Friday, May 01, 2009

Growing a Conscience

Folks have called for a lot of things during the Economic Troubles, so much and so often that some days I think one more piece of news about economic downturn will produce a digestive upturn of my lunch.
What is scary about our economic system is that much of the power is in the hands of people who are not elected and over whom we have no control. We have no effective way of telling investment bankers, housing lenders or other ginormous financial institutions that we want them to making venal, stupid choices. It’s that impulse to get come grip on the slippery weasels that leads for calls for more laws and action from Uncle Sugar.
But what ails our system is not a lack of laws or oversight or regulation or deregulation. What we’re missing is what those elements try to make up for, but never can. What we’re missing is just old-fashioned conscience and responsibility.
A sense of responsibility and a well-developed conscience are no guarantee of behavior that everyone will approve. John D. Rockefeller was a serious churchgoer, but even as he economically crushed and manipulated the little guys in the oil region, there’s no reason to think his conscience ever bothered him a day in his life. All the good works he did (and there were plenty, from inventing modern corporate philanthropy to founding important colleges for African –Americans) were not to assuage any guilt he ever felt—they were just the actions he felt were his God-given responsibility for his God-given money.
But the other thing those earlier leaders didn’t have was a bubble. Charles Miller not only lived in Franklin within spitting distance of the men who worked for him, but in many cases he went to church with them every Sunday. And he wanted it that way.
People in power should live near the people that their decisions affect.
I’ve always said that public officials should live among the taxpayers that provide their salaries. Teachers and other school district employees should live in their district, both for of the economic impact and the accountability. If I make decisions affecting the life of your child, I shouldn’t be able to go home and hide from you. I should have to face you in church or the grocery store, and the knowledge that that meeting could occur should influence my choices. I should treat every student I work with as if I’m dealing with my neighbor’s child.
What we often call conscience is sometimes not so much the voice of little angels perched on our shoulders as it is the voice that reminds us that we might have to face the person we just hurt.
I have to believe that if this several-decade bonanza of business bozos had known from the get-go that they would have to personally take the money from individual human hands and flush it down the porcelain portal in front of that now-broken investor—well, I have to think that picture might have at least slowed them down.
It’s a sort of safety feature in humans—we can know something without really feeling the truth of it. I can sit in my corporate office and know, intellectually, that I just brought ruin and disaster on a bunch of folks. But they aren’t folks who live anywhere nearby; I’ll never meet them and I can’t even imagine how they will react.
That’s what’s so striking about moments like the AIG bonuses or the corporate jet trips to beg for taxpayer money—these are guys who have been in the bubble for so long that they have lost the ability to even imagine how people would react to their venal stupidity. They shop at a grocery store where only other fat cats shop, and they don’t know how other voices sound.
Men like General Miller made lots of decisions that were unpopular and unlikable. Certainly their proximity to other mortals did not make them perfect human beings. But there’s a reason that the mayor of a town lives in the town—every day he has to face the people, places and things affected by his decisions. He may make hard choices, but he can walk out his front door able to face people believing he did the right thing. There’s a difference between a clear conscience and an absent one.
There’s no way to give people a conscience implant. But it doesn’t always take the voice of God to fill the gap; sometimes the voice of a neighbor is enough.

1 comment:

Joe said...

You advise that "people in power should live near the people that their decisions affect." That's fine as far as it goes, but it's rather facile, and an easier prescription in the small city, where Miller Park is a stones throw from New Street. In larger burgs, those with means can build their insulary bubbles without leaving town. And by the way, I doubt your conscience was any less attuned when you lived in Hannaville.

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