How the Lack of Ethics Cripples Democracy, Reason #1: Ethical Leadership Is Neither Encouraged Nor Rewarded

 

How many elected leaders will be responsible when it means risking THIS?

Washington Post Metro columnist Robert McCartney relates the cautionary tale  of Fairfax (Va.) School Board member Liz Bradsher.  The school board, like others across the nation, was required to make some tough choices with its resources scarce and stretched to the breaking point.  The costs of renovating a high-achieving elementary school in the Fairfax County countryside  didn’t pass an objective, cost-benefit analysis, so the board voted to close it. Bradsher, whose district includes Clifton, the neighborhood served by the school, was expected to vigorously oppose the move.  But after studying the costs and enrollment forecasts, she reluctantly concluded that it made more sense to shutter the facility so the county could spend scarce renovation dollars where they would benefit more children.

She did what was best for the Fairfax community as a whole, which, as an elected official, is her duty. But rather than appreciating the courage it took to agree to close a beloved institution in her district for the greater good, she is being attacked. Anonymous postings on a popular local website have spread false rumors that she has a drinking problem and that her marriage is on the rocks. She is receiving threatening letters, and obscene e-mails.  

McCartney interviewed Clifton resident Erin Tengesdal, a local cafe owner and graduate of the elementary school who authored one of the most vicious of the signed e-mails Bradsher has received. Tengesdal’s  message attached the description “Liz Bradsher Hater” to  her name. “I’m just a constituent who felt I’d been wronged and who voiced that dissatisfaction with my right under freedom of speech,” she said, in response to his question about why she would be so abusive.

Abuse is not “voicing satisfaction.” Using insults and invective is a form of punishment, and expressing hate does not produce more responsive and responsible government. Public officials should not be punished and hated for doing the right thing, or trying to do the right thing. They should be held accountable and shamed when they act out of expediency, weakness, incompetence, selfishness, self-interest or cowardice.

A responsible public should seek more elected officials like Liz Bradsher;  instead, it drives them away. Bradsher has decided not to subject herself to more abuse for making hard choices responsibly and objectively; she is not running for re-election. Her place will probably be taken by someone who would have fought for the elementary school, even though budget realities made it an irresponsible use of scarce funds.

In a rational and efficient democracy, the public would elect representatives with character and courage, and in times of crisis trust them to make hard choices equitably with one primary objective: the best interests, long and short term, of the county, city, state or nation. It would admire and reward leaders who are willing to risk unpopularity to do what is necessary, and when decisions were made that require personal sacrifices in the quest for a better future for all, the public would accept those choices as part of the cost of being part of a mutually dependent society. In contrast, our culture is sinking in an attitude that rejects sacrifice, and embraces the toxic concept that whatever is ours is inherently more important that anything belonging to someone else.

The treatment of Liz Bradsher in Fairfax County is just a fractal of what we see in the tantrums being thrown by Social Security and Medicare recipients, who know these programs are unsustainable yet who lean on cowardly leaders to behave as if they are not. It is mirrored in the public union protests in Wisconsin, in the refusal of Tea Party members to accept the need for increased taxes, in protests over closing military bases or ending farm subsidies. If the public will not reward trustworthy and responsible leaders for making the hard choices, then it will only have weak and cowardly leaders who will make the popular choices, or refuse to make choices at all.

The fact that we are irresponsible is the reason we have irresponsible leaders. The solution is not more invective. The solution is changing our own selfish attitudes, and electing leaders who can be trusted, not to do what we want, but to do what we need.

8 thoughts on “How the Lack of Ethics Cripples Democracy, Reason #1: Ethical Leadership Is Neither Encouraged Nor Rewarded

  1. Public schools have become empty palaces with no one to teach in them.
    (Don’t get me started on New York City, which, by its unions, pays in full teachers who knit all day in a warehouse because “they’re not fit for the classroom!” Still, unions won’t let them be fired…)

    Is there any argument at all to justify why the US is falling so far behind in the technological race, and is more a consumer and borrower than a world intellectual, producer of goods, and a financial leader?

    Hate to say this, but the private high schools are training the leaders of tomorrow. And god, we will need them! Elitism be damned…

  2. in the refusal of Tea Party members to accept the need for increased taxes

    The reason Tea Partiers oppose increased taxes is because they have reason to believe it is not necessary.

    If absolute spending were reduced to 2004 levels (a time when the
    war in Iraq was very much hot), there would be a projected surplus
    this year.

    If spending were reduced to the product of the 2004 levels times the population growth rate between then and now, there would be a projected surplus this year.

    If spending per GDP were reduced to 2004 levels, the projected
    budget deficit would be two hundred seventy six billion dollars, or
    about 1.8%.

    • At 14 trillion and growing, the debt is still too big to be sustainable, even if the budget had a surplus for a 100 years. The tax level would be fine, if the outrageous, irresponsible spending hadn’t gone on for so long, reaching current levels. It is really untenable to argue that the debt—not the deficit, but the debt—can be addressed responsibly without raising taxes.

      And that doesn’t even address the crucial philosophical and political problems, potentially devastating to the national bonds of trust, entailed when you cut crucial social programs for the most vulnerable in America while appearing to require no sacrifices at all from the most secure and wealthy. For that reason alone–the appearance and reality of shared sacrifice, they are “needed.”

      • And that doesn’t even address the crucial philosophical and political problems, potentially devastating to the national bonds of trust, entailed when you cut crucial social programs for the most vulnerable in America while appearing to require no sacrifices at all from the most secure and wealthy

        Which is why I explained what the deficit/surplus would be if spending per GDP and per capita were reduced to 2004 levels.

        In 2004, spending per capita was $7828.32. Recycling this spending per capita this year would result in an expected budget surplus.I fail to see how crucial social programs for the most vulnerable in America were adequate in 2004, but would be inadequate today if spending were merely reduced to $7828.32 per capita, or even $8000 per capita (which would still leave an expected budget surplus of about one hundred billion dollars). In fact, because the war in Iraq is not hot today as it was in 2004, there would be more money for social programs today than then, if spending per capita were reduced to $8000.

  3. Focus, please, Michael: DEBT, not deficit.

    How much money needs to be spent on the debt? What else, aside froim a budget surplus, is needed to pay down the debt?

    Not to mention the fact that political realities count. Significant cuts without some tax increases will not fly.

    It depends on which slogans are used to “sell” the cuts.

    If the budget was cut to $8000 per capita, then that is still higher than what it was per capita in 2004. A simple slogan would be, “Still more money than in 2004”, with the 2004 budget figures and the proposed budget figures in the fine print. Another slogan would be, “If you got by with 2004 spending levels, you can get by under this budget cut”

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