Thursday, October 2, 2008

Wall Street needs small-business principles, ethics


Shock waves from America's Wall Street crisis unleashed a virtual economic earthquake in the world's money markets. While we don't fully know the impact yet on Main Street, not even the smartest experts seem to have a handle on how bad it will get or how long it will take us to recover from these dark days.

As the analyses continue, it is clear that big business and national political leaders share mammoth culpability for what is surely a man-made disaster. And a tight presidential race now becomes more turned by the misfortunes of a national economy in shambles.

In the end, we are likely to learn that our national leaders in business and politics have hurt us all by their own stunning deficit in the principles, ethics and integrity that are abundant among hardworking American families and the millions of small businesses that employ them.

How did the national powers go so wrong when, in every town, small businesses and citizens readily reflect the good values that have perilously disappeared in too many major institutions?

Record single-day losses in the stock market cut trillion-dollar holes in the savings and retirements funds of everyday people. As political and economic leaders bicker and blame each other instead of solving the problem, their disunity ensures one outcome: Our citizens/financial victims have become political victims, too.

It's twisted and ironic that iconic financial giants collapse under the weight of bad debt as ordinary citizens and small businesses continue the noble daily struggle of going to work, paying their bills, caring for their families and making proverbial ends meet.

All the while, the average American wonders: How could this happen, who is responsible, and can it be fixed?

The answers to those and other most disturbing questions will likely be pondered and debated by historians for decades. But unlike America's Great Depression — etched in time as a monumental crisis endured and overcome by a nation made stronger by the experience — there is no such confidence today.

Americans are justified in feeling downcast about this topical depression, because the leadership in Washington and the captains of industry don't inspire confidence about having the ability to right the battered financial ship of the United States.

If there were a deeper commitment at the national level to the honest values that live in modern America's small businesses, we might not be in any crisis at all.

Honesty, responsibility and commitment to doing the right thing are the basic values that are the daily guideposts for small businesses throughout our country. Ordinary as those values seem, today's crisis shows just how extraordinary they have become.

In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education published a dramatic condemnation about major shortcomings in America's public education system. The report's most notable and quotable passage suggested that "if an unfriendly foreign power had imposed our schools upon us, we would have regarded it as an act of war."

Similarly, if a foreign entity had unleashed an economic crisis on the U.S. of this magnitude, it would surely be considered an act of war. But we know, sadly, the enemy is within for this crisis.

No matter the solutions — bailouts, buyouts, mergers, government controls at unprecedented levels — citizen confidence in our national government and big business is undermined and lowered beyond immediate repair. When such a basic trust is broken at this level, it may take a generation or more to repair.

Whatever instruments are applied to resolving the crisis, one sure way out of it would be to require a return to the core principles that made our democracy and economy great. For any mega-CEO or national politico who needs to see what that looks like, visit a small business in Tallahassee, Toledo, Taos — or anyplace else in the country — and learn from the real experts.

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