Americans Looking for Real Political, Economic Change
Papal Encyclial Offers Roadmap to Markets With a Moral Compass
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By Carl Anderson
NEW HAVEN, Connecticut, FEB. 1, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Americans continue to see the country heading in the wrong direction.
During 2008, President Barack Obama clearly perceived this mood and brilliantly seized the day with the campaign slogan "Change We Can Believe In." Now, a year into his presidency, Washington appears incapable of delivering, and Americans are increasingly losing confidence in government.
A recent Knights of Columbus/Marist poll found that while Obama has overall approval from a majority of the American people, nearly six in 10 have lost confidence in Washington's ability to handle the economic crisis.
In addition, 55% say that increased government regulation will only hurt the economy further.
But while the American people don't support more regulation and lack confidence in government's response to the economy, they are hardly giving Wall Street a pass.
In fact, even more people are unhappy with greed in the business community.
It will not be enough for business to simply oppose greater government regulation since most Americans don't want runaway regulation by the government, for by even wider margins they don't trust business leaders.
Some 81% of Americans believe that business leaders have a different set of ethical standards for work and their personal lives. And 75% say that's not right.
The public is looking for change from the business and financial communities.
People want a higher standard and stronger commitment to ethics in business.
This feeling of the American people can’t be dismissed as angry populism. Rather, Americans are insisting on a free market with rules that make sense. They see -- and rightly so -- that a moral compass is the essential foundational of free markets.
As Americans do in their own lives, they expect the market to value such standards as honesty, fair play and concern for one's neighbor. That has always been the best of the "American way," and that is the only way business leaders can rebuild their relationship with the American people.
Are today's corporate executives capable of delivering a free market version of "change we can believe in?"
Interestingly, in 1985, Benedict XVI -- then Cardinal Ratzinger -- warned of the consequences of a system that removed itself from its moral foundation. He said: "It is becoming an increasingly obvious fact of economic history that the development of economic systems which concentrate on the common good depends on a determinate ethical system, which in turn can be born and sustained only by strong religious convictions. Conversely, it has also become obvious that the decline of such discipline can actually cause the laws of the market to collapse."
We have seen ethics separated from the market, and we have seen the market collapse under the weight of greedy and selfish investment practices. The question is, can we achieve an ethical market system?
Last year, in a previous Knights of Columbus/Marist poll, we found that three-quarters of Americans and 94% of executives believed that a business could be ethical and successful. What is required is for that overwhelming majority to embrace moral decision-making.
If corporate executives are willing to step up their ethical standards, then they can provide the American people with a real alternative to government regulation -- which has shown itself unable to solve one crisis, let alone prevent the next one.
But if they won’t clean up their own houses, business leaders will leave Americans with the forced choice of tolerating sleight of hand on Wall Street or a heavy hand from Washington.
Little wonder that in addition to being pessimistic about the government’s prospects for solving the economic crisis, a majority of Americans see the crisis affecting them personally. In our poll, 55% said that their careers are likely to be negatively impacted by today’s economic environment.
With the majority of Americans believing they will be negatively impacted by the crisis, this is not a problem that will go away on its own.
On Main Street, there is disappointment -- and opposition -- to both government regulation and corporate greed -- neither of which can solve the moral bankruptcy of those who have divorced ethics from the economy.
Until the American people see change they can believe in from both Washington and Wall Street, until they see business decisions made on a moral basis, the crisis in confidence among American workers and consumers will continue, and that bodes badly for all of us.
But there is hope. Indeed, for Catholics who are business owners, executives, investors and consumers, we must realize that our own lack of action -- or lack of public action -- is contributing to the silence surrounding the moral dimensions of the economic crisis.
We might say, with Shakespeare: "The fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves," and once we realize that, we can realize too that this situation can be overcome.
Benedict XVI has given us a great roadmap for a future that includes ethics in its economics. For years, and especially in his most recent encyclical "Caritas in Veritate," he has shown us the way to a future in which ethics are at the center of the economy, not on the sidelines.
So we must -- by our example -- awaken the 75% of Americans and 94% of executives who believe money can be made ethically. With that sort of majority, it shouldn’t be difficult to make a real difference in the way business is done.
It's the sort of change three quarters of the country already believes in, and it could change the world into a better place for all of us.
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Carl Anderson is the supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus and a New York Times bestselling author.