ETHICS — THE REAL BOTTOM LINE
As I sit here at my desk feeling the anticipation and joy at the prospects of the New Year – 2009, I cannot help but wonder what the history books will say about this past year that just ended – 2008. It was a year of great strides in medicine, advancements in technology and space exploration, and it was the year in which the United States elected its first African-American president, with the one of the highest recorded turnouts in American voting history.
No matter what future history books may say I think our overall perspective today is that 2008 was a bad year for the world. As the bottom dropped out of the economy, many people lost their homes, with more to follow in 2009; rising oil prices made the cost of driving prohibitive for many and drove home our helpless dependence on the capriciousness of foreign oil; and a few individuals manipulated the worsening situation to their advantage at the expense of most of us. People were driven to do things that only a few years ago they never thought to do including declaring bankruptcy, seeing their lives spiral out of control.
In September 2008, the home mortgage crisis became real for all of us. At best, many Americans live paycheck to paycheck and can barely keep their mortgage commitments. Because of greedy bankers and lenders who created and provided inappropriate mortgages many lost their piece of “the American dream.” Today thousands of families are still attempting to work out ways to keep a roof over their heads.
With all the bad news that we have had thus far, there are those who anticipate the coming of a second mortgage crisis. In October of this year I watched a television interview with a well respected member of the financial community who said that the “second mortgage crisis” will consist of people who simply decide to walk away from their homes and their mortgages even though they earn enough to make their payments and keep their commitments. This financial expert predicted that people will walk away from their homes simply to leave home payments behind, declaring bankruptcy even though they have no specific financial reason to do so. This person’s opinion was that many may consider it easier to simply avoid their obligations, rather than striving to meet them.
My wife Karen did not see this interview. However, the same day I saw the interview, she observed to me that she wouldn’t be at all surprised if “people just decided to walk away from their homes and their mortgages and leave it to the banks and government to sort out the mess”.
What a scary thought! Reasonably solvent people just walk away to avoid payments? Have we lost so much confidence in ourselves or have our standards degraded to the point where people will decide to simply not honor their commitments without negotiation or just because they don’t like the agreement? Where have our ethics gone?
I have heard my parents and my wife’s parents say that they grew up in a simpler time than the children of my generation. I have heard their parents say the same thing. I have heard people refer to the 1800s as a simpler time yet. Also, I have heard people of my generation say that today’s world is more complicated than it was even 30 years ago. All these remarks were made to explain why decisions were harder to make today and why perhaps children of the “modern generation” have a harder time keeping promises and commitments.
For my part I am sure that there are many things about “today’s world” which are more complicated than the world of 30, 50, or 100 years ago. The question we really need to ask ourselves is does the “more complicated”, and perhaps more stressful world of today justify violating the ethical standards passed down from generation to generation which requires that we keep promises and commitments?
I think not. President Jimmy Carter once said “we must adjust to changing times while holding to unwavering principles.” We live in a world today which indeed presents us with stresses, complications, and challenges perhaps more difficult than any humanity has faced in the past. With the advent of subsonic and supersonic air travel, communications through the Internet, radio and television, and even free cell phones, our world has become a very small place where the actions of one can affect the lives of persons many hundreds or thousands of miles away. The products of our “advanced civilization” should be encouraging us to make careful decisions and to be prepared to live with the consequences of those decisions. The message we should be hearing from our public officials and representatives, our friends, and even our own hearts should be one of encouragement to be prepared to keep commitments, and even look out for the other guy. Furthermore, our leaders should lead by example especially where promises and commitments are concerned.
Whether or not the “next mortgage crisis” really is one in which people will simply decide to walk away from their houses and house payments one thing is certain: through the media and possibly even through our own experiences we have encountered situations where some people have made decisions which go against the ethical and moral teachings we have made the rock and fabric by which we live. At times these bad decisions and actions such as those we have seen in recent months in the banking, housing, and American automotive industries have affected many people and become the headlines of media stories and seem to show the “easy” way to go. Often times the people who make these questionable decisions attempt to hide behind the law or distance themselves from the problem before the press and the public discover what was really going on. “People at the top” seem to think they can act with impunity and can get away with anything.
The unfortunate result of the bad and often unethical decisions made by leaders which lead to the economic crisis we face today has caused many people to lose their jobs, their homes, and even their life’s direction. The lack of ethics and propriety of a few have shaken the confidence and faith of many. Thus far we have not seen these individuals punished for their actions. Some have even received significant bonuses as they resigned or were forced out of their jobs.
It does not, however, have to be this way. If we choose, we each can decide to hold ourselves and those who lead us to the higher ethical standards and commitments we claimed to endorse. Barack Obama was elected by people who see change and a better life than the one we’ve experienced over the past eight years. I think deep down people want a leader who they feel demonstrates a higher ethical standard than the one we have seen from our current economic and government leaders. What we must keep in mind is that Barack Obama is only one person in that each of us needs to make a “higher ethical standard” a part of our own lives. The bottom line is that we can bring about ethical change if we first make and keep ethical commitments within ourselves.
Each New Year people make “resolutions” about how they will change during the next year. Most often these promises are unrealistic and are made without a plan to fulfill them. A resolution to live a more ethical life will not be easier to keep because of old habits and the pressure to keep doing business as usual. Neither Wall Street nor Main Street can or will change overnight. It will take resolve from each of us to make a reality the vision and dream Barack Obama promised on election night. The bottom line is that we have to start somewhere. How about right now?