America's Values Cliff More Troubling Than the Fiscal Cliff

"I always wondered why somebody doesn't do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody." - Lily Tomlin

Long before the financial meltdown of 2008, there was a values meltdown in the United States. Most people could sense this but by the time it caught up with us, it was too late.

This meltdown was evident in all sectors of American life but it was most dramatic in the financial sector. Smart people who we hoped would have known better were pushing short-term profit and individual interests regardless of the costs to society and people's lives. The so-called "masters of the universe" were busy peddling subprime mortgages, securitization of mortgages, credit default swaps and other exotic products to turn a quick buck that they put profit over people, community and country. As a nation, we were shocked by their greed and callous indifference to the greater good. While these Wall Street actors are responsible for their actions, the values meltdown is culpable, too.

The bean counters and brokers were being rewarded by bosses and corporate governors who said that they were doing a great job. No one gave them any reason to believe they weren't doing a great job. Profitability was the only metric by which they were judged. Right and wrong never figured in to it. In a culture that was and still is driven by quantitative measures, there was no metric that measured or rewarded morality. We are gradually recovering from the Great Recession. We are told that new regulatory circuit breakers such as Dodd Frank and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have been put in place to prevent another financial meltdown. However, the underlying values crisis is far from resolved. It is only a matter of time before it manifests itself again.

We say this because there is still no prevention for, or training against, immoral or amoral behavior in the business world. The closest we've come was recently announced by Bloomberg Business Week, the National Conference on Citizenship, and the Points of Light Foundation as the "Civic 50," the most civically engaged companies in America. Although the companies on this venerable list are to be congratulated because their employees, care deeply about community and are charitable both in time and dollars, there is more work to be done. For instance, we must address the epidemic of workplace bullying, which by some estimates, affects one-third of the workforce. We must encourage employees to return their phone calls to be respectful, ethical and practice true customer service -- not just pay lip service to it. But above all, we must do more to promote the idea of simply doing the right thing.

Today's college graduates, out looking for jobs, complain that the common courtesy of a response or return letter -- protocol for generations -- has gone by the wayside.

These virtues, without which our society becomes ruder and cruder, must be rooted in a set of core values that are internalized by the individual, not just tacked onto the wall by the water cooler or posted on the company's intranet. You can give time and money to causes and communities and wake up every day thinking that you're a good person because you're getting recognized, but you can still be unethical, unkind or even ruthless. Recently, a senior executive at a Civic 50 company commented to a non-profit executive, "We will always respect you, but you may never hear back from us." If this isn't a values oxymoron, what is? And yet it's accepted as normal business behavior in today's environment.

Corporate America is not the only entity caught up in this kind of cognitive dissonance. We all have witnessed the values decline in politics, as well. Redistricting in states that have balanced Republican and Democratic populations has delivered congressional districts so skewed and one-sided that qualified candidates have dropped out because they wouldn't have a fair chance of being re-elected. During the recent presidential election, both candidates won at being vague and deceptive, even lying outright at times. But in our win-at-all-costs culture, the victor is congratulated and the breach of values overlooked.

You might be tempted to ask why we're making such a fuss about America's values cliff. Who's getting hurt? The answer is that we all are.

America for generations has functioned on a set of core values that drives the American Dream. In superhero terms, these values have been defined as truth, justice and the American way. When America and its citizens live these values, America is a country that by and large works. When we violate our values, the dysfunction affects families, communities and businesses. Dysfunction, then, becomes the new normal. That is the situation we are living in today.

What brought about this decline?

We believe this trend started approximately 40 years ago, when public school districts, believing they might get sued for church-state reasons, started to prevent their teachers from talking about values. They didn't realize that, while some values are rooted in religion, America's shared values are not religious but, rather, civic. Add to that the decline of civic education in schools, and America proceeded down a slippery slope that has led us to the current blur between right and wrong. Until recently, with the advent of interest in business social responsibility and sustainability, except for the extremes, we stopped talking about values in America. Yet we're shocked that 75 percent of high school students report that they have cheated.

American business and society will continue our fall off the values cliff, and our economy and our children will continue to be impacted, unless we start now to reintroduce mainstream, core values into the daily regimen of American life. While the fiscal cliff has certain ramifications, the values cliff has other far-reaching effects on every aspect of American life. If we don't act now, we can only look forward to more dysfunction -- rudeness, disregard, incivility -- and future meltdowns.

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