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Integrity is an elusive trait
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Forsyth County News
Recent years have been characterized by an erosion of trust in most of our once-stalwart institutions.

Confidence in the president and Congress has hit all-time lows and the current economic crisis has uncovered the worst side of large segments of corporate America. Once, rock-solid symbols of American industrial prowess, like General Motors, Ford and Chrysler seem poised to follow the path of other industry leaders like Pan Am, TWA and Eastern Airlines.

As disaffection has grown, more and more emphasis has been placed on re-establishing a sense of trust. The recent political campaigns were full of “trust-restoration” rhetoric. But what does it take to do the job?

“Trust” is a fragile concept. It has many components and its establishment takes many steps over time. But it can be destroyed almost instantly by a single step in the wrong direction.

One of the most important ingredients required is “integrity.”

Merriam-Webster defines this elusive trait as: “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values: incorruptibility.”

Clearly, the task we now face is not preservation, but the most difficult of all, restoration. Everyone seems aware of the need. Yet despite the lip-service and the real hardships that are affecting much of the nation because of its lack, the watchwords seem to be “business as usual.”

We have a problem.

Consider our society as comprised of three elements: government, the corporate sector and everybody else (small businesses, nonprofits, and “we the people”).

It has become clear, over the years, that government regulation does not work well. So we have tended to resist government intervention and instead, relied on free market mechanisms.

However, it has also become painfully clear, particularly in recent months, that allowing the corporate world to police itself is like the proverbial fox guarding the chicken coop.

And when the two work in cahoots, as is the main purpose of the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars flowing from special interest groups into political coffers, the poor chickens don’t stand a chance.

Guess who that leaves?  Let’s come back to that in a moment.

First let’s look at some of the recent attempts to “restore” trust and integrity.

Congress, after many stormy sessions, finally approved a $700 billion bailout bill. Despite the serious state of affairs in the nation, almost $100 billion in pork was added, both to buy congressional votes (a practice that would be illegal in an election) and because it’s the congressional thing to do (i.e. buying future votes from constituents).

The bill included benefits for a Wisconsin maker of wooden arrows, auto racetrack owners, the Puerto Rican and Virgin Islands rum industry, U.S. wool fabric producers and Alaskan fishermen, among others.

In another “great demonstration of its high moral character,” the Democratic and Republican leadership of the House (including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican Leader John Boehner) demanded that criminal charges against a Republican congressman be thrown out.

They do not contest the merits of the 44 counts of extortion, racketeering, wire fraud, insurance fraud and money laundering for which he has been indicted. Instead  they argue that the “Speech and Debate Clause” of the Constitution (Article I, Section 6, Clause 1) gives a sitting congressman immunity from prosecution, even for criminal activities — a type of “diplomatic immunity.”

Clearly, the intent of the clause was to prevent the executive branch from taking action to silence members of Congress who take strong stands in opposition. But today, issues involving alleged criminal behavior can certainly be dealt with by the courts.

But just as it has excluded itself from the Social Security retirement and health care system (for a system of its own design), it would seem that the leadership of the house wishes to exclude itself from the jurisdiction of the U.S. courts — clearly a move not exactly designed to build trust and display moral integrity.

Part of the corporate world also continues as if nothing has happened. One week after AIG received  $85 billion to bail it out from its poor decisions, it spent close to half a million dollars entertaining its top executives at a resort in California.

The CEOs of the top auto companies, traveling to Washington to seek enormous handouts, all flew in their corporate jets. It was only after huge outcry from the public that they decided, on their next visit, to travel in their own, starting-to-become fuel-efficient cars. See, public pressure does work.

And today there is great controversy over how much of the Wall Street bailout money is going to large bonuses (smaller than in the past, but still large by any standards) that are still being paid to employees.

They claim that “bailout” funds are not involved. I’m not sure what that means. One dollar bill is indistinguishable from another. Money not spent on bonuses is available for other purposes. One can only assume that their statements either say something about their disdain for the sophistication of the American public or reflect continued arrogance.

And finally, let’s turn to the third “sector,” everybody else. The only way things are going to change is if we establish standards of integrity and enforce them.

But here too the record is spotty. Too many people don’t get involved ... someone else will take care of things. Yet how many Americans have been affected, negatively, by current events for which they had no responsibility, no input, and probably no knowledge, until it was too late?

It is time to get involved, and there are no better ways to do it by letting leadership (government and corporate) know one’s views and by voting (at the ballot, with respect to government and with your feet when it comes to dealing with corporate entities).

It is vital for the future that integrity becomes a keystone for our nation. Just voting isn’t enough.

Integrity has to be part of that process too. The senior senator from Alaska, despite conviction on seven felony counts for accepting illegal campaign “gifts,” got the support of 47 percent of the Alaskan electorate, only 1 percent less than his opponent. Clearly, the pork he had been sending to Alaska for years outweighed his “indiscretions” in the minds of almost half the electorate.

We have a new president coming in, one who ran on a platform of “change.” Perhaps the most critical change that needs to occur is the restoration of integrity to government, the corporate world and to the way we live our daily lives.

No president can make it happen alone. It urgently requires the commitment and involvement of each and every one of us.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at melcopen@hotmail.com.