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Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Real Lesson of the Gulf Oil Spill

The people of the United States are rightly up in arms about the ecological disaster that is unfolding off the coast of Louisiana. As important as the lessons to be learned about off-shore drilling are and as important as the debate about whether to allow off-shore drilling is, they really are secondary to the more important issue: the dramatic institutionalization of financial greed into the American character.

Although British Petroleum is technically a British corporation, businesses around the world long ago integrated the American business model into their operations, thus it is still an example of the corruption of the modern capitalist model. It is clear from the evidence that has been shared to date that BP and its partners on the Deepwater Horizon rig put profits ahead of the safety and well-being of their employees and the American people. This has become the standard and expected practice of American business as the nation has come to worship the almighty dollar above all else.

Do not misread my criticism as condemnation of capitalism, it is the best economic model ever conceived. However, capitalism in its original and pure form never placed profits above morality, safety and community. The capitalism practiced by far too many American businesses today is a prostituted version that views profits as the ONLY concern, especially among the large national and multi-national corporations. It is not limited to off-shore oil drillers. Mining companies ignore the hundreds of safety violations in their mines, ultimately resulting in the deaths of dozens of miners. Trucking companies regularly and knowingly run trucks above legal weight limits, playing Russian roulette with the lives of ordinary people who share the highways with trucks that are exponentially more dangerous as they move farther overweight. Even companies that once were known for their commitment to consumer safety have changed their ways and put profit ahead of everything else. Compare the response of Johnson & Johnson to the Tylenol contamination in 1982 to their response to similar problems in 2010 to see how the morality of business has changed in the last generation.

Where is the outrage among the American people? Is this the kind of economic system we want to be known for? Are we really willing to exchange greater short term profits for decreased consumer safety and greater worker mortality? Where is the leadership in this nation that is charged with representing and protecting the interests of the people (oh, yeah, their beholden to the contributions of the business interests!). And where is the American church that seems so concerned about the morality in my home, yet seems so unconcerned about the morality that actually affects peoples lives?

If there is outrage to be reflected in the Deepwater Horizon crisis, it should be directed at businesses who sell out the well-being of the American people for a few more dollars. Only a dramatic change in perspective and business practice will ever prevent future industrial disasters.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

America's Real Fundamental Problem....Leadership!

While there is wide agreement throughout the United States that it is facing huge challenges and perhaps our very survival is threatened, there is a vast list of reasons offered by people as to why this is true. People blame large government, over-reaching government, too much government spending, Wall Street scandals, activist courts, greedy business leaders, the worship of money, advancement toward socialism, welfare mentality, mediocre schools, too many liberals, too many conservatives, removal of prayer/religion from the public sphere and ....add your own cause here.

I propose that the real problem, the one that rises above all those listed above, is the dangerous lack of real, honest, committed leadership throughout our national institutions and within the citizenry in general. A close examination reveals a prevalence of poor leadership in the primary institutions of government, business, education and religion. Real leadership is defined by focus, commitment, honesty, selflessness and sacrifice, attributes that are clearly missing from the majority of leaders within this country.

Government is an easy target for blame in this problem and rightly so. Especially at the national level, politics has ceased to be about public service and doing what is right for the entire nation and has become destructively partisan and hypocritical. Congressmen oppose good legislation simply because it is proposed and supported by their opponents, especially if that opponent is the President. Congressmen are against a bill after they are for a bill....after they are against it (???). The political parties purge those in their party that don't walk a narrowly defined party line. Compromise (which is the only thing that allowed this great nation to be created!!!) is viewed as weak and/or corrupt. Lost to history are the men and women who went to Congress and worked for the good of the people, even if it meant not getting everything their beliefs would desire or that they didn't get re-elected.

Business is also an easy and appropriate institution to place blame. American business leaders have become completely oblivious to the lives of their employees and the damage their pursuit of ever-greater profits is wreaking upon this nation. CEOs of already profitable companies have no shame in shutting down American factories and moving jobs to lower cost nations simply to increase profits (and their compensation). Companies engage in risky and dangerous practices with the attitude that any financial consequences are just "a cost of doing business", even if it costs people their lives. National and international conglomerates have completely discarded the concept of community and the benefits a fair and vibrant enterprise contributes to the entire community. They only see a need for greater and greater profits, even if it means treating employees as simply another input resource instead of as neighbors and family.

Although significantly impacted by factors beyond their control, schools also lack critical leadership. Grade inflation is not a myth because schools have caved to the pressure of parents who all think their kids are exceptional. Parents come after teachers who have difficult grading practices because it puts Johnny or Susie's chance at Harvard at risk (forgetting that most of those children have no chance at Harvard to begin with). As a result, too many students graduate without the skills necessary to succeed in college. Parents routinely undermine teachers who attempt to enforce discipline and academic standards. Administrators routinely avoid the discomfort of releasing poor teachers. Testing has shifted the burden of learning from the student to the instructor, even when most people acknowledge that a willingess to learn is paramount to academic success.

Finally, even churches in modern America show a lack of leadership. Modern megachurches build multi-million dollar monuments to their righteousness while millions in their communities wallow in hunger, underemployment and homelessness. Pastors across the nation extoll the virtue of believing the right thing, saying the right thing, doing the right thing in order to receive God's financial and material blessing. Capitalism and Christianity have merged into an indistinguishable duo. Rare is the call to selflessness and sacrifice demonstrated by Jesus! Tolerance and compassion have been replaced by a "spiritual" search for personal, materialistic, emotional, and political fulfillment

Unfortunately, much of the blame must be born by the people of the United States. Most all of us decry the wickedness of those things with which we disagree. We demonize those who disagree with us. We call for others to sacrifice while ourselves being unwilling to sacrifice. We criticize Congress but re-elect our representative at a rate above 90%. We are angry and distrustful of business and its priorities and practices, yet continue to clamor for more consumer goods at ever lower prices. We profess ourselves a Christian nation, yet woefully fail to live a life a Christ like life of love, generosity and sacrifice.

The fact is that none of that long list of problems will be successfully solved until a group of real leaders steps forward. We desperately need a broad and diverse group of people with the ability to problem solve, to motivate and to inspire. We desperately need people willing to be honest about the difficulty of the challenges we face and tell us the truth, not what we "want" to hear. We desperately need people willing to lead the charge of commitment and sacrifice that is necessary to solve these problems. We desperately need people willing to sacrifice their own careers/positions (in every institution) to tell the truth and push people to do what is necessary. We desperately need a populace that is willing to reward, rather than punish, real leadership.