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The Decline of Personal Responsibility

I was talking to a friend of mine last weekend and he was telling me about the tough year he just had in 2010.  He’s an Accountant and he spent most of last year unemployed.  But, he made all of his mortgage payments on time, out of his personal savings.  And, he was current with all of his bills.

He seemed pretty bitter that others were mooching off of entitlements and strategically defaulting on their mortgages, while he had done the responsible thing and paid all of his bills.  He told me others are being rewarded for their recklessness and he felt like he was punished for being responsible.

What Happened to People?

Pregnant Smoker

Image by Malias

I’m not sure when it started to become acceptable to lie, cheat and steal in America.  When I was growing up, if someone was dishonest, everyone knew it and looked down on them.  People were ashamed to have personal debt and they rarely defaulted.  People stood by their word and fulfilled their obligations, unless it was impossible to do so.

Things are very different today.  People are almost proud when they describe how they walk away from their debts.  I know a lady who declares bankruptcy every seven years, like clockwork.  And, she brags about it, like its some brilliant financial strategy.  I have three friends who have strategically defaulted in the past two years, because home ownership didn’t work out like they had planned.

I often wonder what has caused so many in America to lose their conscience and abandon their morals.  I wonder how they justify the deceit and if they are worried about the example they set.  Most important, I wonder how far this trend will go and what the consequences will be for future generations of Americans.

What Happened to our Institutions?

There were over a million foreclosures in 2010 and there are projected to be another 1.2 million foreclosures in 2011.  This is not a problem caused entirely by borrowers.  In my opinion, banks deserve the lion’s share of the blame.  Not only did they lend people money they couldn’t afford to pay back, they created escalating loan terms that had the effect of bankrupting homeowners.  Banks refused to modify loans as they promised Congress then used robo-signers to illegally expedite waves of foreclosures.

Companies have lost their moral compass, in search of higher profits.  They have no loyalty or compassion towards employees, investors, suppliers or customers.  The sacred bottom line is used to justify any manner of devious activity, including tax evasion and fraudulent accounting.  Even churches and charities are engaging in behavior that is questionable.  Recent high-profile bankruptcies have pulled back the curtain on a couple of failed mega-churches and the result is a trail of waste, mismanagement and nepotism that rivals a third-world country.

The ultimate disappointment to me is our government.  It’s not like citizens expect a high level of integrity from our government.  It’s that our elected officials seem to sink to a new moral low each and every year.  Their lack of shame is as boundless as the problems they are creating.  In a delusional attempt to protect citizens from themselves, the government is undermining the very fabric that made our country great in the first place.  The American Dream was once a shining promise of opportunity.  That has been replaced by a gluttonous sense of entitlement.

Responsibility Does Pay Off

Despite the ever-declining sense of responsibility from some people, I’m not one to despair.  I learned quite a while ago to only worry about the things I can control and to let the other things go.  I can’t control the thoughts or actions of others, but I can control my own thoughts and actions.  I choose to continue to be responsible, even if it costs me some time or money.  The reason I have made this conscious choice is because I believe it benefits me.

First, I have recognized that most irresponsible people don’t get ahead.  Despite the small gains they make by taking shortcuts, they don’t have a big-picture plan that leads to wealth or accomplishment.  Like for example, my friend who declares bankruptcy.  She may have gotten out from under hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, but she is closing in on 50 and owns nothing.  When she retires in 15 years, she is going to be in a world of hurt.

Second, I realize most of the big opportunities have come my way because of my character and integrity.  Being an IT Manager, I am in the trust business.  If my company couldn’t trust me with their files, passwords and other sensitive information, I wouldn’t have a job.  On the other hand, one never knows when a lack of trust costs them an opportunity.  Employers routinely screen out candidates with bad credit or bankruptcies.  Success for the responsible is usually permanent and lasting, because honesty never unravels, like deceit.

Finally, I have recognized a strong correlation between my integrity and my happiness.  I have watched the gleeful looks of those who take advantage of others and it pales in comparison to the lasting feeling of pride from self-accomplishment.  Dishonesty breeds selfishness, mistrust and paranoia, while honesty facilitates confidence, contentment and camaraderie.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that getting something for nothing is an illusion.  Status and trinkets that can be gained by dishonest behavior, but they come at a very high price in the loss of integrity.  The value of integrity is unlimited, because it underlies all of the greatest achievements of mankind.

“When you count on yourself, you are seldom disappointed.” 

Bret - Hope to Prosper 

Recommended Reading

Invest it Wisely - Self Control in an Age of Excess
Magical Penny - You are not in Control of your Wallet
Go Banking Rates - Bank of America and its Mortgage Settlements

This post was featured on the Carnival of Personal Finance over at Living Richly on a Budget. If you aren’t familiar with the Carnival of Personal Finance, you need to check it out. It’s the greatest carnival on the net.

14 comments to The Decline of Personal Responsibility

  • Hi Bret, I also mourn the decline of personal responsibility. You are right that your friend who cyclically declares bankruptcy has probably missed out on job opportunities and will be dependent on Social Security eventually, which will probably buy a bag of groceries if the Federal Reserve continues on the inflation path. No matter what others do, I will still be saving and reducing debt.

    On the other hand, I have encouraged people to default on their mortgage and I see no conflict with that. The terms of the contract say that the bank gets the house back if you don’t pay. If the house is worth much less than the mortgage, that was the bank’s bad decision. As you point out, banks should get the majority of the blame for the housing mess. More than a “promise” to a bank, the moral thing is to not shoulder their families with a burdensome amount of debt for decades to pay 2-3 times the price for something that wasn’t worth it in the first place. After all, the banks are getting bailed out with our taxpayer money for their bad decisions.
    Jennifer Barry recently posted..8 Life Lessons from Ruby- Age 94My Profile

    • Jennifer,

      I have mixed feelings on strategic default. Two of the people I know who defaulted made an honest effort to work with the banks. But, since the banks already got bailout guarantees, they weren’t interested in modifying the loan terms. And, the loan terms were something close to criminal.

      The other people I know who defaulted either paid way too much for their house or they sucked a bunch of equity out in refis and then they were just over it. I hope they learned a lesson from these poor financial decisions or else they may have a tough time in the future.

  • Firstly, I love that you quoted yourself :)

    Secondly, I enjoyed your article and agree with you about the power of integrity. That said, I don’t think there ever was a golden age and challenge your assumption that today has more people being dishonest or selfish. Perhaps we’re just more aware of it in a more open and information-centric world.

    It’s a great topic to consider though, and as with many things we should be the change we want to see in the world.

    Finally, thanks for the link to Magical Penny in the recommended reading after this post -I’m glad you enjoyed it enough to share.

    Adam
    Adam recently posted..You Are Not In Control Of Your WalletMy Profile

    • Adam,

      Thanks for stopping by.

      This is the first time I have quoted myself and I was nervous about it. But, this is a little affirmation I have used for many years and I felt it was appropriate for this post. I promise you I won’t start talking about myself in the third-person or anything like that.

      You are a little bit younger than me, so I am going to pull the age card on you. During the ’60s and ’70s there was definitely a sense of the greater good that has declined. People valued their integrity and were considerably less selfish. There were selfish and dishonest people, but they were rarer than today and looked down upon by the majority.

      Since this was before your time, you can listen to the music or research the pop culture and it is evident. The movies and television shows from this period are also a good reference. This isn’t just my opinion. Most people my age and older will agree with me.

  • That picture is priceless… doesn’t look like she’s standing outside of Wal-Mart though.

    I think all we can really do is look within to find happiness and accept the world for what it is.
    Ryan recently posted..Roth IRA vs Traditional IRAMy Profile

    • Ryan,

      When I searched Flickr with the word irresponsible, this is the second picture that came up. I usually look through a lot of photos before I settle on one. But, I knew this was the right picture immediately.

  • “In a delusional attempt to protect citizens from themselves, the government is undermining the very fabric that made our country great in the first place. ”

    I think that this line hits home. We are somewhat responsible for endorsing the system, but it is the system to blame. Humans are very adaptable and adjust to the incentives around them. If the incentives reward lying, cheating, and stealing, then lying, cheating, and stealing is what most people will do. There have been social experiments that have shown that even “good” people are capable of being brutal, under the right circumstances. History has also proven the same.

    If we want a honest, moral, and good society, we need honest, moral and good people. To get honest, moral, and good people, we need a system of laws and incentives that will encourage good behavior and disincentivize bad behavior.

    Make it easy for people to do the right thing, and they will do the right thing. Stacking the deck with a myriad of rules & regulations and creating a system of perverse incentives that reward those who game and screw the system isn’t the way to do it.

    I believe that a system of fair and honest property rights and laws to enforce these rights and punish those who set out to rob and deceive others, as well as freedom and liberty and laws to preserve them is the way to go.

    P.S. Thanks for the mention!
    Invest It Wisely recently posted..Our First Home TogetherMy Profile

    • Kevin,

      Your comment is right on the money.

      I was going to include a paragraph about the corruption of our legal system by unscrupulous lawyers and the corruption of our political system by big money concerns, but that would have quickly turned into a rant.

      I think there are still a lot of people who want to do the right thing, even though the system has some issues. One group that comes to mind is the TEA Party. Even though I’m not a member, I respect their audacity and tenacity. And, they are starting to bring about change. It will be interesting to see what they can accomplish.

  • Bret,

    That picture fits the article well. I laughed at first, then thought “nah, that’s not cool what she’s doing. Poor kid”. That scene actually more common than most of us probably want to think.

    It’s always best to behave with integrity. Follow through on your commitments, treat others how you want to be treated, and be fair. Shortcuts may yield short-term payoffs, but will likely result in long-term pain. Actions generally do have consequences. And not just bad ones, but thankfully, good ones too.

    I’m with you on this for sure – there’s something to be said for personal responsibility, and we’re seeing less of it in many ways. I hope my kids end up with some of these old-school values :)
    Squirrelers recently posted..Gender Equality and Opportunities for Girls TodayMy Profile

    • Wise Squirrel,

      One of the biggest disappointments in my lifetime is the increased level of selfishness. Maybe, I’m just nostalgic, because I was born in the 60s. But, people definitely cared more about their fellow man.

      This picture illustrates this concept beautifully. The defiant look on her face makes it obvious that she doesn’t care about her unborn child or what anyone else thinks. All she cares about is what she wants. I feel very sorry for her future child and not just because of the prenatal smoking. This child is going to have a selfish parent and a poor role model.

      Your children are fortunate that they are being raised with old-school values. I was blessed with great parenting and that has helped me in so many ways.

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