For the better part of a year in this space, I've roundly and routinely bashed the insurance business for its high crimes and misdemeanors, like the broker-company bid-rigging scandals, or for its occasional rock headedness, like the hard line in some quarters against any federal role in its affairs.
But before the year is gone, lest you think I'm an inveterate crank, let me point to a few things that have gone right the past year, some with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Thanksgiving's upon us, so this is as good a time as any. Let's heap these on the table, alongside the turkey, the stuffing and the cranberry sauce.
First off, let's thank the odious Eliot Spitzer. Yes, "thank," and, yes, that Eliot Spitzer. His continuing antics of the past year and more have been duly recorded here, there and everywhere: his naked political ambition, his seeming disregard for the good the business does and his generally predatory ways. The New York Attorney General's recently backed off his relentless pursuit of Hank Greenberg, but not until serious damage was inflicted on a man who will be remembered among the most significant figures of the American insurance business in the 20th century. This is widely viewed as the ultimate evidence of his wretched prosecutorial excess.
Still, there's something to be said in Spitzer's favor. Please hear me out before you hurl that overripe tomato or some heavier object in this direction. Whatever his ulterior motives, he did help this business repair its busted moral compass and forced much-needed reform.
In the end, as painful as it was, he did as much good, maybe more, than he did harm, the damage done to the Greenberg family notwithstanding. At the highest levels of the brokerage community, the compensation system was corrupt and breached a sacred trust with the customer. Spitzer didn't invent that system; the companies and the brokers did. Perhaps we should extend begrudging thanks to the man for doing what a blind industry was unwilling to do itself. If not, he'll collect his thank yous elsewhere; his likely reward will be the governor's mansion in Albany.
On the other hand, let's be thankful, as well, however perversely, to the iconic Hank Greenberg for staying the course and staying the hand of New York's avenging angel before he went too far. There Spitzer met his match.
Equally strange, let's be thankful as well to George W. Bush and his administration for its incompetent handling of Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans and its environs. It taught us serious and hopefully long-lasting lessons about responsible risk management practice. "Heckuva job, Brownie," on that score at least.
The tragic bungling of the prelude and the aftermath of Katrina by FEMA served to blunt criticism of some bad actors in the industry for their malfeasances in New Orleans and its environs. So, too, did the heroic efforts of the many good men and women of the insurance business who risked life, limb and health ministering to the stricken areas.
And, finally, in the spirit of coming clean and correcting past errors, I'll do my part. Speaking of getting things wrong, that's just what I did in one of two columns last month when I wrote of "the Giants' ancestral home atop Coogan's Bluff in New York." In fact, the old Polo Grounds sat beneath that historic precipice.
For all this, and more, let us give thanks.
That's my short list. If you have any to add, send them along. We need some good news for a change.
TOM SLATTERY, a veteran editor and writer on industry affairs for 40 years, is managing director of Slattery-Esterkamp Communications, of Baldwin, N.Y.
November 1, 2006
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