Tuesday, February 12, 2013

An Ethical Three Mile Island Looming

Color photograph of the Three Mile Island nucl...

There are storm clouds on the horizon. And, I’m not sure those whose responsibility it is to shield us against such things are even aware of the approaching maelstrom.

The signs of this potential catastrophe are all around us, easy to see, if you’re looking. I’ve been watching them for the past two decades. I’m not sure, when I first began to notice, that I truly understood the portent of what I was observing. I knew that it disturbed me, but I didn’t recognize it for what it was; a growing tsunami that threatens to wash over us, obliterating everything in its path.

Enron logo, designed by Paul RandYou might be asking now, to what am I referring. Well, I’ll tell you, but first a little context and background. When my son, David, is not around for me to bounce ideas off, my neighbor, Jim, becomes my sounding board. Lately, I’ve been having conversations with both of them about what I see as a decline of ethical standards across the board in America, from the marble halls of politics in Washington to the carpeted board rooms of corporate America. The real estate bust, the decline of the banking system, the Enron scandal; take your pick; all point to an obsession with short-term profit at the expense of long-term institutional health and integrity.

As a member of the Silent Generation, that bunch of people born during World War II, just before the Baby Boomers came along, I grew up being taught such things as:

-          You’re only as good as your word

-          A day’s work for a day’s pay

-          Honesty is the best policy

I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture. I was taught that honesty, integrity; a respect for truth; were the important things. Money was just an extra incentive, a score card on how well you were doing, and as long as you were making enough, it was unseemly to be greedy and grasping.

Republican Party (United States)
I don’t know when it happened, but somewhere along the way, we’ve lost that. We’re living in a world where profit is the only motivation for corporations, it seems, and winning is the ‘only’ thing in the political arena. In conversations with my son, I’ve heard stories of senior executives encouraging subordinates to lie to customers to ensure increased profit, and the long term reputation of the company be damned. My neighbor tells me of an executive he knew who wanted to change performance evaluations, downgrading them arbitrarily so the company wouldn’t have to pay increased compensation for employees receiving high ratings. I don’t have to mention the state of our politics, do I? Just look around you. We’re facing a fiscal disaster that could have extremely long term negative impact because of a group of far right radical members of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives, who, seeing themselves in the minority and pretty much disavowed by the majority of the population, are willing to shove the country over a fiscal cliff instead of compromising for the long term good. The only good they see is to get their way. That is not only selfish and foolish, but in my book, unethical.

At the end of World War II, having just come out of a terrible depression before going into war, this country had a renewed sense of self. The depression had been brought on by the rapacious greed of the robber barons and Wall Street manipulators who put personal profit before the common good. Having come out of the depression and prevailed in the war, we had a sense of belonging and striving for the greater good. The shelf life of that feeling seems to be wearing off, and we’re going back to the bad old pre-Depression days.

It’s like a melt-down, with no water handy to cool the reactor. It makes Three Mile Island look like a little fireworks celebration in the local park. The problem is, we seem to be marching toward it with our eyes wide open.

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