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Without integrity, nothing else matters
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Forsyth County News
Despite the great strides we have made in technology, we live in a time when trust in most of our institutions is at a low ebb. Although most people perceive continued progress on the technological front, confidence in the future is disheartening at best.

Applying the old principle of “caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware) is more critical than ever in the economic realm, and the influence of special interests had undermined credibility of our political institutions.

Our outlook toward the future is a major determinant of how that future will unfold.

For example, when consumers, assisted by negative media hype, start loosing confidence in the economy, they curtail purchases, leading to business declines, layoffs and a self-fulfilling prophesy. When people have a positive, “can-do” outlook, even in the face of major obstacles, wonderful things can happen.

Obviously, overconfidence can create boom and bust cycles, and balance is required. But one of the key ingredients underlying this process is an amorphous quality called “integrity” — a value that seems, unfortunately, to be in decline.

This is the fourth article in a continuing series on the subject. The point of this article, like that of the other three, is that unless we all — individuals and institutions — operate with high standards of integrity, there will be continuous erosion of the civilization in which we live, moving us back towards the mentality of feudalism.

Merriam Webster defines integrity as: “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values.” “Honesty,” a synonym, is defined as “fairness and straightforwardness of conduct.”

A few weeks ago I was impressed by TV ads run by a leading car rental agency, reinforced by a series of full page magazine ads. If you have rented cars you may, like me, have been frustrated by the fuel policies.

You can pay up front for a full tank at “normal prices per gallon” and return the car empty. Not many people are willing to coast into the car return lot on the last of the fumes in the tank. And no credit is given for the gas that remains.

You can return the car empty, and pay an exorbitant price per gallon for the rental company to fill your tank (usually $1 to $2 above the local pump price). Or, if you are like me, you can plan on taking some extra time to search for a gas station near the car return lot to fill it up.

Finally, here was a company advertising, in big bold letters: “Pay the pump price when you return your car.” Wow.

No more leaving early to try to find a gas station on the way back to the airport. Finally, someone had the consumer in mind. But did they?

Last week I rented a car from that company. I expressed my delight with the new policy to the desk clerk. He said that many people appreciated the change.

Then I asked for specific details of the total charge and discovered that $7 would be added to my bill as a “refueling fee.”

Usually, I put five or six gallons in the car before returning it. So if I took up their great offer, I would still be charged more than $1 extra per gallon. When I pointed this out to the clerk, all I got was an awkward smile.

I filled my tank before returning the car. Later I re-examined the magazine ad. Yep, there in tiny print at the bottom, out of the perception of most readers was a note about the refueling charge. Integrity?

Airlines are under great pressure to recover the increased costs of higher fuel. As a result, they have started to charge for almost everything. Many charge for a second checked bag. Some charge for the first checked bag. Some charge extra for aisle or emergency row seating. Their need to generate additional revenue may be legitimate, but then why not build it into the fare?
 
The answer is simple. If they build it into the fare, people will see it. The way they do it now, unless you are a sophisticated traveler and ask first, you won’t see those charges until it’s too late.

There is another issue. If they raise their fares and other airlines continue with the “add-on charges,” they will be at a competitive disadvantage.

The latter point speaks volumes. Instead of being rewarded for their honesty and forthrightness, the average consumer will probably penalize them. Unless we change our mindset, we are the cause of the problem.

Recently, the state of New York dropped its suit to recover a portion of the $195 million severance package paid to the former head of the New York Stock Exchange. The decision was not a function of whether the payment was excessive.

The suit was brought because, at that time, the NYSE was a nonprofit organization group, and the payment seemed to exceed standards for nonprofits in the state.

Subsequently, the NYSE changed to “for-profit” status. Despite the fact that the issue arose when the organization was in its former state, the court ruled that, since the organization was no longer a nonprofit, it was no longer in the public interest to pursue the case.

There have been numerous reports recently about physicians, writing articles supporting certain drug therapies or prescribing them — while on the payroll of the pharmaceutical companies that produce the products they promote.

What is the balance between promoting things that “do good” and the conflict of interest that arises when a substantial portion of one’s income is a function of saying the “right” thing, particularly where the health of individuals is concerned?

I could continue with numerous illustrations of this nature. The problem is that we have the tendency to accept these behaviors as “typical of the times.” But as time goes by, they tend to erode the foundations on which our civilization is built. Although some of these situations are designed to mislead, none are illegal.

But each adds to the other, creating a pattern which, too often, leads to a downward spiral. If we are going to restore a sense of confidence in the future, and trust in the institutions we depend upon to navigate through the challenges, we have to establish integrity as one of the pillars of our behavior.

That means two things. First, we must maintain high integrity standards in everything we do — i.e., lead by example. Second, we must neither tolerate nor support actions that deviate from these standards.

The illustrations I gave may seem inconsequential by themselves. There are many much bigger issues that we could point to. But it is the small issues, building up insidiously and at the limits of our perception, that often create the biggest problems. Even when we notice them, they seem to be too unimportant, given all the other things going on in our lives, to be worth much effort. So we acquiesce and accept. But avalanches are built, one tiny snowflake at a time. And usually, when the collapse occurs, it’s too late to do much about it.

Years ago, in writing about the characteristics of an excutive, Georgia textile magnate Cason Callaway said:  “Above all, an executive must have integrity. Without that, nothing else matters.”

That statement applies to everyone, in every walk of life. But integrity is hard to define because it is based upon the standards set by society. Which brings me back to the key point — that it is up to us to set and enforce those standards, and that can only be done by actions — “actions that speak louder than words.”

Next time you see something that doesn’t look right, withhold your support and/or contact the people concerned. And next time you see something that does look right, contact them to reinforce that behavior. The best way to stop further erosion is by maintaining high standards, personally and demanding similar standards within the community as a whole.

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.