After posting Part 1 of this piece, I went about my day’s business. Finally sitting down to watch the evening news I saw that 2 more people had gone on murderous rampages at opposite ends of the country. One, a father who murdered his 5 children in Graham, Washington, the other a man in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who set up an ambush for the local police department, leaving 3 of them dead.
And a nation still reeling from the senseless slaughter of dreams of a better life in America in Binghamton, New York casts about clumsily trying to understand.
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. As noted in Part 1, what we are reaping are the consequences of a collective swing of the moral compass. Once pointing figuratively to a rigid north and its iron-clad roles based on both gender and race, over the last 40 years it turned south and is now lodged there firmly. But as we shed not only our clothes during that “summer of love” along with ideas about roles we knew weren’t in synch with the equality upon which this country was founded, we also tossed what I call the basics. We grabbed our individuality like some brass ring on a merry-go-round but at the same time we let go of our personal responsibilities with regards to the expression of them.
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This is a basic law of physics and in terms of a human life it means that every action we take has a consequence. Sometimes the consequence is intended, sometimes it is unexpected and then for better or for worse. But just as we own our actions, we also own their consequences. For example, if we work hard, we expect the result, the consequences, to be a comfortable retirement. But if we choose to take some easy way out, to try to cheat the system, so to speak, then there is a chance the results, the consequences, will not be in our favor. That’s called a risk, and as we’ve watched events unfold with the housing and banking industry and “toxic assets”, sometimes we lose. And lose a lot.
But we still own it. And we own the ripple effects of our choices as they impact others, creating situations like Binghamton and Graham and Pittsburgh and so many others.
I said that this Part 2 would address “how” we can save ourselves from the despair now gripping our nation. So let us begin.
Step 1: We must all, as individuals, accept that we, the people, own this whole, stinkin’ mess. Understand that it is both our actions and our inactions, most of them the sum total of incalculable small ones, that put this country where it is today. Today’s problems aren’t the banks’ fault, they aren’t “big bad” business’ fault, they aren’t the government’s fault. They are our fault. You. Me. Every single one of us. We are the banks, we are “big bad” business, we are the government. WE OWN THIS.
Step 2: Take a good hard look at our assumptions. It’s obvious that they, just like some 15% of Americans, aren’t working. The biggest and most deadly assumption that I hear when talking to people is the faith put in our elected representatives. The majority of the time it’s a blind faith since most couldn’t tell you who represents them in Congress if you dangled a hundred-dollar bill in front of them. Most people have no idea what Congress does all day, unless they happen to catch a mainstream-media news story about it. And even then they don’t understand the implications, nor how often other insidious amendments are buried in a particular bill. They get it when it’s explained to them, however, and, interestingly, often don’t agree.
Step 3: The Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights are required reading. It’s a fact of life that you can’t play any game if you don’t know the rules. Like Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, said to Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”, “You don’t need to be helped any longer. You’ve always had the power to go back….” I can’t emphasize this enough. These 2 documents are our power and they are the means by which we can right today’s wrongs. They are, however, under unbelieveable assault every single day. Proposed amendments to the Constitution are introduced in Congress on a regular basis but do nothing except chip away at our rights. The truth is it ain’t broke, folks, and it don’t need any fixing. Especially the kind of “fixes” currently on the table in Congress.
What does need to change is our understanding of what these documents mean and that we, the people, actively exercise the rights given to us by them. A look at these documents as they originated can be seen here; another good site is here. To understand the intentions of the Founding Fathers when drafting the Constitution, it is also important to read what are called the “Federalist Papers“. Despite all our technology, the basics of life today aren’t very different than they were 223 years ago; we must listen to these wise men as much today as did the early colonists. Listen to them as if our very lives depended upon it because…they do.
Step 4: We must all take the time to review the work our elected representatives – our employees – are doing. Go to websites like thomas.gov and opencongress.org and look around. Sure, bills are sometimes awkward to read, but I promise that you can get the gist of them. See what your elected representatives – your employees – are introducing as legislation, what they are signing on to cosponsor (support), and how they are voting.
Step 5: Let your elected representatives – your employees – know what you think of their work. Congress operates on the theory that no news from their constituents is good news. They don’t want to hear they are going against the wishes of those who sent them to what they see as a cushy, power-tripped job but if we, the people, expect things to change, communicating with our elected representatives – our employees – is critical. They must come to understand that they are being watched and that when they fail to protect this country and its citizens there are consequences. This will only happen if we, the people, take the time to contact them. You don’t have to write a novel, just a few short sentences about the issue will suffice. When an issue is critical and time is of the essence, call their office and leave them a message.
Step 6: President Obama has promised the “most open and accessible administration in American history”, promised transparency, and says he wants to know what we, the people, are thinking. TELL HIM. If you are disgusted with his inability to select cabinet position nominees that are honest taxpayers or if you agree with his warnings to North Korea, let him know. If you think his ideas about the national budget are wacked, if you think goverment shouldn’t be in the car business, tell him. While it may come as a surprise to some, Barack Obama is no one special and he is certainly not some Messiah. He is just another American (giving him the benefit of the doubt for purposes of this example) who was selected to do a job in much the same way that you and I are interviewed and hired for a position. Like our Congress critters, the President of the United States works for us and he is responsible for upholding and defending the Constitution of the United States. (Remember Step 3?) He is rather like the CEO of our corporation and as such is subject to review and given direction by the board of directors – we, the people.
Step 7: Vote. Vote in every election and learn to vote with your dollars. Support ethical companies, whether they are media outlets or manufacturers. Demand honesty from every business, from the worker bees to the boards of directors, and when it is not forthcoming, take your business elsewhere. You are a stakeholder in every business and have a responsibility to hold them accountable so let them know why you choose to do your business with them or why you choose to do your business elsewhere.
Step 8: Understand how your money is being used or abused. This is closely related to Step 7, but bears addressing on its own. Most of us have investments, be it mutual funds, 401ks, or a retirement plan, and I venture to guess that most of us have no idea how those funds are invested. We hand over our money and let someone else decide what’s going to make our nest egg grow. Yet there are often companies in the mix who do not operate ethically or honestly and, personally, I do not want to support them and neither should you. Let me give you an example. Your neighbor, someone who has become a very good friend over the years, someone you consider “family”, is let go from their job after 20-odd years. They are a good person, a responsible person, living within their means and often working on salary more than 40 hours a week because they believe in their employer and believe it’s the right thing to do. You’d be upset right along with them, wouldn’t you? You’d be even more upset when you discover that the company made almost $2 billion in net profit that quarter, and your friend’s firing is solely to make the numbers “look good” for the next quarter, wouldn’t you? How about if you learned that the company’s CEO and other top executives are due five-figure bonuses at the end of the year if they make those nefarious “numbers” but the workers, the people who do the “grunt work” that creates the company’s ability to sell goods and services and thereby be profitable, won’t see a penny? And what if you learn those “grunt workers” take a pay cut along the way, too, and there is no intention by the CEO or executives to give any of it back?
It’s a disgusting scenario but it happens more than you think. And the reason it happens is so that those dividend checks can have one more penny per share. This is where the problems with our moral compass are most clear, at least to me, so I have to ask: is it worth it? Would you willingly destroy the lives of others, some of those people your neighbors and your friends, just to get one more penny in dividends?
I’ve posed this question to numerous people and the answer is always “no”. So what is the answer?
Step 8: Exercise your rights as a shareholder. Read the annual reports of the companies where your money is invested and read them with an eye towards honesty and fairness. (You can get the list of your mix from your brokerage firm.) Certainly, those who take the most risk are entitled to reap the most reward, however, every business has both shareholders and stakeholders. Employees, whether or not they own stock, are stakeholders, and as such must be taken care of the same as shareholders who get dividends because the reality is that it is the good employees, the “best and brightest”, who make a company successful. The role of the CEO and executives is to be the “public face” of a company and in big companies they have very little knowledge – if any, since the job of CEO isn’t necessarily industry-specific any more – about what it takes to do the work required on a daily basis to successfully meet the company’s contracts. Executive compensation, whether excessive or not, is set down in black and white and if you disagree with the way a company is run, especially those taking money out of the pockets of some employees simply in order to line the pockets of other employees, tell the board of directors. It is their job to set things like executive compensation and they will do whatever they think is best – which is most often decided inside some kind of bubble because they never hear from individual shareholders.
When you get a proxy statement from a company in which you’ve invested, read it carefully and don’t let someone else cast it for you. Take some time to learn about who is on the board of directors, who is being proposed to serve on it, understand any issues being presented, and send the proxy back by the deadline. This is your ability to have a say in how the company is being run, a right given to you when you bought stock, so in the same way you must vote for representation and vote with your dollars, so, too, must you exercise your right as a shareholder and take care of your employees. It is perhaps the simplest way to put honesty back in big business and negates the need to lose money through unionization.
Step 9: Talk to people. Discuss issues like responsibility and honesty and ethics, and encourage others to see they do hold the power to effect change. Your awareness of our rights and the issues we face, your willingness to do what is right every day, to accept your responsibilities both personal and civic, are a lesson, an example.
In the end, problems like the despair that is setting off murderous rampages aren’t about anyone versus anyone else, they aren’t about lunatics or guns, they are about us being in this mess together. Together we must find our way out of them by each of us, as individuals, going back to basics. That is where we will find real change and it is the only source of real hope.