Monday, October 20, 2008

Lessons from an Economic Crisis

It has been three weeks since the Dow sharply reminded us of the severity of the financial crisis in which the U.S. is embroiled. Unfortunately, we did not respond as a nation with the collective determination that this, too, shall pass and that, together, we will weather the storm. Instead, we responded with panic, rage, distrust, fingerpointing and outright terror that the Second Great Depression was upon us. Moreover, some of us responded with greed and scrambling to protect our share of the spoils of the war against an economy gone sour.

There is plenty of room for fingerpointing. There's more than enough opportunity for expressing concern and outright fear that, if our response is not appropriate, our economy could tank. There's ample reason for distrust of many of the players who contributed to the mess in which we find ourselves. Even the mirror can take some of the blame.

We can reasonably lay blame on the people who took out mortgages they could never hope to repay, as well as on the financial institutions that irresponsibily lent them the money. It is not inappropriate to blame previous Democratic administrations for relaxing lending guidelines under Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. It is reasonable to hold the current administration and the Republican majority in recent years accountable for allowing the problems to fester and grow.

It is not wrong, it is reasonable, but it is useless. Blame is about the past. What we need to do is focus on the future.

The reason I write about all of this in a blog intended to address association management topics is the fact that many associations have jumped on the bandwagon of blame, while simultaneously doing all they can to look out after their members' self-interests, even while ignoring broader national interests. This is an embarrassment to the profession and a disservice to the nation. I won't name names because it won't do any good, but if you look around carefully (or not so carefully), you can find examples of the behaviors to which I am referring.

Let me reiterate a point. We, as a nation, did not put our collective wills behind finding a solution. We allowed a small group of men and women to decide that in our checkbooks and in the checkbooks of our children and their children stood a ready reserve of money to help address the underlying problems that "caused" our current economic maelstrom. We did not offer up our checkbooks, but we allowed them to be emptied. We allowed them to be emptied because we were worried that, if we didn't, we'd have to empty our bank accounts, too.

I'm not suggesting that the "bailout" was not right; I don't know whether it was or not. But many people did not and do not agree with it. Yet we abdicated our own responsibilities and let our elected representatives assume them on our behalf. We were too concerned, as a people, about avoiding a depression to get involved in conversations about what might be right.

The reason I'm so alarmed at associations that jumped into the fray to look out after their self-interest is this: associations should operate on the premise that they exist to look out after the self-interests of their members but that, and this is a given, anything that hurt society at large cannot take precedence. Associations should hold to an ethic that does not allow them to blatantly serve their members' self-interests at the expense of the common good. Nor should associations ever adopt positions that accept that the end justifies the means. Robin Hood was not an association executive.

All the bad "stuff" that is going on in our economy today gives us ample opportunity to learn how important it is for associations to inculcate ethics into their vision and mission statements and, then, into their operating principles. I intend to share that lesson with our client associations and I hope other association executives will do the same.

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