Politicians and their responses to snow (and other events)

Is it any surprise that Mayor Daley of Chicago has been absent from the response to snowstorm of recent days? What exactly could he gain at this point in his career?

We know from recent history that politicians have plenty to lose in such circumstances. Look at Mayor Bloomberg in New York a month or so ago – if he can’t even get the snow plows working, how could he achieve higher office? Past Chicago mayors, such as Michael Bilandic, have been burned by snow.

My guess is that this is one of those situations where people in charge get little credit if all goes smoothly but proportionately more blame if things go poorly. People expect that services like snow plowing or garbage pick-up are just going to happen and tend to only notice this when that service is interrupted. Right now in Chicago there seems to be game of political hot-potato over the number of people trapped overnight on Tuesday on Lake Shore Drive. Who exactly is responsible – should Mayor Daley have to answer for this? Shouldn’t someone have had some plan in place? More broadly, do most cities sit and think about worst-case scenarios so that they have at least thought about some of these issues?

This may not be a fair process on the part of the public: the leader can’t control everything. But when something goes wrong, the public also expects that the leader is ultimately responsible and is responsive to the needs of the citizenry. If not, if those basic services don’t come through, the blame often goes right to the top.

Symbolic punishment? Fraudulent French trader ordered to pay $6.7 billion

The economic crisis has raised interesting questions about who is responsible. In the United States, much blame has been placed on the large financial institutions, investment firms and banks, who played a role (though others have also argued that the government and consumers share the blame).

But in the courts, blame could be assigned to any of these parties. In a recent decision in France, a trader who worked for France’s second largest bank was ordered to pay the bank $6.7 billion in damages for fradulent activity linked to the economic crisis. Here is a quick summary of the case’s outcome:

The court rejected defense arguments that the 33-year-old trader was a scapegoat for a financial system gone haywire with greed and the pursuit of profit at any cost — a decision sure to take some pressure off the beleaguered banking system overall.

By ordering a tough sentence for a lone trader, the ruling marked a startling departure from the general atmosphere of hostility and suspicion about big banks in an era of financial turmoil. It was a huge victory for Kerviel’s former employer Societe Generale SA, France’s second-biggest bank, which long had a reputation for cutting-edge financial engineering and has put in place tougher risk controls since the scandal broke in 2008.

Kerviel maintained that the bank and his bosses tolerated his massive risk-taking as long as it made money — a claim the bank strongly denied.

The story goes on to say that both sides, the trader and the bank, admitted to mistakes along the way. But the court ruling suggests that the trader was the culpable party.

The assignment of blame after large traumatic events is a fascinating phenomenon to observe. Who is eventually seen as the responsible party can depend on a number of factors including national culture, time in history, court cases, public opinion, and other particularities. Whoever becomes the scapegoat can often become the symbol of the traumatic incident, forever linking that person or party to phenomenon that are often quite complex.