This will be my last Clue before the 2006 election. Unlike years past, I make no predictions. I might jinx things. (Illustration from Applied Technologies, which sells a course on the subject at hand.)
Instead I want to discuss a political issue that goes beyond politics, ethics.
I was angered recently when, after former Enron head Jeffrey Skilling was sentenced to jail, TV reporters said that he had "ethical problems." He didn’t. He broke the law.
Maybe it’s just another case of Republican projection, but we have heard a lot of crap these last decades from that side accusing Democrats of having "situational ethics." Again, the claims made against Republican officials today aren’t about ethics – they’re violations of the law.
Ethics is different. Having ethics means you don’t even approach law-breaking. It means you avoid the appearance of law-breaking. Certainly it’s not against the law to cheat on your spouse. Ethical people (those who try to practice high ethics in their lives) know that if they did cheat, at least one person would know – they would. And this stays them.
The same is true with financial matters. Fiduciary responsibility means more than not breaking the law. It means avoiding any situation where it might appear, later, that you were even thinking of going there. It requires you to go the extra mile and show transparency in all your dealings, to put the interests of those who’ve given you this responsibility – shareholders, policy-holders, savers – first.
It extends to all forms of management. Harry Truman’s sign that "The Buck Stops Here" (above) meant he would take responsibility for things he did not do. Any manager or politician who tries to lay-off bad actions on underlings violates this ethical principle.
My son’s school is planning on creating an Honor Code. We had an honor
code at Rice, when I went to school there. It’s a good thing to have.
But it has no value if it’s only policed, even by those who are covered
by it. It only makes sense if everyone polices themselves, if everyone
becomes convinced that violating the code, even appearing to violate
the code, will stain their very soul. Because it will.
One reason I think we’ve lost our ethical bearings this decade
is that we’ve lost the idea of satiation.
For every rock star or
business tycoon who chooses to give of themselves, or to give away
their fortune, there are 1,000 or more who are going around buying
ever-bigger boats, ever-bigger homes, ever-gaudier parties and trips
for themselves. Sometimes they even make fun of the selfless ones –
that’s the whole point of Forbes Magazine.
Why do they do this? (Detail of original art by Chris Bergquist Fulmer.) Because they are taught by society – by Republican
society – that they should never be satisfied with what they have, that
they should always want more. That going for "it all" is somehow
ethical. And so those who are fortunate to find success in life do just
that, they go for more.
They’re like dogs, really, who will eat-and-eat-and-eat until
they die if you let them. No, they’re worse than dogs. Dogs, as they
fill their bellies, share their food with other dogs. These bastards
Instead they defend Paris Hilton’s fortune and march against
the "death tax." Instead they argue against any taxation of income and
call that the "fair tax." Fair to them, no one else. There’s a lack of
ethics deep in their political souls.
Beyond the idea of satiation, having ethics also requires that you
consider the interests of the larger society, of your fellow man, of
the greater good. If you only care about yourself, you don’t have
ethics. Ayn Rand did not have ethics – she turned the whole idea on its
head and called that ethics. It’s bullshit.
But here’s the big thing about ethics. It’s practiced in secret. It’s
private. It is truly your choice. If an oppressive government is
restricting your movements, or forcing you to give up all your money,
you’re not practicing ethics – you’re just oppressed.
Ethics comes into play only when you have a choice. It’s whether you
tell yourself the truth about yourself – and many people don’t.
When my 15-year old son gets into an argument, for instance, his
ethical sense can go out the window. Right or wrong cease to matter.
Winning the argument is all that matters. So he will lie about what he
just said, lie about what he just did. Until he has the time to reflect
on what happened. Then he will apologize and try to learn.
Republicans – today’s Republicans – don’t do that. The Thesis
of Conflict is based on continuing, unrelenting anger. Anger at the
other, the gay, the black, the female, the young, the Muslim, the
Communist, the Democrat. The opponent. Which leads to seeking the
destruction of the other, and in that the destruction of the self.
Without that anger they’re lost. It’s the ethics of the cornered beast.
And you can’t live that way, as Mark Foley found out. As the writers of
Seinfeld wrote a decade ago, "Serenity now. Insanity later."
The thesis of conflict made some internal sense 40 years ago, when
middle-class values were truly under attack by young people, when the
"Second World" of Russia and China did in fact seem to have more people
in it than the "First World" of America and her closest allies. But
with the fall of the Wall all those enemies were defeated. Yet the
anger went on, always seeking new enemies within and without.
However you decide to vote tomorrow, I ask that you don’t confine your
practice of ethics to the voting booth. It’s easy to condemn an
unethical politician, a fallen preacher, a thieving businessman.
What’s harder is to look inside your own heart, to do so honestly, to
go over all your actions and ask if you’ve truly been ethical. It’s a
test we all fail, at various times. Unlike the legal test, the penalty
for breaching ethics lies only in our own conscience.
Build your conscience. Practice satiation. Consider your fellow man
sometimes. Do this in your business, in your life, and in your own
family, and you will win the inner smile that represents true fortune
in this world.