. Boddy, most recently a professor at the Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University, says psychopaths are the one percent of “people who, perhaps due to physical factors to do with abnormal brain connectivity and chemistry,” lack a “conscience, have few emotions and display an inability to have any feelings, sympathy or empathy for other people.”
As a result, Boddy argues in a recent issue of the Journal of Business Ethics, such people are “extraordinarily cold, much more calculating and ruthless towards others than most people are and therefore a menace to the companies they work for and to society.”
How do people with such obvious personality flaws make it to the top of seemingly successful corporations?
Boddy says psychopaths take advantage of the “relative chaotic nature of the modern corporation,” including “rapid change, constant renewal” and high turnover of “key personnel.” Such circumstances allow them to ascend through a combination of “charm” and “charisma,” which makes “their behavior invisible” and “makes them appear normal and even to be ideal leaders.”
How do you screw up the most prosperous country in the world? How do you overspend at the local, state, and federal level to the point where nearly every governmental unit in the U.S. is deeply in debt and on an unsustainable path? After twenty-five years of being around politicians, their staffs, and political consultants, I have no doubt that a large percentage of the answer is found by taking a look at “abnormal brain connectivity and chemistry” in many of those with their hands on the levers of control.
Years ago, Bloomberg’s Cohen writes, “companies were mostly stable and slow to change.” Then Cohen quotes Nottingham’s Clive Boddy. That stability meant corporate psychopaths:”would be noticeable and identifiable as undesirable managers because of their selfish egotistical personalities and other ethical defects.”
Today’s government is big business — the biggest business there is. Decades of pandering to special interests and creating and expanding entitlement programs means that there’s a lot more room for psychopaths to fit in. And the size of government means the damage being done by them is no longer a marginal problem.
My long experience in politics tells me that Professor Boddy’s comments about the Wall Street crash apply directly to the political mess we face today. Here’s Cohen again quoting Boddy:
They “largely caused the crisis” because their “single-minded pursuit of their own self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement to the exclusion of all other considerations has led to an abandonment of the old-fashioned concept of noblesse oblige, equality, fairness, or of any real notion of corporate social responsibility.”
Boddy doesn’t name names, but the type of personality he describes is recognizable. Does the following type of person sound familiar?:
- They seem “to be unaffected” by the [collapse] they cause.
- They are unbothered by the chaos around them, unconcerned about those who have lost their jobs, savings and investments, and as lacking any regrets about what they have done.
- They cheerfully lie about their involvement in events, are very convincing in blaming others for what has happened, and have no doubts about their own worth and value.
- They are happy to walk away from the economic disaster that they have managed to bring about, with huge payoffs and with new roles advising governments how to prevent such economic disasters.
Cohen then quotes Boddy’s “prescription for how to prevent psychopaths from getting into positions of power on Wall Street and elsewhere”:
“Anyone who makes decisions that affect significant numbers of other people, concerning issues of corporate social responsibility or toxic waste, for example, or concerning mass financial markets or mass employment, should be screened to make sure that they are, at the very least, not psychopaths and at most are actually people who care about others,” he wrote.
My friend John Sullivan put it this way: “the American people need to demand 537 brain scans — one for every member of congress, the president and the vice president.”
Click here to read William Cohen’s entire article.
Up next: More on psychopathy in politics.
(First published July 2012)