Wealth Shift: The Decline of Ethics in America
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Action Plan Item #1 - Revise Your Expectations

When people are told to revise their expectations they usually brace themselves for bad news. They think that by making this statement it means you want them to lower their expectations. Well, I plan to fool you. I don’t want you to lower you expectations, I want you to make a plan to change you expectations and be willing to risk following through with it to see what happens.

The expectation that has gotten this country into so much Wealth Shift trouble is the expectation that maximizing wealth – be it shareholder, executive, or worker – means to get as much cash and property as possible into the hands of the individual. The idea that mankind is best served by scattering wealth far and wide and letting everybody consume like locusts, may have resulted in us winning the short-term “Paradox of Thrift” battle, but losing the overall war. No one can argue that our focus on fueling consumption has fed us well over the past thirty years. Invention being the mother of all necessity, most people now possess tangible things they never even dreamed of before. We have houses and cars, computers and televisions – we can go anywhere and do just about anything we want to do. There is not much that can’t be had, nor all that much we haven’t had.

But the problem with all this consumption is twofold. The first problem is that we are spending too much of our wealth (and vital resources) on wasting assets. Assets that only work for a little while, or assets that are only the best for a little while. How frustrating it is to spend thousands of dollars on something you want and think is the best, only to realize two years later than what you bought then is crap now.

Between planned obsolescence and upgrading, what we all really need is a conveyor belt that runs from Best Buy to the junk yard, stopping temporarily at our homes along the way. In come the DVDs, out go the VHSs. In come the High Def DVDs, out go the regular DVDs. In come the Blue Ray DVDs, out got the High Def DVDs. Anyway, you get my point. What satisfies us one day dissatisfies us the next.

It is the same with virtually everything we can think of. One day we love our SUV, the next day we hate the gas-guzzling POS and can’t offload it because we owe more money on it than it is currently worth. One day we love our big screen TV, the next day we hate it because it isn’t HD. One day we love our computer, the next day we hate it because its processor is too slow. It’s the same thing with our internet connection. We spend money on cable and satellite and then scream at the TV when it pixelates or goes static. We end up hating our world and everyone in it for failing to make us things that work. Our “my-toy-is-cooler-than-your-toy” game of one-upsmanship is ultimately very dissatisfying because we have very little to show for all our hard work at the end of any given day. We end up old and in debt, surrounded by our old obsolete things.

The second problem with consumption is that all this spending hasn’t made us happy. You would think it would, but it hasn’t. Why not? What’s that all about? I’ll let you in on a little secret about mankind. Mankind is a perverse creature when it comes to acquiring things. We secretly love to want things we can’t have. The thing that looked so good in the store -the thing we just couldn’t live without - that thing, once we own it, no longer sparkles with the same luster. Our closets are filled with clothes, shoes and accessories we will never wear. Our kids have far more toys than they know what to do with, and our garages are filled with things we’ve forgotten we even own. Air-conditioned storage units are popping up like mushrooms all over the country as a testament to our greed and dissatisfaction. We may no longer want those things we put in storage right now, but who knows? We might want them again someday. And we certainly wouldn’t want to see someone else getting use out of them. (Have you ever seen two little kids playing in a room full of toys? There may be forty things in that room and the kids still end up fighting over a single toy.)

If all this consuming was actually making us happy, I probably wouldn’t have written this book. There would have been no point. Because for people to want to change, they have to be ready to change. They have to be fed up with what they are currently doing and want to do something different.

I think I could be perfectly happy for a while with Blue-Ray 1080p, movies over the internet, and a phone that does practically everything but socialize with other people for me. I’d love to have a little time to learn how to use and enjoy all the electronics and appliances that Apple, and Sony, and all the other highly innovative companies have invented my necessity for and then hypnotized me into wanting with their catchy little commercials. Although I have to admit it has been somewhat interesting to see how quickly we can progress through the various stages of consumer-driven technological advancement, maybe we really should pause for a while and regroup. Stop for a while to enjoy what we have, right here, right now, today.

What is “wealth” anyway? Who is “wealthy”? For years we’ve been trying to maximize wealth on an individual by individual basis and it’s led to a pretty dissatisfying life, if you ask me. It’s led to the pursuit of self-satisfaction, self-isolation and self-protection. We grab all we can for ourselves, lock ourselves and our “things” up behind our gated walls, and wonder, whenever someone we don’t know speaks to us, “What in the hell do you want from me?”

Is this greed, then, our wealth? Our legacy? If the pursuit of ethics is the pursuit of the good life; the satisfying life; the life worth living, then isn’t this a horrible indictment of us all? I, personally, have a fantasy of a different kind of wealthy society. One in which people reach for more than just “things” to find the satisfaction they are seeking. We’ve never really tried it on a grand scale before, but the idea has always intrigued me.

Not surprisingly, a lot of studies have been done on the subject of happiness. Universally they show that people receive lasting feelings of happiness, satisfaction and fulfillment from the following three pursuits:

1) Acquiring a good reputation

2) Doing things that help other people

3) Exercising creativity

Wow. Nowhere on the list is “spending money”! Nowhere on the list is “competing for money and the things money can buy”. And that’s because spending money and competing for money is only capable of providing temporary highs. They are double-edged swords. Strangely enough, spending money and competing for money oftentimes diminishes our reputation, something that is far more precious to us in the long run than acquiring stuff or beating someone else in a game can ever be.

To revise our expectations is to redefine our definition of “maximizing wealth” to add the concepts of “reputation”, “kindness”, and “creativity” to that of “pursuing money and monetary rewards”. I am not saying -and no one should think I’m saying -that we don’t need money at all. Of course we need money. We all need to make a living. But we need to start focusing on other things as well.

Our business leaders are the only people in this country who can help us make this change. They are the ones who are smart enough, and powerful enough, to bring everyone into line behind them. If they display ethics and kindness and creativity – if they make it “cool” to be ethical, kind, and creative – people everywhere will begin to do all sorts of ethical, kind and creative things.

Look at Oprah Winfrey. Sure Oprah has a few gorgeous houses, beautiful jewelry and plenty of money. But she also has a great reputation. She is known for her kindness and her mentorship of creative people (which is, in itself, creative). She is so self-actualized it is almost sickening. Her Angel Network and Big Give challenge to “Give Big or Go Home!” are helping to not only redefine talk TV, but also paving the way for others to Go First in their own lives and communities. Oprah -clever, smart, rich Oprah -is nobody’s patsy, or victim, or fool.

Look at Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Anyone who thinks those two are competing needs to catch on to the fact that neither one is playing the game anymore. Instead, they have turned their attention to a new game. Their current game is “How can we get the most charitable bang for our buck from the wealth which we have accumulated?” Sure, they still have everything they could possibly want in terms of material possessions and they still participate in the business world, but they own their things, their things don’t own them.

Look at the way Apple enhances its reputation by taking the responsibility for recycling the very e-waste it produces. Look at S. C. Johnson and the money it spends to develop products and methods of production that minimizes its impact on the environment. Doesn’t it only make sense to care about the wake you leave behind? Where would we be if we fished the oceans clean, cut down all the trees, and grew crops until the land was no longer arable? Should a paper company only think about growing trees once all the existing trees are gone? When will we address the energy situation in this country? The health care situation? The social security problem? I know it’s an adrenalin rush to live life on the edge, but can we honestly say we’re happy living our lives in perpetual crisis management mode?

What if “maximizing wealth” doesn’t just mean getting money out and into the hands of the people? What if it also means taking the responsibility to centralize the process of spending money on things that people collectively need? Decentralizing the decision-making process is often the same thing as paralyzing the decision making process. Its our choice. Either companies are going to have to get together and start making important quality of life decisions for themselves, or the government will have no choice but to step in and make those decisions for us.

I am not an advocate of big government. But I am also not an advocate of neglecting important issues like health care, education, and the environment. I would much rather people adopt the concept of the company as a community and work together to solve the problems that each community faces and each community understands far better than the political big boys in Washington do. But if we abdicate that responsibility, can we honestly fault Washington for taking control, however ineptly?

We do need to revise our expectations of wealth and our definition of what it means to be “rich”. We need to “up” the communication in our organizations so that we all understand each other far better than we do right now. We need to ask for help and accommodation from everyone involved as we seek to forge a new and better reputation, establish kindness, and foster creativity within our companies. We need to redefine our community goals and establish good action plans for accomplishing those community goals. We need to bring ethics back. We need to replace punishment from above with accountability between people. We need to take the responsibility to teach and to mentor each other to achieve more than we believe possible. We need to hold other people to high standards, and ourselves to even higher ones.

“But wait,” you say. “We can’t afford to implement anything new right now! We’re hanging on by a thread as it is!”

B.S. We can do this. It won’t cost us wealth or cause us to “go without”. Wealth never leaves. It only shifts. Remember hats and spats? Where would we be now if the government had spent the past hundred years bailing out companies that make hats and spats? Change is hard, I’ll grant you that. But the world rewards people who embrace change and there’s no nation in the world more adaptable than America.

OK, so maybe in my fantasy world, we won’t be spending so much money on “things”. Maybe we’ll experience some growing pains. But that’s not to say we won’t be better off for it in the long run. We’ll still spend money, we’ll just spend it differently.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll make huge medical advancements for people who have cancer or spinal cord injuries. Maybe we’ll invent clean or conserving energy technologies. Maybe we’ll find new ways of mentoring and educating people of all ages. Maybe instead of only thinking about acquiring “things”, we’ll be able to muster our courage and elevate mankind to a “place” far better than the “place” we’re in now.

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