Decay, Toxic Assets, and the Moral Compass


I hate to keep bugging Mark Hobson – Lord knows he’s got enough problems with home improvements and messed up website providers.  But his recent post, picture ideas, is something people should think about.  In general, he’s talking about the economic crisis. He also talks about ways that photographers can use images to illustrate what’s going on in this environment, but that’s tantalizing fodder for another time.  At one point, for example, he says about our economic predicament:

I believe that the economic crisis is merely a symptom of the the real crisis which, in fact, is actually a crisis of moral, ethical, so-called “lifestyle” choices gone bad.

I agree with that.  The problems that we’re having in this country (and in the world) have far more to do with the way people behave than they do with economic cycles.  Just pick up a newspaper and read all the stories about the rich, famous, and stupid.  Start with the heads of Peanut Corporation of America, who spent a good part of this week invoking their rights under the fifth amendment, and then move on to the likes of Bernie Madoff,  the CEO’s of our largest banks, Barry Bonds,  Alex Rodriguez and, yes, Nadya Suleman (the octuplets mom).  The list, of course,  is endless.  These folks (and millions like them) all have something in common.  And it isn’t their good looks and sunny dispositions.

No, what they have in common is how they play the game of life.  For these folks, there are basically two rules that govern decision making.  First, an action is OK if the immediate consequence of that action is some kind of personal gain.  I’ll consider doing it if I can get something out of it.  If there’s nothing in it for me, I won’t do it.  Questions of right or wrong or whether or not the action will negatively affect someone else are basically irrelevant.

The second rule is a practical extension of the first: I’ll do it if rule 1 is satisfied and there is a reasonable chance that I won’t get caught, even if it’s illegal or ethically questionable.

If you think these folks are in the minority, that they are the few making life miserable for the many, then you’re wrong.  These people exist in large numbers.  They feed off of one another.  They’re  your friends and neighbors.  Hell, you can probably find a few in your own family, if you look hard enough.  I know I can.  Some are far too close for comfort and, at some point almost every day, I wonder how they got that way.  What was it that turned them into narcissistic, egocentric, pathological liars?

Am I being too harsh?  I don’t think so.  Think back to the last time you were on an interstate or expressway and traffic got hopelessly backed up.  Perhaps somewhere ahead there was a lane shutdown, forcing traffic to pinch into a much smaller space.  So what happens?  Some of us stay in the lane we believe to be open ahead, even though that means slow progress and a long wait.  But how many choose to short-circuit this process?  How many get into the more open lane and then force themselves back into the main traffic right at the pinch point?  How many use the shoulder or even the median to accomplish the same goal?  I know you’ve seen this performance and I know your reaction – you find yourself wishing that your car had some kind of magical ray gun that could zap the bastards out of existence.  Why do they do it?  Because they don’t believe that they are bound by other people’s rules and because they’re pretty damn sure they can get away with it.

On a more serious note, here’s a statistic that to me, at least, indicates how deep this problem runs.  In 2005, the Federal Reserve “discovered” that 20% of all mortgages in the U. S. were “subprime”.  One in five loans, in other words, had been made to people  who, because of their credit rating or other factors, had a reasonable chance of defaulting on the repayment of those loans.  One in five.  Alan Greenspan has said that he was “astounded” by this revelation, but that he could do nothing about it without seriously damaging the economy.  Well that was then and this is now.  How much more damage can we sustain?

The point, though, is that there were literally millions of people who made really bad decisions – or let them be made for them by questionable lenders – all in the name of greed.  No one thought about the potential longterm negative consequences of these actions.  So long as the housing market was expanding and credit was easy, there was money to be made.  If you live by rules one and two above, there was no ethical conflict.

No one knows for certain, of course, how this will all turn out.  But even if we “fix” the banking crisis and even if we get all those millions of unemployed people back to work, what will be different in the long run?  If greed and the cult of “Me – First” continues to dominate our collective behavior, nothing, in reality, will change.  We’ll do this all again at some point, as we have in the past.  Hey, maybe the movie “Groundhog Day” wasn’t so far off the mark after all.


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