Monday, April 4, 2011

What Good Little Boys (and Girls) Are Made Of

The thought manifests as the word; The word manifests as the deed; The deed develops into habit; And habit hardens into character. As the shadow follows the body, As we think, so we become.(Buddha)

We had occasion to watch a newish documentary, Inside Job, within the past week. It examines (a la Michael Moore) the shifts in fiscal policy that are seen as contributing, at an immediate level, to the financial crisis which began to surface in late 2008 in the US and reverberated through most of the western world over the next few years – recovery from which continues currently. What emerged first as a failure of sub-prime mortgages (money borrowed with very little collateral, virtually no applicant approval process, and no immediate risk to the lender, should these, on balance, poor prospects for repayment, default) reverberated through several storied and previously substantial investment houses (Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch among them) and triggered senate subcommittee hearings to ‘get to the bottom of it’.

The film paints a conspiratorial picture commencing in early 1980’s with the progressive removal of regulations governing many aspects at many levels of lending, investing, insuring – essentially, as it turns out, turning the keys to the hen house over to Br’re Fox for safekeeping. What had been, since the Great Depression, a tightly regulated structure, with built-in accountability and checks, became, in a most literal sense a ‘money for nuthin’ and yer chicks for free’ system. Government ‘consultants’ turned out to be, in many cases, individuals who would themselves profit from deregulation, recommending changes in policy, with the assurances of academics (traditionally the independent voices who were ‘above crass realities’—but not this time!) that would see the house of cards rise ever higher – until the John and Mary Joneses, who had bought that $500,000 house on an income that would support 1/5th of that grandeur, became unable to meet their monthly obligations; and stopped paying. And what had seemed like a ‘get rich quick’ sure thing, became anything but. Definitely the former (the get rich part); definitely not the latter.

Charles Ferguson, the film’s director, makes a compelling case for a Watergate-style review and exercise in accountability that would see many of the perpetrators charged and hopefully jailed. His post-film interview underscores that a ‘fix’ would require the principals from Alan Greenspan on down, many whose consultancy roles has spanned a number of political administrations and in some cases were ongoing, be replaced; and secondly, that regulatory bodies be reinstituted – in essence asking for keys back from the furtive Mr. Fox. Laudable – but perhaps missing a deeper truth: the next guy in line, whether politically, financially, or academically borne, is every bit as likely to lack the personal integrity that, once the lid is off, will see him/her just as poorly equipped to resist dipping into the cookie jar as his/her predecessor. Rather the equivalent of thinking that an election will bring with it an ethically renewed representative to replace the outgoing shyster.

So, if pulling out that ‘new broom’ and giving things a good sweep isn’t likely to fix things , then where to look? I think, in part, we might benefit from revisiting our little toxic trio of last week – attachment (greed), aversion (avoidance of, in this case, truth) and this week’s candidate: ignorance of the truth. This ‘poison’ goes beyond simply ‘not knowing what’s right’. This is, in the Buddhist tradition, an actual inability to ‘see clearly’, sort of the equivalent of moral cataracts, if you will; and, as a result, tending to see things as we would like them to be, believing our own BS (without putting too fine a point on it).

Always having a bit (in some folks' view, a very small bit) of the Pollyanna in me, I believe that very few of us are essentially ‘bad people’. Most of us don’t get up in the morning with the conscious intent of doing ill. That being said, I ran out of fingers and toes on which to count this past week attempting to tally the number of encounters wherein I sensed a distinct lack of authenticity in this particular dealing or that. A constituency office more bent on handing out lectures, rationalizations, and defensiveness than cultivating that all-important vote. An instance of litigation wherein the ‘big picture’ got clouded by ill-preparedness and cronyism. A service club more attuned to defending warring egos than on acknowledging a ‘good idea’. The experience even invaded our world of DVD viewing – if you haven’t seen Made in Dagenham, a lovely little film documenting the early days of pay equity in the UK, and all the supposed reasons for scuttling it, it’s worth a watch as 187 committed women turn Ford and Harold Wilson’s labour government on their heads thanks to ‘clear-eyed’ courage.

Back to the Buddha’s opening comments – and, with all due respect, inserting a couple of additional links to his ‘chain’. Kicking those few, truly evil individuals out of line, it may be safe to assume that most, perhaps all of the ‘players’ in any of the above scenarios, acted with some measure of ‘innocence’, likely believing to some extent that their actions would do no harm; they were merely ‘acting expeditiously’, taking advantage of available ‘opportunities’, doing their job – with all the required indignation, back-peddling, rationalizing, and avoidance (hmm, there it is again) to CYA (in polite terms, to minimize ‘exposure’), when that became necessary. But equally failing to inform their initial thoughts (before they became words, deeds, habits . . . and character) with a truth, an authenticity – a clear examination of their position predicated on individual integrity.

A closing thought. I heard Hassan Ghedi Santur, a Canadian novelist interviewed on Tapestry a few weeks ago (see link below). He was pondering the question of what it means to be ‘good’; whether it’s an innate quality, part of our temperament; or, something that can be ‘grown’, cultivated. He told the story of the man, confronted on his visit to the ocean, with thousands of beached starfish and, in the midst of trying to toss them all back to safety in the water, was challenged about the futility of his efforts by a passerby – he couldn’t possibly save them all. Santur relates the story to our definition of ‘being good’ – that perhaps “it’s just an irritating little voice that asks ‘are you doing good’ and speaks to us from that part of ourselves unsullied by cynicism and apathy; a voice that tells us to pick up at least one star fish and throw it back into the ocean and that act will make a difference – to that one starfish.” Perhaps that’s how we get in touch with the truth that should inform our thoughts and . . . ultimately our character – not just putting all the bad guys in jail.

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