Revehen Hits the Nail on the Head

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Once in a while, I receive a message that hits me like a splash of cold water. And suddenly something complex becomes much clearer. For me, that message came via an email from an old family friend, the Rev. Verne Henderson. The complex thing was the country’s economic crisis.

Revehen, as he’s long been known, has spent a lot of time thinking about ethics, as a pastor, professor, and as a management consultant. He lives back in Boston these days. He’s among the wisest and most thoughtful people I know.

He’s a big reader too, and had been poring over the oceans of commentary about the economic crisis, reading all the suggestions from smart people. On a recent Sunday, he read several articles in the New York Times from economists offering their ideas about what Obama should do.  What struck him was that all of the pieces focused on finances. Not one reckoned with the fundamentals of the crisis, which have to do with failures of people — from business executive to home buyers — to live by proper values.

Revehen wrote of the New York Times ideas: "No one mentioned that we might need to focus on something other than money, namely good products or good services. Not one suggested that CEO’s should go on a $1 per year salary until mess is all cleaned up and establish trust. Not one questioned the notion that top executives can only be motivated by money/salary. Not one referenced ‘the ethical side of enterprise’ in other words."

I’d go even further than Revehen. The business community — in a variety of industries and especially its leadership — has failed, both ethically and practically as a matter of public relations. Few leaders of institutions or business have accepted responsibility for their failures. There have been very few apologies. Instead, there has been a constant public demand for more money.

I suspect the inability of business leaders who are now seeking bailouts to own up to their mistakes is at the root of the growing public opposition to what may well be necessary measures to prop up the economy. The financial industry, automakers and other failing businesses need to follow the advice that every politician in trouble receives. Own up to your errors. And put the problem behind you.  

But this hasn’t happened — and that absence of accountability is a sign of how profound our troubles are. It’s not accurate to call this merely a fiscal crisis or an economic crisis or a credit crisis. This is an ethical crisis, a moral crisis, and, at its roots, a cultural crisis.  Until our leaders recognize that, there is no bailout that can save us.

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