[OPINION] Paul Volcker and the triumph of integrity
Countless times, young idealistic people join governments and private companies with wide-eyed passion, boundless energy, and the highest level of integrity. They look up to bigger-than-life leaders whose personas were shaped by media, made to appear like infallible saints and business geniuses.
These idealists would forego money in exchange for a higher sense of purpose, and to have the chance to work with these leaders.
Countless times, they leave heartbroken – their high expectations crushed from knowing that the organizations they joined and the leaders they idolized were simply a mirage. When they tried to change things and act ethically, which would oftentimes run against business or political interests, they would be told not to “rock the boat.” (READ: [OPINION] Youth as troublemakers)
Let's face it: when many political and business leaders refer to their colleagues as idealistic, more often than not, it isn't a compliment. Worse, these colleagues would be considered a threat to the workplace, leading to their marginalization and eventual departure. This is where values clash with hypocrisy – some of the most corrupt leaders call themselves staunch anti-corruption advocates, and some even invoke God and religion.
Instead of upholding the hopes of these young people, adults discourage them by saying that ethics does not put food on the table, that the young must wait their turn and conform, even if this means tolerating corruption or benefiting from it.
Yet, the history of the two most recent damaging global economic crises – violent wars and pernicious climate change – would tell us that the reverse is true. It was these leaders’ failure to act ethically that brought and continues to inflict poverty and hunger on billions of people. (READ: UN calls for 'Global Green New Deal' to boost world economy)
Paul Volcker, who died on December 8, was a different kind of leader.
When everyone was driven by greed, Paul Volcker steered towards modesty. When all were corrupt, Paul exhibited integrity and accountability. When everyone wanted to be popular at the expense of the greater good, Paul trod a path for the welfare of men and women on the streets. When power seduced all, Paul chose humility in order to serve his nation and the world.
Ray Dalio called Paul “the greatest American hero.” This description is an understatement.
Paul is not a hero to America. He is hero to the world. He is a hero to the Holocaust victims whose assets he recovered. He is a hero to the victims of the UN Food for Oil scam. He is a hero to all the countries that the World Bank serves. The world economy would have been in a far worse situation if not for Paul’s efforts to make global institutions, banks, corporations, and countries accountable. His actions and decisions were always for the common good, and never in his personal interest. Never for wealth nor fame.
Saving the peso
For the Philippines, he was a hero for saving the Philippine peso during the worst economic crisis of the 1980s. This fact I learned from him personally, when he narrated how, with Filipino central bankers, he helped save an economy about to collapse from Marcos' plundering. I knew how bad it was then because my poor family only ate congee and salt. (READ: How the Marcos-World Bank partnership brought PH economy to its knees)
I came to know Paul in the winter of 2007, months before my graduation from Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). He asked the leadership of HKS for someone who could help him in the World Bank Independent Panel he was forming. I was one of those recommended. As a non-economist who grew up in the Greenspan era, my reply to Volcker's assistant was, “Who is Paul Volcker?” Upon getting home, I googled Paul and almost fell off my seat. He was a giant among central bankers, a living legend among economists, and I had a chance to work for him!
However, upon knowing that the job entailed an internal investigation of the World Bank, I sadly declined. I could not be effective in the Panel as the World Bank was paying for my Harvard education. Moreover, I wanted to return to serve my country, even if that entailed facing powerful people who wanted me out.
I was forlorn knowing I would be refusing a dream job. But Paul took note of my reasons and respected my decision. In return he gave me his friendship. Nothing would be more precious. Whenever I visited him in New York, he would ask me questions on domestic and global affairs with genuine interest. Perplexed by how a man of such genius would be interested in what I had to say, it made me realize that the smartest persons are the most humble.
This period of friendship coincided with my most difficult but also most productive period in public service. When faced with dilemmas, Paul’s commitment to integrity, excellence, and independence served as my guiding light.
When I was appointed by then-president Benigno Aquino III to be CEO of a $10 billion state-owned enterprise, my struggles in good governance had been the reason for my selection. Paul was right. Integrity wins. When the lust for power, fame, and money seduced me, Paul’s example came to mind to set me straight. When the threat of persecution and marginalization came, Paul’s moral courage shone the light and helped me to not be afraid. He gave me the most powerful weapon I could wield: hope. (READ: Then and now: Serving under the Aquinos)
If the generation before me had John F. Kennedy to inspire them, I had Paul Volcker.
He inspired me to volunteer in social enterprises, to teach Filipino migrant workers across the globe, to work for peace and development not only in poor places in the Philippines but also in places of conflict and want such as North Korea, Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Armenia.
My life is not the only one he changed. It is with gratitude, in the midst of grief, that I honor Paul – the gentle giant who made integrity triumphant. Even if the world seems to be consumed in darkness, Paul, in life and in death, shall be that lonely beacon who brings us hope in the struggle. He is America’s priceless gift to humanity. – Rappler.com
Arnel Paciano Casanova is the former president and CEO of the Bases Conversion and Development Authority. He served under 4 Philippine presidents and is now with a number of corporate boards and non-profits. He advises different governments and global corporations in development and infrastructure, and leads the Philippine business of one of the biggest engineering and design consulting firms in the world.