Reflection 34: Triumphal Business and the Demise of Checks and Balances

In the early 1980s, I was an attorney deeply immersed in the EPIC bankruptcy.

Here’s what happened: A smart promoter bought undervalued model homes in housing developments, mortgaged them, and sold the mortgages in bulk to Savings and Loans, then the country’s prime originators of mortgages. The S&Ls loved his product. Instead of accumulating mortgages one by one, they could now close 50 or 100 in an afternoon.

The problem with this plan? Since the mortgages were immediately resold, the promoter had no financial stake in how the loans actually performed. And because his product was so popular, keeping up with demand became a huge challenge. So, before long, he was selling junk – loans secured by mortgages far in excess of the underlying properties’ values. But the S&Ls didn’t care. EPIC was, after all, a “hot” company, run by a “genius” and potential losses, if any, were years down the road. In addition, since “everyone was doing it,” the pressure was on not to be left behind – leaving other S&Ls to report this impressive growth on their financial statements.

If all of this sounds familiar, it should. Back in the 1980s, the S&L crisis – of which EPIC was a part – was a very big deal; a bail out that ultimately cost hundreds of billions of dollars. But we learned nothing. 25 years later, the exact same thing happened again. Promoters – making obscene amounts of money from front-end fees, and having no stake in the quality of the underlying product – became the prime drivers of the mortgage industry. Only this time, the promoters included the country’s largest investment banking firms and when the bubble burst, in 2008, it froze up the world’s financial system, shaking it to the core. This time, the losses were in the trillions.

And the trend continues. Very little by way of structural reform has come out of the 2008 housing crisis, and no effort has been made to hold the Goldman, Sachs’ of the world – or their senior executives – criminally accountable. Is any reasonably sober observer willing to bet it won’t happen again?


The essence of political power is the ability to aggregate large amounts of money and to command large numbers of people to do your bidding. At the time of the founding fathers, the primary, taken-for-granted source of this sort of power was governmental. Thus, they structured a system, based on separation of powers and checks and balances, to prevent excessive governmental power from flowing into the hands of one or a small group of people.

Given their focus on governmental power, the system has worked well. For over 200 years we have avoided a dangerous accumulation of power in the hands of a President, Congress, or (less plausibly) the courts. But that system was crafted in a very different world.

Since then, and especially in the last 50 years, technological advances have created a revolution in communications and in our ability to analyze and manage vast amounts of complex material. That, in turn, has created hitherto unimaginable opportunities for businesses to shift enormous sums of money from one investment to another with extraordinary speed, and to create and keep track of ever more intricate and far-flung investment strategies.

As a result, the possibilities for accumulating wealth, by managing money, have exploded. Today’s most visible moguls – exemplified by Warren Buffett and Goldman Sachs – focus, not on production and profitability, but on investment strategy and rate of return. They move seamlessly into and out of industries based solely on return; aggressively investing in the mortgage business at the height of the bubble, moving on – to new markets and new opportunities – when it burst.

Given these new realities, businesses can now marshal the tools of power to an extent that would have been unthinkable to the founding fathers. So, while arbitrary and destructive governmental power is still a threat, it is no longer the sole source of danger.


Through the use of its now, almost unimaginably large aggregations of capital, the business sector has, in the last half century, greatly expanded its power over our lives. How has it done this? Not through coercion – the traditional way in which government exercises its power – but by buying off virtually every segment of society that could meaningfully limit its power.

The most visible example is, of course, government. While there is a clear philosophical divide between the two major parties, the deeper reality is that they are both fueled by business contributions.

So, on the really make or break issues – such as meaningful regulation of business – the real divide is between largely symbolic programs, the Democratic approach, and no regulation at all. And, lest pressure for change come from other sources, our culture is organized so that almost every college, media outlet, and religious organization of any size is heavily dependent on investments, loans, and/or contributions from businesses and people who business made wealthy.

As one of my law professors noted, “business is not vicious, it’s just avaricious.” But the fact that its goals are not explicitly immoral does not mean that its actions are benign. Business’ priority – pursued with singular focus – is on policies that allow it to pursue its amoral goal of ever expanding profits with impunity: Tax breaks and public subsidies; programs that lead to lucrative government contracts; a weakening of any sort of regulatory control.

The result? The last 40 years has witnessed a steady reduction in support for social safety net programs, the better to fund tax savings that disproportionately favor businesses and the wealthy. It has also witnessed an historic cutting back, or outright repeal, of many of the system’s most important checks and balances on business, including:

  • Antitrust laws;
  • Usury laws (outlawing excessive interest rates);
  • Glass-Steagall (regulating banks/limiting opportunities for self-dealing);
  • Class action lawsuits;
  • Bankruptcy protection for individual debtors.

And, efforts are ongoing to similarly emasculate personal injury lawsuits, environmental laws, and programs that protect the rights of employees.

These policy shifts have caused incalculable harm:

  • The savings of millions have been devastated as banks demand repayment of debt only made possible, to begin with, by the exploitative, regulation free environment they worked so tirelessly to create.
  • Insurance companies – regulated in theory only – gouge customers for premiums and deny valid claims.
  • Credit card companies arbitrarily raise interest rates, on exemplary customers, to levels that a generation ago would have been subject to criminal and civil sanction.

The list of abuses goes on and on.

Note that, utterly failing to deal with this new power reality means that, as a culture, we are now living in a world where there is a complete disconnect between who we are and who we think we are. We continue to trumpet our system of governance as one of mankind’s great triumphs. And yet, we have allowed the very essence of that system – checks and balances to prevent the accumulation of undue power – to be totally gutted.


To me, the most important take away from this chilling state of affairs is that, while current, mainstream strategies for making things better – elections, lobbying for more enlightened laws, efforts of nonprofits and service organizations – are necessary and helpful, they are, in the end, inadequate.

A more robust response?

First, we need to reframe the problem, something I attempt to do, in part, in this Reflection.

In addition, we need to name, again and again, things that currently go unnamed, such as the complicity of media, the religious establishment, academia and, of course, both Democrats and Republicans.

Finally, we need to develop new strategies for change.

Where to start? By working to replace compete and win, dominate and control – the amoral values, predominant in business and the culture at large –– with a counter set of values that can systematically reorient our outlook and offer fresh perspectives on where and how to push for change.

This last goal is a primary motive force in the development of Radical Decency. In other Reflections, I discuss certain ideas that have emerged from a systematic thinking through of this approach, ideas that could be part of new, more effective change strategy:

  • Building a counter-model of business based on Radical Decency (Reflection #15 Social Justice – Focusing on Business; Reflection #43 Radical Decency in Business – A Fairy Tale; Reflection #39 A Radically Decent Business – Lessons Learned);
  • Making this values shift an enduring priority at the center of our lives – that is, in our most intimate relationships – by tending to our patriarchal ways in all of their manifestations (Reflection #61 Women, Boundaries, and Sex; Reflection #72 Men’s Moment(s) of Truth; Reflection #69 Moving Beyond Patriarchy)
  • Creating and nurturing values based communities, the fertile soil out of which social movements can grow (Reflection #29 Losing/Revitalizing Our Communal Roots);
  • Creating deeper, more enduring, and diverse collaborative alliances with like-minded people (Reflection #7 Gathering in the Good Guys; Reflection #45 Re-visioning Social Change Work);

Our wisdom – and moral and emotional stamina – are sorely tested when we seek to make a more meaningful contribution to a more just, equitable, and decent world. But, the alternative – getting by in the world as it is – is, for most of us, an anxiety provoking, spirit draining way of living. Radical Decency is – as I am fond of saying – not just the right thing to do. It is also the surest pathway to a more vibrant and fulfilling life.

Reflection 33: Couples Work – What It Is, Why It’s Important

We live in a world that heavily supports and promotes marriage. And, happily, this is one instance in which our culture’s values can support us in doing important, life-affirming work – if we are lucky enough to stumble onto this insight. In this Reflection, I discuss the nature of couples work, its power, and its importance.

The possibilities inherent in couples work grow out of three factors. The first is biological. We humans are wired to do our most important healing and growth, not through study or contemplation, but in the crucible of relationship.

The other factors are cultural. On one side is the culture’s fortuitous support for the institution of marriage. On the other is its marked absence of attention to our psychic needs in most other venues. Thus, for most of us, romantic relationship offers the best opportunity for doing the vital work of healing our childhood wounds.


From the moment of birth, we are all – all of us – confronted with an insoluble problem: How do we adapt to an environment that can’t possibly meet all of our needs. Why is this dilemma universal? Because we are raised by humans – flawed and limited creatures – who are, moreover, compromised in their focus and clarity of purpose by the incessant pressure to get by in our competitive, win/lose culture. And, if these impediments weren’t enough, remember that our needs are unbounded. Even perfect parents, in living a perfect culture, would fall short.

The result? We emerge from childhood with deeply embedded hurts, frustrations and longings. And, to deal with these wounds, we also leave childhood with equally engrained coping strategies: Demanding more – or wanting less – to deal with the pain of an inattentive mother; reactive anger – or placating behaviors – or silence – in response to a controlling father.

At one level, these adaptations are good since they allow us to survive childhood. But because they are crafted by infants and small children, they are almost always over stated and, therefore, damaging in important ways to our vitality and sense of well being.

Given these realities, healing our childhood wounds and replacing these early coping mechanisms with more modulated and effective strategies are essential aspects of our adult journey.


Finding a venue in which to do this work is one of life’s great challenges.

In theory it can take place in the context of a nurturing community. But the culture, with its relentless emphasis on individuality and self-aggrandizement, makes it difficult to create and sustain these environments.

Intent on getting ahead in the world, the time and energy left over for communal engagements is limited – carved our of already overloaded nights and weekends. In addition, we live in a culture in which the accepted (and acceptable) norm is to simple walk away from a communal involvement when it no longer comfortably fits into our schedule due to a new relationship, a change in our work schedule, or a move to a more distant suburb.

These same cultural pressures infect our romantic intimate relationships – hence their high rate of mortality. But because only two people are involved, and because they care so much, couples have a slugger’s chance to create an environment in which this necessary adult work of healing and growth can occur.

Unfortunately, a roadmap for doing this work is hard to come by. So most couples do what they know best, slipping into the competitive mindsets that permeate the rest of their lives:

  • Knowing that her way is the right way, she judges his inability to talk about feelings.
  • With equal certainty, he judges her constant telephone chatter and neediness.
  • In the resulting stand off, each partner tolerates the other’s differences, sometimes with bemused grace, far too often with anger and resentment.

Lost in this process is the opportunity to leave our childhood’s legacy of hurts and fears behind – by crafting new, more effective strategies for loving and being loved.

The good news, however, is that a very different dynamic can take hold.

Here’s how.

Step one is to chose a suitable partner.

Here, nature lends a hand, at least in the initial phase. A man goes to a bar and is attracted to a particular woman – not the best looking or wittiest – who “just has a way about her.” Why? Because, in his evolutionarily wired brain, he instinctually associates her with the people who raised him. This, in turn, feeds a further unconscious fantasy: With her, I can recreate the formative wounding scenarios from my childhood and then – crucially – craft a different ending.

So if the man in our example was raised by a physically distant mother, he is primed to appreciate an affectionate woman. But with this woman – viscerally linked with his unaffectionate mother – the effect is far more powerful. When she embraces him, it is as though his mother reached into his crib and, cradling him in her arms, offered the physical affection he so deeply longed for and never received. This is the “bam” we feel when we fall in love. In choosing a partner, we need to trust it.

But to fully realize the deep healing and growth that marriage can provide, more is needed. In particular, there are three inextricably interwoven factors – trust, shared values, and a priority commitment to the relationship – that are the fertile soil in which this work can flower. And then, of course, the final, indispensable element is the ability and willingness to do the work.

Trust does not mean that you tell your partner everything. Instead, the touchstone is a “no surprise” rule. Because the partners have each shared their most intimate feelings, repeatedly and in depth, no act – if disclosed – will shock the other or shake his or her emotional foundation. The obvious corollary: When in doubt, disclose.

For this approach to reach its full potential, the next two factors are also needed.   When trust is not supported by shared values, couples run the risk of a permanent sense of grievance, with the wife (for example) resenting his time at the office, and the husband feeling perpetually judged as a father and spouse. Because he puts career first and she puts family first – two perfectly acceptable but very different value choices – their ability to rely on the other, when the chips are down, is forever compromised.

When their values are congruent, however, partners can be thoroughly connected and, at the same time, feel free to express their individuality. He can work through the night to close a deal, and she can leave a party to tend to a sick relative, with each confident that their choice (even if not disclosed in advance) will have the other’s warm support.

Trust is also jump-started when each partner puts the relationship first: He accepts her need to fuss with her makeup when they’re 10 minutes late; she listens, with warmth, to the same joke for the umpteenth time. In these examples, each partner is placing as high a priority on their partner’s needs and desires as they do on their own. Doing so, they are able to lovingly manage their impatience when things don’t go their way.

Notice also how, in their turn, trust and shared values reinforce this “relationship first” rule. In their absence, each partners’ generosity of spirit can easily degenerate into a felt sense of being manipulated or bullied into putting the other’s needs first. With trust and shared values in place, however, the fear that a deferral of your needs you will compromise your integrity is dramatically reduced.

These three factors, together with the strong tug of romantic love, create a setting in which more positive and productive patterns of love can emerge. And as this process accelerates, the partners’ outmoded intimacy strategies – designed to protect them from their childhood wounds – progressively wither and shrink.

Note, however, that even when all of these factors exist, an ability and willingness to do the work is still essential. What does that look like? Key aspects are described in Reflection #3, Why Can’t You Do the Dishes?: Reflection #10, Romantic Love – Making What’s Good Better; Reflection #53, Effective Fighting – Practice Pointers for Couples; Reflection #82, Intimacy – Not Changing the Subject; and Reflection #84, Loving Intimacy – The 4 Voices.


I close with an example from my own marriage.

In a typical scene, 25 years ago, I arrive home from my law office and find my wife, Dale, making dinner and tending to our young daughters. Harried and preoccupied, I sit down and turn on the TV. Equally harried, Dale asks why I’m not pitching in. My response – crafted to defend myself from a mother who could lash out in anger, at any moment – is a toxic mix of exasperation and defensive:

“I just got home. I had a tough day too. Give me a break.”

If I knew then what I know now, my reaction would have been very different. Understanding Dale’s emotional needs, I would have apologized and jumped into the tasks at hand.

For Dale – who learned as a child not to ask to for what she wanted – this would have been a corrective healing moment. And, for me, there would have been a corresponding moment of growth since, acting in this way, I would have actually been the loving, non-defensive partner and person I longed to be.

Consciously and repetitively practiced, these interactions – his growthful choices healing her childhood wounds; hers healing his – are at the heart of effective couples work.

Reflection 32: Being the Person I Hope to Become – My Personal Guide to Living

There are two aspects to Radical Decency:

  • Be “decent”: Respectful, understanding and empathic, accepting and appreciative, fair and just, see Reflection 17, What Is Decency?; and
  • Do it “radically” – at all times and in every area of living – with your self; with family and friends; at work; in public and communal affairs; and with the physical environment and all other living things.

Where Radical Decency gets complicated, and interesting, is when we put it into practice. Doing so, we are confronted with a myriad of perplexing and, often, uncomfortable moments of choice as we seek to “radically” integrate and balance decency to self, others and the world.

The devil is, quite literally, in the details.

To meet this challenge, I have developed a series of operational guidelines that orient my outlook and choices – moment-by-moment, day-by-day – so that Radical Decency can become a more vibrant reality in my life:

  1. I am important to the people in my life. What I do matters.
  2. Understanding this, I am letting go of outcomes and attending to each moment’s endless possibilities for offering and accepting love.
  3. With intent, focus, and persistence, I am modeling and inviting mutual and authentic contact in every area of living.


When these guidelines began to crystallize, my starting point was the second half of the second guideline – offering and accepting love. However, I quickly discovered that I was falling way short in my purposes. Far too often, my generosity of spirit was diminished or quashed by anger, annoyance, or jealousy; a fear of “getting less” or “being left out.”

Letting go of outcomes – the first half of the second guideline – was equally difficult. In my gut, it really mattered if I “won”: Landed the new client, made the cleverest point, got through the traffic light before it turned red.

Over time, I realized that the common thread in all of these feelings was the sense that I didn’t matter to “this” person or “that” group of people. In other worlds, that I had something to prove; that winning mattered.

This insight brought new meaning to the story Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest and philosopher, tells about the mentally challenged woman in his cloistered community. Unable to talk, she spent her days smiling at her compatriots; becoming, in this way, a beloved member of the community.

For me, this story drove home a powerful truth. Because we are biologically wired to be in connection, the simple fact of my humanity makes me important to others. My words, looks, and energy matter – to family and friends, to co-workers and business colleagues, even to the waiter at lunch and people I pass on the street.

Indeed, the opposite – not mattering – is a cognitive distortion, insidiously promoted by a culture that equates importance with the ability to dominate others. Habitually focused on this narrow goal, we distort our energy in order to manipulate and control our environment and the people in it. In the process, our best instincts are waylaid by corrosive, competitive feelings, such as those described above.

Understanding this process hasn’t magically cured me. But persistently reminding myself that importance to others is my birthright, as a human, has helped to free my energy – more often, and in more and more situations – from these outcome-laden pre-occupations. Hence, operational guideline #1: I am important to the people in my life. What I do matters.


Freed to follow my better instincts, I am far better able to operationalize guideline #2: Letting go of outcomes, I am attending to each moment’s endless possibilities for offering and accepting love.

With regard to the second half of this guideline note that my focus is on possibility and choice, and not on simply loving everyone all the time. Why? Because loving acts increase our level of intimacy and, with it, our vulnerability. Thus, appropriate levels of safety and trust are a prerequisite.

In addition, our energy is finite. Choices have to be made.

These qualifications, however, operate in the context of a larger reality. Given our competitive, achievement-oriented culture, loving options are chronically underexplored. So, as I see it, a central challenge, as we seek to live differently and better, is to be alive to the virtually unlimited possibilities for loving and being loved that constantly come our way. For example, should I take the time:

  • To call or visit a troubled friend?
  • To acknowledge a child’s desire/demand for my undivided attention?
  • To attend to a sad and distracted co-worker?
  • To be warm and courteous with the harried waiter who brings my lunch?

Or – remembering always to love myself as well – should I interrupt my busy day to go to the gym, or say no to a request for my time and energy that is just one thing too many?

If I take the time to notice, each of my days is filled with these kinds of moments.

Cultivating this in-the-moment awareness, the outcome pre-occupations that can so easily derail me – winning, looking good, being noticed – tend to fall away, freeing me to cultivate the fullest possible awareness of the choices I can make and, then, to deploy my loving energy wisely.


My third guideline for living challenges me to model and invite contact, in every area of living, that is:

  • “Authentic” – vivid and intimate; and
  • “Mutual” – engaged in by all parties.

Done well, this provides me with an indispensable, orienting perspective that is the vital ground out of which Radical Decency’s most palpable upside – the loving interactions described in guideline #2 – can flower and grow.

The importance of mutual and authentic contact has everything to do with our biology. We humans are wired to be deeply and intimately connected with one another. So, when we truly know other people – when there is authentic contact – the inevitable byproducts are a growing sense of understanding and empathy, as well as a desire to “do right” by this now very human other. And when this process is mutual, the possibilities for a more cooperative, productive and loving relationship expand exponentially.

Here, once again, my approach is not indiscriminant: To make every contact mutual and authentic. My intent, instead, is to “invite” this sort of connection – by modeling its attributes and, when appropriate, by offering leadership, guidance and inspiration in situations in which my invitation engages the interest of others.

Note also that, in applying this guideline, I consciously avoid strategies that – moving beyond a warm invitation – proselytize others or otherwise implicitly demand conformance with my purposes. The reason? Because these more aggressive approaches recreate the very values – domination and control – that Radical Decency seeks to replace.

One indispensible aspect of this third guideline is its comprehensiveness. To be successful in my purposes, I need to model mutual and authentic contact – with intent, focus and persistence – in every area of living, from the most private and personal to the most public and political.

Why? Because when I allow myself to be selective in its application, I too easily slip into “pick and chose” decency; practicing this guideline when it is easy and convenient but, then, when it really matters – when money or an important career opportunity are at stake – “doing what I have to do.”

On the plus side, it is hard to overstate positive effects of this comprehensive, across-the-board approach. Simply put, when I make mutual and authentic contact a priority in every area of living, I feel challenged to grow and change in areas that – absent this persistent prompt in my brain and heart – would fall through the cracks.

So, for example, in politics – an area of living in which exceptions to decency are endemic – I am steadily reminded that I can do better:

  • Remembering always that people’s political positions make sense in the context of their background, values, and world view, I resist my knee-jerk annoyance with people on the “other side” and cultivate in its place respect, empathy, and genuine curiosity;
  • And, equally, I look for ways in which to offer my views, not as partisan argument, but instead as authentic expressions of my feelings, values and perspectives on life.


I close this discussion with a reminder that, as I explain in Reflection #13, Radical Decency is its own reward. So while these guidelines are challenging, their pay-offs are life-changing – transformative – a reality expressed in my 4th and final guideline:

Doing these things, I embrace my living and dying with compassion,curiosity,  zest, and a deepening sense of acceptance and celebration.