Re-normalizing the language of character and integrity

I have voted for Republicans and Democrats. I voted for Bush and I also voted for Obama. I don’t think I easily fall into a political party and I don’t see why I should.

Sometime ago, it occurred to me that I should vote for the person with the “least poor character” and not based on party. This essay is about why I think Americans need to begin using the words character and integrity again. It’s with sorrow that I say “least poor”, because as Americans arriving at the voting booth, we are not getting the best and the brightest America has to offer and it is increasingly obvious. We are getting what I call AAA People—aggressively ambitious average people and savvy scoundrels.

AAA Phenomenon

I believe we can see the AAA phenomenon with Biden and Bush Jr. It takes a lot of guts to have nothing special about you or your accomplishments and to think you should be leader of the free world. Think about that. Most people wouldn’t dare attempt this. Most people would ask themselves, what if I am not good enough? What if I fail and let everyone down? What can we conclude about people that seek this? Nothing good.

Here is a famous Warren Buffet quote: “We look for three things when we hire people. We look for intelligence, we look for initiative or energy, and we look for integrity. And if they don’t have the latter, the first two will kill you, because if you’re going to get someone without integrity, you want them lazy and dumb.”

Savvy scoundrelswhen charisma outpaces character

Clinton and Trump were not good men and I don’t believe they are now. Good men apologize. Good men seek the best for others over themselves. Good men don’t hang out with Jeffrey Epstein. I list these in Republican / Democratic pairs to emphasize a point. What was once abhorrent is now becoming normalized in American culture, and justified as long as political gains ensue. These men have no shame and no remorse. A black hole is never satiated and thrives off a toxic culture. Would Nixon have been forced to resign today?

This is happening in our Congress too. Language is becoming increasingly vicious and dehumanizing and is amplified by the algorithms of social media. It just so happens that anger is engaging, and highly addictive. Oh and addicted people mean steady revenue. Anger can be a healthy emotion, but unresolved anger is often an indicator that people are getting something unhealthy out of the anger. In general, a reliable principle about human behavior is that people do what they want, especially if it is easy. Being productive is harder than being angry. Our politics are filled with anger, because there is a void of productivity, because productivity is harder than anger.

Some will say, but Kyle, this party or that party is destroying the country, we must stop them at all costs and refuse all compromise. And to that I say, is there not one thing that both parties can agree on? Not one? Out of all the problems in the nation, not one problem is solvable? I refuse to believe that. The politicians don’t want to solve them. If the problems are getting people elected and famous, why solve them? It’s easier to endlessly pretend to “fight for America” than to actually get something done. Again, politicians that are fine waisting their life in this manner have character issues. To run the country into decline and refuse to retire when you’re 70 or 80, when you could be with your grandchildren, tells you quite a bit.

Some say well there was Obama, he was alright. There is Romney, he is alright. There is Liz Cheney, she is at least being honest. Despite these examples, however, I believe the trend is down in America. I do not believe this is the case of “getting old” (I am 42) and thinking the world is going to hell in a hand basket. The data supports a trend that is down (more on that below).

Predicting specific future events is almost always impossible, but assigning odds to general outcomes is not, especially when the dynamics widen. For example, it’s hard to predict who will win a Super Bowl if teams are evenly matched. However, if an NFL team plays a high school team, the odds of the outcome become much more certain.

What we have now is a nation that is essentially sending a high school football team to the Super Bowl. Now, America’s opponent is not a NFL team, but an opponent called RESULTS. A nation that stops caring about results because they idolize politics over practice is a nation in grave trouble.

The trend is down

American lifespans are declining. American health outcomes are poorer and more costly. American education is declining. American infrastructure is declining. American manufacturing has been declining and the economy is increasingly looking like a multi-level marketing scheme designed to benefit only the people at the top. 50% of American families can’t afford food. America’s finances are declining. American culture and civility are declining. I believe the return on our tax dollars is declining—we can debate what a fair tax rate is, but there is no debate that our tax dollars should result in infrastructure that is maintained.

In short, American effectiveness is declining at the same time that the stock market, bonds, and housing are peaking at all time highs. What could go wrong?

Toxic culture

American culture is increasingly toxic. A nation’s culture is rooted in the character of its citizens. When I was growing up, my father hammered home three main lessons:

1.) Character is who you are when no one is watching and who you are when you have power over people.

2.) The importance of making wise choices is critical to a fulfilling life.

3.) That maturity isn’t an age, it’s how you act. It’s your character.

You don’t hear about character or integrity anymore, and you certainly don’t hear about wisdom. Are these concepts now American relics gathering dust in old barns across the country? When is the last time you heard about your fellow Americans, or countrymen?

America is not making wise choices. The wise choice is to brainstorm solutions together on specific issues until we find a creative solution that works for the good of future generations, one that we can all agree on and integrate into our way of life. People with character don’t make decisions based on what is easiest, they make the wise choice even if it is harder. People with character seek the truth.

Problematically, American culture is primed for the easy choices making it even easier for politicians to avoid the wise and harder choices without political consequences.

What do these poor choices mean and how do they show up in actual results? It may take time, but eventually, a toxic culture devoid of wisdom is reflected in actual results. It shows up in inflation that surprises all the “intelligent” people who should have known better. It shows up in a 30 trillion dollar national debt just as a marriage with no communication or alignment on finances shows up in credit card debt or financial troubles. It shows up in toxic political dysfunction. It shows up in an unsustainable wealth gap similar to what enabled the great depression. It shows up in not being able to buy any product that lasts more than 7 years.

Remember, getting results is the main goal and it is hard. It takes character and the willingness to seek and accept the truth. It’s hard to make something work, and it’s hard to build things. However, to have a future where people flourish requires that things work and that people work with the future in mind.

I write this because it’s very dangerous for a country to no longer attract the best and the brightest to positions of public service and results suffer. I can’t emphasize this enough. I have travelled all over the world and the poorest countries all have one thing in common—poorly run and / or corrupt governments comprised of nepotism, and uneducated and under qualified people. You may not believe in a big government, but I can assure you you will regret not having an effective one.

I can’t tell you when things will go south in the US, or even if they will for certain. I can only say with a high degree of confidence that if the toxic trends in America remains down, things will go south at some point, either quickly or a depressingly slowly.

I am not the only one gravely concerned about this. The esteemed Paul Volcker is also concerned. So concerned in fact, he founded the Volcker Alliance, sounding the alarm that America is in trouble on its current trajectory.

You might remember Paul Volcker as the great American who made the hard choice to raise interest rates to crush inflation in the 70’s. If you would like to learn more, the brilliant Ray Dalio has a tremendous interview with Volcker where they discuss the consequences of what we are seeing in America today. In short, the consequences are real and they will be painful.

A tree can be growing at the same time it is rotting

There are currently tremendous risks in the US system, risks whose outcomes we have trouble imagining, because we have no experiential reference or understanding of how the system is actually functioning. We just know that since it’s functioning now and since it has functioned over our lifetime, we assume it will continue to do so. Our lifespans are short in comparison to the lifespan of a nation. I recently found a book on the Great Depression in the dumpster at a local school. Why take up shelf space for a book that hasn’t been read in decades? Each year, there are fewer people alive who have lived through the great depression. The chance of finding ourselves caught completely off guard is increasing. For example, this happened with the housing crisis, because the experts said the “houses prices have never gone down”. Again, no one knows if bad things will happen this year, or in ten years, or at all. It could somehow miraculously all improve, but like my dad also told me, engines don’t fix themselves, you have to deal with the noise you’re hearing. American culture needs fixing. I was taught that you don’t build your house on the sand, you build it on a rock. However, America is increasingly building on sandy soil while saying, “look at my mansion, it helped grow the GDP, we are rich!” By the way, I don’t necessarily associate character with religion. I associate it with people who have decided to be adults and face the reality of life head on.

Let’s talk about character

The issues we need to face head on are so complex that paradoxically we need to start with simple things, things that we can all understand and that set the stage for the harder things. One solution is for even a small group of people to insist on talking about character and integrity in their conversations. We need to re-normalize this language. It can start small.

Simply shifting the language used will elevate the results we can expect. Right now, the meaner, “memier”, and snarkier one is on social media, the better they do politically. This is not acceptable and the way to end this dynamic is to reinforce a cultural expectation of character over political dogma one person at a time.

We must culturally enforce a dynamic where politicians get honest results. This will help preclude incompetent people from running for office. No one should be elected solely because they have a great social media game. We must expect much more.

Expelling political dogma for results may seem like madness, but it isn’t. Political dogma is esoteric and abstract. It is fun to talk about and it makes us feel intelligent, but the results are what matter and the only way out of the mess.

The problems that America faces are great, and they require more character than ideology. A politician without character can lie to you and screw you over in a million different ways. You’ll never know and even if you do, what can you do at that point? Simply, we need to be able to trust that our leaders will make wise choices on our behalf and create a culture of results. It must happen.

There will be a debate on who has character and who doesn’t, but this in itself is a win. The language matters. It means that people with obvious and severe character defects will be discouraged from running and those with good character may actually run.

Right now, what good and sane person would want their life ruined on behalf of a nation that cares more about humiliating the other party than actual results?

Please think about that carefully.

As a culture, are we not attracting the very leaders we deserve? We need people with character, wisdom and intelligence to make wise choices for the nation.

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