A long time ago, someone gave me what I think was the best advice I have ever received regarding teaching. It was as follows. If one student doesn’t understand you, it is that student’s fault, but if several students don’t understand you, it is your fault. Looking at that bit of wisdom always makes me hark back to my first day of teaching, when, after lecturing for fifteen minutes with my back to the class, I turned around to see pretty much every student in the class staring at me with his or her mouth open. Thanks to this principle, I was able to send the class home and promise to do much, much better next time.
Over the years, I have come to realize that there is a far wider application for this brilliant observation than just teaching. In particular, it has a very specific application to governance. If you are truly a citizen of the United States, then you operate on the principle that government is meant to serve the people by maintaining equality and protecting the inalienable rights of every human being. By “government”, we in the United States mean “we the people”, served by representatives. Thus the term “representative democracy.” So a government fails, and, by implication, we all fail, because, as members of this nation, we are each responsible for maintaining that equality and those rights.
We cannot, of course, eradicate inequality and the violation of rights. There will always be those who will game the system or ignore or trample on the rights of others. What we can do, however, is be vigilant to see where major and continuing violations of those rights occur and address the issues that are creating or allowing those violations. To put that in terms of the above aphorism, if one, or a very few, people, suffer a violation of their rights, it is the fault of the offenders. If, on the other hand, there is a widespread injustice, we as citizens of the United States are failing and need to do whatever we can to reduce or eliminate that injustice.
So, let us apply the principle. There is always crime in America, as in any population. There is always drug and alcohol abuse. There are always murders. If, however, drug abuse and murder escalates, then we need to look to ourselves to see if we are somehow failing as a community. Likewise, if there is some fringe group of non-Americans who do not like us, that is their problem. If, however, large segments of the world population express profound hatred of our governmental or business activities, then we need to see if we are in fact violating the rights of those populations.
Unfortunately, a great deal of this is true today. Crime in general, and murder in particular, is rising drastically across the nation. Drug abuse has skyrocketed, particularly with heroin. And in large populations in the world, America is looked upon as a country that routinely violates people’s rights and uses devious business practices purely for profit.
What do we do about it? Well, I can certainly hear the voice of those who say that we should do nothing, that whatever America does is okay, that it is in fact disloyal or even treasonous to suggest that we are to blame or that we have done anything illegal or immoral as a nation. Such talk is at best naive and at worst disingenuous. We are draining the American population of its wealth and opportunity and handing it over to superwealthy few. We are in desperate need of funds to adequately — and justifiably — run this country. Our roads are a mess, our schools are being drained of money, our health system is sucking us dry. People are despairing, and, when they despair, they do things that add to the damage.
We have, for far too many years now, reduced our tax income and then paid for the deficit by eliminating the basic benefits that our government was created to supply. The myth that reducing taxes would somehow be of benefit to us all has been exploded in a sea of violence and misery. We have, in sum, substituted private gain for public rights, and either we will end that failed policy or it will end by itself, violently.


     Some years ago, a relative of mine who is a highly placed investment banker told me of a visit he made to a Japanese corporation as a part of work he was doing to put together a merger of several companies.  He was allowed to sit in on a meeting of the corporation’s board of directors, and he was stunned to hear them discussing the ongoing success of their one-hundred-year plan.  “Here I am,” he said, “being pounded on all sides to concern myself with the next quarter, and these guys are concentrating on the next century! I farily ran back to my firm and told them we had a few things to learn from the Japanese.”

     Apparently the lessons went unheeded.  There is virtually unanimous agreement among reputable scientists that, if we continue to pollute the environment at our present rate, our world population will face freakishly miserable consequences.  A huge chunk of Florida will be under water.  A goodly part of Manhattan will disappear.  A huge slice of the United States will be unihabitably hot.  Farm fields will be rendered worthless.  Globally, whole islands will disappear, and huge and densely populated parts of India and southeast Asia will be gone.

     This is, absent the cooperation of nations on immediate long-term thinking, planning and execution, guaranteed:  the world we leave to the next generation will be a decidedly worse place to live.  In response, however, those opposed announce that taking that action will adversely affect their bottom line.  We will have to pay for all of this pollution abatement, they say, and it will be expensive, and jobs will be lost, and, of course, the bottom line of fossil-fuel producers will be lessened.

     Well, as youngsters like to say today, Duh!  Right.  Cleaning up the mess we have made will cost us.  Had we all along acted in the long term interests of the country and the world, the problem would not exist.  It does exist, and now we have to pay for it.  More importantly, however, we have to stop making our decisions based upon the next quarter.  Business has to stop defining itself by profit alone and start realizing that, before it is a money machine, it is a vehicle functioning in a community, and it owes that community conduct in accord with that community’s best interests.

     Here is a way to grasp the importance of long-term thinking.  Talk to those who will have to pay for your abuses.  Sit your ten-year-old child or grandchild down and tell her or him the truth.  Say, “Jenny, my company is polluting the atmosphere, and there are steps that we could take now to correct that abuse.  However, it would hurt our bottom line for next quarter, so instead we are going to fight for the right [right!?!?] to continue to pollute, and we are going to let you pay for it in the future.”

     You are never going to have that conversation, because it is so absurdly inhumane and irresponsible.  If you are resisting pollution control now, for any reason, that, is, however, exactly what you are telling those children.

     Bottom line:  Business is every bit as much a moral activity as it is a profit making activity.  You owe those kids much more than you owe your shareholders.  Take that, Carl Icahn.