Taking Responsibility — The Washington Way
Vice-President Cheney recently took full responsibility for accidentally shooting a hunting companion. Michael Chertoff, head of Homeland Security, took full responsibility for his department1s Katrina missteps. Over the years, pronouncements such as these by prominent politicians have become commonplace in the wake of failures, oversights, and assorted misdeeds that were initially ignored or actually denied.
But there’s something rather curious about this “taking responsibility” gambit inside the Beltway. It’s become a closer, not a starting point. It’s not the prelude to a resignation, a firing, or a promise to step aside at the next election. And It’s certainly not the beginning of a penance that might include giving away the responsible party’s worldly wealth or doing social work among Guatemalan lepers.
Rather, “taking responsibility” in the rarefied realms of political Washington is currently deemed a sufficient penance and punishment in and of itself. Once an official has come forward and taken responsibility, it’s the Beltway view that it’s incumbent on everyone else to forgive and forget, and cheerfully move on to the next scandal.
Some people find this quick and easy approach to ameliorating wrongdoing, this universal balm for incompetence, an unacceptable cop out. I did, too, at first, but have since come to see it as something else. Inspiring. So inspiring, in fact, that I decided to try and work it into my own approach to problem solving.
Of late I’ve run into credit card difficulties. More specifically, I crossed that invisible line that separates the time when credit cards are an endless source of acquisitional joy, from the time when repayment of old card debt contracts joy in far too many ways. To end these difficulties, I decided to come clean with my lenders and take full responsibility for the card debt I’d incurred.
I called the bank that issued the card which carried my largest balance. “I take full responsibility for the debt,” I told the representative to whom I was connected.
“So,” she replied?
“So now I don’t have to pay you,” I countered.
She called her supervisor. “Can I help you,” he asked?
I explained that I was taking full responsibility for my card debt, and having done so, it was time to move on with a clean slate. I added that I didn’t expect to be praised for my courage for taking full responsibility, because this is simply the way I was raised. Claiming that someone else made me do it, or the debt wasn’t really as large as the bank said it was, or that the bank’s own interest and fee policies were at fault, was not an excuse I considered proper. No. I would take full responsibility for the debt. Now it was time for the bank to step up and take the debt off its books.
To my astonishment, the chap on the other end of the line didn’t thank me for my honesty. Nor did he tell me that he’d made similar errors in the past and knew that none of us are perfec–the phone equivalent of a hug. Even more astonishing, he didn’t say the bank would forgive what I owed. Indeed, he went on to stat–and for his sake I’m embarrassed to have to recount this–that if continued regular payments from me were not received, collection, and perhaps even legal actions, would result.
And there you have it. The difference, clear and unmistakable, between the morality of our present crop of Washington officials, and the morality of those who presently control the American banking system.
The Beltway crowd is essentially animated by Judeo-Christian ideals. On an annual day of atonement, through the confessional, or via a rite of baptism, western religion allows people to be washed clean of old sins and start anew. The Beltway version of this cleansing ritual involves taking full responsibility. The Beltway crowd, in other words, has opted to be judged by God’s Law.
The banking crowd, however, is still animated by commercial law. They are eye-for-an-eye people, with an eyebrow thrown in. Your hired the money, you pay it back–with interest. That’s their credo.
One can only hope that the Beltway approach to these matters ultimately triumphs and is applied to society as a whole. Life is tough enough without making people pay the price of their past deficient behaviors.
Be honest. Wouldn’t you rather keep a job you’re unqualified to hold, beat jail time or a fine for a crime you committed, ooze out of debt that you actually incurred, with just a simple “I take full responsibility,” than lose the job, do the time, or repay the money?
Officials in Washington are showing the way, exhibiting leadership at the cutting edge. We’d be fools not to follow their example.
Mike Silverstein is on the board of advisors of the Silverwood Institute. He has written a dozen books on a variety of financial and political subjects, founded the Environmental Economics consulting group and served as its first CEO, and been a featured poet on National Public Radio.