Our Children Are Watching

Another one from the "Way Back Machine." In 2002 I was thinking a lot about the ethical storm large companies were caught in, the drums of war in Central Asia, and my own journey towards some as yet to be discovered purpose.  From the title you can tell I was thinking here about ethics.


A while back, I was scheduled to take a mid-afternoon Southwest Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Oakland. It was a Friday. Silly me. I actually thought I would get out.

I arrived at the airport in what I had judged to be sufficient time, only to find a line of people waiting to get through security that was a quarter of a mile long. I’m just guessing, but that looked to me like an hour wait and my plane was leaving in about 85 minutes. Rather than risk missing my flight, I called my travel agent and got the only seat available before 9:00 that night. It cost a bundle, but I did get home.

A couple of weeks later, I began to wonder if I had ever gotten credit for the unused portion of my flight. So I called Southwest. After some back and forth, I discovered that Southwest had not credited me. Then I found out that they had credited me for both the return leg that I didn’t use, and the outbound flight that I had used! I had been over-credited by $107. It seemed like fair retribution given the mess at LAX.

Shift to the local grocery store. There are two bins of Avocados. The first are organically grown, the second are grown and tended to using whatever chemicals and pesticides the farmer thinks is appropriate to maximize his yield. I chose the organic ones. They’re more expensive, but I care about what I eat. At the checkout counter, the cashier rang them up as regular Avocados.

Hold that thought. I’ll get back to those stories later.

Do Ethics Matter?

I’ve always thought of myself as an ethical person. So do most of the people I know. In fact, I would guess that if you randomly asked 100 people, “do you consider yourself an ethical person,” 95 would say yes. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that most of the current crop of corporate no-gooders would count themselves in that 95%.

This is not to say that I, or you, or most of our colleagues haven’t had occasional ethical lapses, haven’t sometimes made bad decisions, or sometimes done things that felt a bit fuzzy. I could with little effort list ten decisions I’ve made in the last five years that don’t make the grade on a relatively simple scale of “right vs. wrong”, and another twenty that foundered in the more subtle shading of “right-vs.-right” that is the dynamic that makes ethical decision making so difficult.  Does that make me unethical? I don’t think so. Does that make me a bad person? I hope not. Does it just make me human? Yes. Can I do a better job? Double yes.

Like a lot of people, I’m not sure I’ve really given the subject of ethics a lot of thought until recently. I did cluck disapprovingly at the public spectacle that was Bill Clinton, but somehow avoided moral outrage, either because I wasn’t sure what good it would do, or because I couldn’t really tell if the bigger story was Bill Clinton, or the fundamentalist right wing that was so bent on his demise.

Or maybe I was just too busy doing something else to truly care that our President, the leader of the fee world, couldn’t tell right from wrong and truth from error.

Like a lot of people, I marveled at the massive wealth that so many business executives amassed over the latter half of the 1990s without giving a lot of thought to the notion that some or all of it might have been the result of questionable ethics, if not outright fraud.

Like a lot of people, I now feel my moral mercury rising in time with the thrumming cadence of this company then that company being humbled and destroyed through the chicanery of a rogues parade of senior executives, all of whom were either out of the room when all the important decision were made, or who long ago adopted a code of ethics that just isn’t like yours and mine.

Like a lot of people, I’m stupefied at the doings in the Catholic church: both the sordid history or pastoral malfeasance and the deafening non-response on the part of the church leaders.

Like a lot of people—at least I hope it’s a lot of people—I think that ringing I’ve been hearing in my head for the past decade is the ethics alarm bell going off. I can’t tell if it’s getting louder, or if I’m just more aware of it, but the call now seems abundantly clear. There’s something wrong, and it’s not going to be fixed by new legislation, executive branch jawboning, ecclesiastical tub thumping, or a front to back revision of your company’s 62 page “code of ethics.”

Here’s the thing. The “wink-wink” ethical code now on parade isn’t the story here, though it is reminiscent of the scene in Casablanca where Captain Renault is told by Major Strasser to close down Rick’s Cafe. When Rick confronts Louis, he’s told that “I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.” And then he’s handed his take for the evening.

Somehow it was all okay because everyone knew what was going on, was in on the game, and was played by a terrific actor. Except that over here in real life it matters. Real people got hurt.

But the notorious behavior—or perhaps I should say alleged behavior, as it hasn’t been proved in a court of law, nor is it likely to be—of the visible few is just the part we can see. It too easily diverts attention from the real story which is the much more pervasive and deadly hollowing out of public morality across the American business/governmental landscape, a dynamic that ethicist and journalist Rushworth Kidder puts on a par with . . .

  1. The nuclear threat

  2. Environmental degradation

  3. The population explosion

  4. The North-South economic gap between the develop and developing worlds

  5. The need for education reform

. . . as the six most important dynamics we will have to deal with in the 21st century. He compiled his list as a result of extensive interviews with some of the giants of the previous century—Barbara Tuchman, Jimmy Carter, David Packard, Norman Cousins, Richard von Weizacker, Mortimer Adler, and others in the late 1980s and early 1990s, long before the massive disruptions of the past twenty four months. While I might quibble with some of the items on the list, I’m firmly in his camp on the perils of the ethical fog that seems to have engulfed our business and political leaders, a fog that sits all too comfortably where you and I live and work as well.

Swing Goes the Pendulum

In a macro sense, the behavior pendulum has already begun to swing, though the first signs of motion appeared some time ago. If we think of ethical behavior as a continuum (I’m thinking of business and government now), the poles seem to be “anything goes” on one end, and “nothing goes/regulate everything” on the other.  

It seems evident in retrospect that the behavior pendulum has spent the better part of ten years, and maybe twenty, stuck over on the “anything goes” end of things, with the federal government matching strides with big business to play accounting hide and seek, and ethical behavior being sacrificed on the alter of “what’s good for big business, is good for everyone.” Truth and transparency were road kill long ago, and the folks in Washington are every bit as culpable and complicit in playing on the far edge of ethical behavior as are the executives now being held up for public derision. The creative accounting practiced by Enron and others is a trifling in comparison to the trickery that goes on with accounting for where and how our tax dollars are used, but that’s another story.

There’s no question that the pendulum is heading the other way now. Washington has been infected with self-righteousness fever, and voting on tough new laws to govern the behavior of business executives and accountants is bracing tonic for elected officials needing to show the folks back home that government really does work for the little guy (sometimes). Just like the baseball owners, business leaders clearly need to be protected from themselves, and all of us from them, and more laws and more bureaucracy is just the ticket. Or so it seems.

Back and forth it goes, and where the pendulum stops, nobody knows. But common sense tells us that it won’t stay forever over on the “nothing goes/regulate everything” side of the spectrum. If you’re a cynic, you’d say it won’t stay there because it just won’t. People are already busy figuring their way around whatever has yet to be written into law or codified in regulation. This gets to the real reason why the pendulum will swing again: external strictures aren’t the answer if nothing changes in the moral code of the people making the decisions. It’s just window dressing, and bunting and ribbons aren’t nearly enough to hold back the unreformed forces of greed and desire that still seem so evident in the corridors of power.

Perhaps more troubling is the notion that the pendulum of corporate and government behavior swings in a 360 degree arc: there aren’t just two poles. The events of 9/11, and the Unabomber before, brought violently to the forefront the fact that not everyone approves of modern capitalism. This point of view is especially hard to fathom whilst driving down our mostly well-paved roads in our 5000 pound SUVs on the way to the Wal-Mart to pick up a couple of DVDs, a five pound box of laundry detergent, and the latest Austin Powers action figure, but it’s nevertheless a sentiment that’s out there. Why, we wonder, wouldn’t the world want to be just like us?

Well, large parts of the world do want to be like us. They buy our big brands, watch our movies, and line up to emigrate from all parts of the globe. This is still the land of opportunity, where prosperity and the betterment of your kith and kin is there for the taking assuming you’re willing to apply yourself to the task. 

But that doesn’t mean that our businesses aren’t sometimes arrogant global citizens, that our government isn’t heavy handed, that our international proxies at the World Bank and IMF aren’t clueless, and that we don’t consume resources, pollute the air, foul the water, and scar the earth like it is all a giant computer game that can be reset at any time with a simple Ctrl-Alt-Delete. That doesn't mean that segments of our population aren't so cranked at public policy that they won't resort to what the rest of us would describe as extreme measures.

Now maybe this whole terrorism/Unabomber connection makes you squeamish. Like how could I possibly draw any sort of comparison? Like what could that possibly have to do with ethics? Maybe nothing. Maybe the eco-terrorists, abortion doctor assassins, and political terrorists would be targeting U.S. institutions if we were the most ethical society in the history of the world. Maybe not. (Ethics or not, it’s beyond my imagination that someone would think that mayhem is an acceptable form of political expression, but then, I’m not a nihilist and a psychopath. Did that sound judgmental?).

But look past the acts of terrorism to the emotions driving the behaviors. Is the hatred, anger, intolerance, despair, and disdain that fuels those reactions and actions really that much different than the greed, avarice, scorn, disregard for others, ends-justifies-the means, “it’s all about the me” sensibility that has driven the behavior of the round-up of business and political leaders presently trying to avoid jail sentences? I know it grinds to draw the parallel, but admit it: rotten is rotten. The only difference is in what different groups regard as acceptable behavior.

Like everything, the “anger/anything goes” dimension has another pole as well. I’ll ask you the same question I asked myself: what would be the polar opposite of all those awful behaviors and sentiments? Ethics? Integrity? Morality? Spirituality? Love? Love! 

The other end of the spectrum, and ultimately the only enduring and durable way out of the ethical meltdown—a meltdown which I believe will lead inexorably to the unraveling of western civilization—is not more regulation, more moralizing, more strictures, but more ethics, integrity, morality, spirituality, and love. Not just in the privacy of your thoughts, but right out there where the world can see. Right there where you go to work every day.

You don’t think so? Well, how about this. Do you really think that Bernie Ebbers, Jeffrey Fastow, Ken Lay, Gary Winnick, and all the others would be squirming in the spotlight of public opprobrium if they had been motivated by love or a sentiment even remotely like that? I didn’t think so either.

So taken together, these two dimensions—force and power, or structure and spirit—form an ethical grid that offers a clue as to why the current backlashes are not the answer. There will be no “solution” to what ails modern capitalism, assuming “solution” is even a relevant concept, until there is a widespread move to the upper half of the power or spirit axis, and that won’t happen by legislation alone or maybe even at all.

Saving Civilization, Ten Cents at a Time

Ultimately the problem is us. To close the open switches from the beginning of this essay: no I didn’t keep the refund. I told the nice lady on the phone at Southwest that I had indeed traveled one way, just not the other. We actually went back and forth on this for a few minutes until I finally persuaded her that I was right. She checked with her supervisor and then adjusted out the $107. No matter how cranked I might have been at Southwest for having to buy another ticket because of the stupidly long line, I still wasn’t entitled to cheat Southwest out of $107 for a flight I took.

And no, I didn’t make off with the organic avocados for the pesticide-covered price. I didn’t let the cashier charge me $1.19 instead of $1.29 or whatever the difference was. Interestingly enough, I had to go back and forth with her as well to persuade her that she was reading the label incorrectly. Four avocados at ten cents each. . . let’s see, that’s 40 cents. Big deal. Except that it wasn’t my 40 cents. Except that maybe she’ll remember that I did the right thing. Maybe she will remember to do the right thing when it’s her turn.

The alarm bell is ringing. We are not helpless. We cannot remain bystanders any longer. It’s not somebody else’s job to fix what’s wrong, because what’s wrong at its very core is a hollowing out of the moral fiber that binds us together as ethical beings and as friends, teammates, employees, peers, members, colleagues, congregations, and fellow citizens. What’s wrong is nothing more complex than a lack of ethics, integrity, morality, spirituality, and love. That seems like a big list, so how about we just start with ethics and integrity?

Some people may read all of this as a case for more church going or religiosity. Maybe, but I think that line of thinking leads to a trap. Going to church isn’t by itself good or bad. But it’s no different than any other move to the left on the force/structure continuum unless it’s accompanied by a similar move upwards on the power/spirit axis.

Instead, I think the bell is calling all of us to “get it.” To “get” that how we think and act makes a big difference. To get that ethics, integrity, morality, spirituality, and love matter. They matter at home. They matter at the supermarket. They matter at work. They matter in government. They matter.

Specifically, I think that those of us who do “get it” are hearing a call to suit up and hold our ethical lamps high. It’s tempting to think it won’t matter, as in “what can one person do?”, but we need to resist that temptation. The answer is “plenty.”

A couple of years ago there was a movie that kind of came and went called "Pay it Forward," starring Helen Hunt, Kevin Spacey, and Haley Joel Osment. It’s worth a look if you’ve never seen it, or you can read the book, a novel by a woman named Catherine Ryan Hyde.  The premise is simple and profound. A young boy named Trevor comes up with an idea in response to a challenge put to him by his teacher. He calls his idea “pay it forward.” It goes like this:

“If someone did you a favor—something big, something you couldn’t do on your own—and instead of paying it back, you paid it forward to three people . . . and the next day, they each paid it forward to three more . . . and the day after that, those 27 people each paid it forward to another three . . . in two weeks, that comes to 4,782,969 people.”  

In mathematics, that’s called a geometric progression. In epidemiology, it’s called an epidemic. In technology, it was called “Moore’s Law.” Somewhere in there is what Malcolm Gladwell calls the “Tipping Point”, a point at which the curve turns and heads nearly straight up like a hockey stick. It’s what the world needs those who “get it” to get doing: paying it forward if you like that idea, but at the very least putting your ethics and integrity out there were others can see. 

One leads to three, three leads to nine, and on it would go, until little by little, the businesses we run and work in, the governments that represent us, the communities we live in, and then the world itself, would lose some of the darkness that seems to be crowding in. And then, who knows?

People of earth, our children and grandchildren are watching. It’s time to “get it.” It’s time to pay it forward. It’s time to make better decisions. It’s time to abide by our inherent integrity. It’s time to listen to our hearts. It’s a time for ethics. It’s time to love more. It’s time.

Kevin Hoffberg