Drowning in a Sea of Paper

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In 2011, American businesses were supposed to comply with 165,000 pages of federal regulations.  In response to the failure of 9,000+ banks in the early 30s, the Glass-Steagall Act (1933) reformed the US banking system in only 37 pages.  In comparison, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (2010) needed 2,319 pages.

Undoubtedly, our politicians are genuinely trying to enact laws that make our society more fair and just, but in the midst of the flood of paper, I wonder if we are simply treading water.  While congress tries to plug the holes, others are trying to game the system.  Will mountains of regulation really solve this problem?

It seems to me that self-regulation would be a simpler path.  What if each and every American citizen simply used the Golden Rule (Do to others what you would have them do to you) to guide our actions?  Of course, that sounds utopian but my point is that if more of us actually held ourselves accountable that there wouldn’t be as great a need to hyper-regulate in the first place.  The challenge is that much of American society has changed the Golden Rule to “Do what I want.”

Cultural historian James Lincoln Collier documents this shift in his book, The Rise of Selfishness in America. He asks the question: How did we go from self-restraint to self-gratification?  Between 1910 and the 1970s, Collier describes the move from a Victorian social code to, “the right of everybody and anybody to take whatever they can get without any responsibility for putting something back in the pot.”  Noted psychologist Jean Twenge has also documented this growth in narcissism through studies going back to the 80s.  Her research has found that “two-thirds of current college students score above average on narcissism.”  That’s 30% more than in 1982.

Of course most people would agree that integrity is profitable and dishonesty is not, so what is the issue?  In his book Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller discusses the cost-benefit analysis that many people today apply to ethical dilemmas.  It’s easy to make an ethical decision when it’s in our favor to do so.  The rub comes in situations where an ethically questionable act proves to have a high reward and minimal risk of getting caught.  It’s in these moments when it is clearly not in our self-interest to do the “right” thing that it is critically important that we have an ethical compass to guide us.  Some turn to faith while others turn to a cause greater than themselves such as the Civil Rights Movement in my home state of Alabama.

I believe the triple threat of shareholder value maximization, the rise in narcissism and the lack of a common societal values system explains a lot as to why we’ve seen so many corporate scandals as of late.  The politicians cannot hope to fill the holes fast enough.

Photo Credit: Aimanness Photography

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