What Chris Bowen left out about the banks

“Banks and financial institutions should work on an ethical basis. They should be strong. They should be profitable. They should be robust. They should be above all ethical.” – Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen (quoted in the Guardian, 4 February).

First, let’s decipher the verbiage of the ALP’s spokesperson on how to make capitalist financial rip-offs more publicly acceptable.

If a bank, or any other capitalist corporation, is profitable, it is strong. Profits mean you have money, having money means you have strength. As for “robust”, its definition in a political context is: “strong, as used by politicians who want to repeat themselves and hope that listeners won’t notice that that’s what they’re doing”.

So the content of what Bowen said, minus the redundancies, was that banks should be profitable and ethical.

But what if profits and ethics conflict with each other, as the banking royal commission has revealed is the case – as in charging fees for financial advice to dead people and numerous other scams?

According to Bowen’s words, ethics come first: “above all”. Presumably, that means that banks should stop screwing their customers.

But bank managers (and bank owners) are human, if only barely. They don’t screw customers because they like to inflict pain; they do it because doing so is profitable. Capitalist law doesn’t require CEOs to be nice, but to make money.

So Bowen’s advice to banks was either self-contradictory (increase profits by stopping the practices you’ve found to be most profitable) or a recommendation to violate corporation law (forget about increasing profits).

The only thing that would have made his advice remotely sensible would have been to add: “Banks should exist outside capitalism”.

With that, I could agree. Let’s get rid of capitalism. Then banks, which won’t at all resemble current banks, can be ethical. Because they will be set up to serve people, not to make profits.